The following post was originally published on Medium by PeerStreet Co-founder and COO, Brett Crosby.
Borrowing Google Culture for PeerStreet
Google bought Urchin Software Corporation just over 11 years ago, a company co-founded by Scott Crosby (my brother), Paul Muret (childhood friend), Jack Ancone (college pal) and me. I spent the next 10 years at Google doing all kinds of stuff. I watched Google grow, change, get better, get worse, make mistakes, find solutions, and evolve — all from the inside. Some things I saw were brilliant; other things not so much. Now that I’ve left and am building a new startup, a company called PeerStreet, I’ve taken the best of Google’s culture with me.
Tech Talks: Educate Your Staff
At Google, these are awesome. And they are so frequent, it is impossible to go to all of them and still do your job. My favorites were the crazy science fiction ideas that someone was planning on making science fact. Things like space elevators (Larry Page even sat in on that talk) and self driving cars (I went into that one thinking this guy had watched the Jetsons too many times and by 20 minutes in was not only completely convinced it was possible, but that it would happen very, very soon… and of course it is happening now).
At PeerStreet, we’ve got such a unique business model that we’ve pulled in very seasoned people from wildly different backgrounds (it’s a platform for investing in real estate backed loans after all…) very few of us have backgrounds in all of the necessary disciplines. Fortunately my co-founder, Brew Johnson, is one of the few exceptions — he’s a real estate attorney who got obsessed with the flaws in the securitization market, predicted the 2008 global financial meltdown, then joined a startup he helped sell to Expedia where he stayed on and got operational experience at a well run tech juggernaut. But the rest of us don’t have that. So for our tech talks, I decided to start with our best assets, the people inside the company. And it has worked surprisingly well.
We’ve now given tech talks on a range of topics from “tips-and-tricks on Chrome, Gmail, Docs and Drive” to “understanding underwriting of real estate loans”. One of our most popular talks was one on legal and compliance if you can believe that. Credit goes to our awesome GC, Sara Priola, who has a personality that makes any topic interesting. Our CTO did one about how to use Asana for project management. Of course the eng team uses Trello, but being a team player, he was looking out for the rest of us.
Eventually I look forward to inviting people outside the company to come give tech talks (holler!), but for now, we’ve been doing them, and its going great.
Yeah, we don’t do this every day like Google does, but we do order in for the tech talks. ProTip, people like it and it keeps the laptops and phones down, so everyone pays attention. Ahhh, I do miss this Google perk though. Google pals, invite a brother to lunch once in a while, sheesh! 😉
Google used to have TGIF late Friday afternoons in Mountain View. This was an all hands meeting where Larry, Sergey and a handful of execs would take the stage, discuss what had happened that week and answer questions.
Side note: a few years ago Google switched it to Thursday afternoon because a) the NY office was like “WTF, we’re ready for the weekend by 9pm ET on a Friday” and b) because sadly attendance was getting kind of light on Fridays in Mountain View, but with the 101 traffic, who could blame them?
I always felt that later in the week was a good time to reflect, but not a good time to motivate people for the week ahead. But the openness and transparency of the whole thing is gold. So we’ve adopted the concept, but we switched it to TGIM. That’s right, we do a company wide meeting every Monday at 10:30. We talