As I approach my first anniversary at ZayZoon, I find myself taking a moment to reflect on the incredible journey I've had in the past year. It's often said that there are two fundamental ingredients for a fulfilling professional life: doing what you love with the people you love—the product and the people.
As a senior product manager responsible for risk and margin optimization, and operational efficiency at ZayZoon, there are countless reasons why being a part of its development is not just a job, but a mission that brings immense fulfillment.
"It was four hundred dollars that I got the loan for, and I figured it out the other day that it’s like $1,400 back!"
These words were spoken by an individual we interviewed who, like many others, had been living paycheck to paycheck. Over the course of four years, he diligently paid back $104 each month.
"Hits hard, but you need the money at the time when you get it. So what are you gonna do?" he said.
This story is just one of the many I've encountered during my journey at ZayZoon, and it perfectly encapsulates the essence of why we do what we do. ZayZoon is not merely a product; it's a lifeline for those in need, a tool that empowers individuals to navigate their financial challenges with dignity.
At ZayZoon, our mission is to have a meaningful impact on individuals' lives by providing timely access to their hard-earned wages when they need it most. The gratification that stems from knowing we're aiding people in navigating financial challenges, steering clear of predatory lending, and regaining control over their financial well-being is immeasurable.
With a threefold increase in revenue in 2022 and an ambitious target of tripling our growth in 2023, ZayZoon recently concluded a successful Series B funding round. While a multitude of factors have contributed to our success, I'd like to delve into my experience with the people, culture, and management—areas that significantly intersect.
Our remarkable Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) for Q3 2023 stands at 84, positioning ZayZoon employees as some of the most satisfied in North America. Let's explore the key drivers behind this achievement.
Transparency and fast flow of information
When it comes to transparency in the corporate world, there's no one-size-fits-all approach. However, when you're a fully-remote company spanning six different time zones and simultaneously navigating the fast-paced terrain of scaleup growth, a few guiding principles become evident. In our context, virtually everything can be shared company-wide, as long as it adheres to these principles:
- Respect for privacy: We uphold the sanctity of individuals' privacy. Personal matters remain personal, and we respect the boundaries that every team member establishes.
- Relevance: Information shared should be relevant to the majority. We avoid delving into logistics or details that don't pertain to the broader team.
- Confidentiality: While we prioritize transparency, certain aspects remain confidential—strategies, milestones, achievements, and even failures are not considered confidential at any level.
Transparency, in our view, is the cornerstone of engagement and motivation. It facilitates the swift flow of information, fostering alignment and expediting decision-making across various tiers of the organization. So, how do we accomplish this?
- Diverse Slack channels: We maintain an extensive array of Slack channels, each dedicated to different topics, projects, and initiatives. Team members are encouraged to subscribe to channels that pique their interest or relevance.
- Daily all-hands scrum meeting: Every day, we convene for a brief 15-minute all-hands scrum meeting. Teams take turns presenting their updates, ensuring that everyone stays informed and connected.
- Monthly stakeholder emails: A monthly stakeholder email is dispatched to every individual associated with ZayZoon—this includes investors, executives, and all employees. This ensures that everyone is kept in the loop.
- Strategic communication: Our company vision, mission, and strategies are continually communicated via quarterly planning sessions. This clarity of purpose informs and guides our collective efforts.
- Goal transparency: We publicly share our quarterly goals and achievement status, both at the company level and individual level. This transparency cultivates accountability and motivation.
- Open meetings: We maintain an open-door policy, extending it to virtual realms. Team members have the flexibility to add themselves to almost any meeting when their presence is needed, promoting inclusivity and collaboration.
Our commitment to transparency is not merely a principle; it's a cornerstone of our corporate culture—one that empowers our teams, aligns our efforts, and propels us forward on our journey of growth and innovation.
One of the most memorable lessons I learned about the human aspect of management was from Dr. Frank Schultz at UC Berkeley, Haas school of business:
“Management is not about kissing up and kicking down!”
Management is about supporting your team to create as much value as possible while they personally grow in the direction they are passionate about. It is about facilitating communication within your team and across the organization. To remain productive, teams need constant support from managers in alignment with corporate strategies, providing access to facilities, knowledge, and most importantly meaningful relationships. At ZayZoon, our managers are dedicated to identifying and addressing obstacles that hinder their teams' progress.
Support within our organization flows in both directions. It's a two-way street where the team reciprocates by supporting the manager. This involves a commitment to clearly defined milestones, timely updates, the contribution of innovative ideas, and candid feedback. At ZayZoon, we've institutionalized this practice through the implementation of quarterly "rocks," which are essentially milestones aligned with our overarching objectives. Sometimes two or more people may “co-rock”, exemplifying the power of peer-to-peer support. The progress of these rocks is transparent and accessible to everyone throughout the company.
Another vital facet of our shared responsibilities is supporting each other's learning journeys. While enrolling in a structured learning program is valuable, our emphasis lies in fostering an environment that encourages individuals to take calculated risks—even if they encounter failure—so long as the team learns from those experiences.
Speaking of taking risks, let's clarify that I don't mean diving into uncharted waters blindly. It's about making intentional choices that involve a defined level of risk for the greater good. Take the example of remote work—before the era of COVID, not many companies were eager to explore this terrain. The primary concerns revolved around performance, and it took a global pandemic to push them into the remote work realm.
I recall a session with one of my mentors, a seasoned entrepreneur with a history of launching and nurturing multiple businesses. Over the years, he had fostered a community of professionals he mentored and supported. During one of our public gatherings, he raised a thought-provoking question: Would American businesses continue to embrace remote work even after the COVID era? Interestingly, he held a staunch stance against remote work, believing that true innovation could only sprout when the team "sweats" together under a single roof.
However, I believe ZayZoon stands as a counterexample to this perspective. We embraced a remote work model even before COVID swept the globe. Here at ZayZoon, innovative solutions to our customers' pain points come to life on a weekly, if not daily, basis. All this while our teams collaborate seamlessly from various time zones.
The HiPPO Syndrome
The idea of the highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO) was a pink elephant in the room first called out by Avinash Kaushik, the Chief Strategy Officer at Cloud, in his book, "Web Analytics: An Hour a Day." Typically, the HiPPO is the individual with the most authority and often the most experience within a decision-making team. The HiPPO syndrome can pose a significant threat to data-driven decision-making. Once the HiPPO's perspective is voiced, it can be an uphill battle for others to challenge, for a myriad of reasons:
- Fear of jeopardizing their position or relationship with the boss
- A lack of confidence in their own ideas, especially if they have less experience
- Experiencing imposter syndrome, doubting the validity of their contributions
- Reluctance to take risks, particularly if there's a chance things might not go as planned
- The possibility of other ideas not receiving adequate attention from the team
This list is far from exhaustive. Now, how can an organization become more data-driven when HiPPO(s) typically possess more experience than others in the business? In the realm of data science, experience is essentially a collection of partial patterns formed gradually as individuals are exposed to more business data. It's not unusual to assume that the most experienced person is more likely to make correct business decisions. However, there are several reasons why the natural process of gaining business experience may not be as effective as a data-driven decision-making mechanism:
- Experience is a sub-pattern abstracted from a specific data domain and cannot be universally applied to all business problems.
- This mindset was more effective in highly repetitive business landscapes, which are increasingly scarce in today's ever-evolving tech business environment.
- Our cognitive systems are susceptible to various biases, including confirmation bias, heuristic bias, and recency bias, which can cloud objectivity.
So, how can we leverage experience to accelerate business growth while maintaining a data-driven approach? One solution to this fundamental question lies in top-tier individuals asking the right questions rather than rushing to provide the "correct" answers. Here at ZayZoon, we've been successful in minimizing the HiPPO effect by harnessing the expertise of our HiPPOs to primarily explore problem spaces through the art of asking the million-dollar question.
It's a reality that some level of the HiPPO effect is prevalent in most workplaces but I would like to contend that we minimized its effect here at ZayZoon. Our approach involves holding quarterly pitch sessions where managers collect ideas, supported by data and analytics, from all team members. These ideas are then pitched to the executive team for scrutiny to convince them of their potential impact and. Importantly, no decisions are made on the spot regarding which ideas to implement next. The product team assesses them based on various factors, including their potential impact, effort required, reach, confidence level, urgency, and more.
The Absent vs. The Micromanager
Regardless of a company's stage of development, its people remain to be its most invaluable asset. Venture capitalists continually emphasize that they assign equal or even greater importance to the team than the idea when deciding to invest in an early-stage startup. Even multi-billion-dollar giants in the corporate world fiercely compete for talent.
When it comes to human capital, retention poses its unique set of challenges. At the heart of employee retention lies the critical factor of career alignment with personal passions and goals, coupled with opportunities for growth. Establishing this alignment demands that managers strike a delicate balance between micromanagement and absence.
A micromanager typically tends to provide overly detailed instructions on every task, already assuming they possess all the answers. However, such an approach stifles team members' creativity and hinders their personal growth and satisfaction. Here at ZayZoon, our teams focus on outcomes rather than merely tasks and outputs. Additionally, our cherished core value, "Trust," plays a pivotal role in refining managerial interventions. We entrust our colleagues to honor their commitments and deliver as promised.
On the flip side, the absent manager represents the opposite extreme. Teams led by an absent manager often grapple with a lack of strategic direction, poor alignment with corporate objectives, and insufficient support when it comes to acquiring the necessary resources to achieve desired outcomes.
To address these challenges, a substantial portion of our weekly one-on-one sessions with managers is dedicated to addressing needs and overcoming hurdles. We also extend this dialogue to our weekly team huddles, fostering open communication and problem-solving. Furthermore, ZayZoon team members have a platform to voice their concerns and bring up issues to the entire company during our daily company-wide scrum meetings. This commitment to a collaborative work environment underscores our dedication to nurturing and retaining our most valuable asset—our exceptional team members.
The living values
It's become a common sight to encounter organizations touting their core values on their websites, often following a brief mention of their mission and vision. However, the true litmus test lies in how these values are translated from mere words on the wall into living, breathing principles. Are they relegated to being mere placeholders in the "core values" section of our website, or do they genuinely permeate our daily actions and decisions? Breathing life into an organization's core values necessitates a deep-rooted commitment and alignment from every member of the team. And achieving this alignment hinges on a consistent and bidirectional communication of these values across all levels of the organization.
Company culture is a dynamic organism. It exerts influence over mindsets and relationships, but it's also influenced by them. While founders and early team members establish the initial foundation and boundaries of this culture, it continues to be shaped by each and every individual who joins the ranks. This is precisely why the power of repetition comes into play when it comes to core values. At ZayZoon, we make it a point to publicly acknowledge and celebrate our colleagues whenever they embody our core values in their actions, and we do this nearly every day. This practice reinforces our commitment to not just reciting our values but living them out in our daily interactions and decisions.
A solid business model and achieving the product-market fit are undeniably pivotal to business success.Yet, their potential can only be fully realized within the nurturing embrace of a thriving culture. It's a culture that doesn't just sustain, but relentlessly fans the flames of passion among its members.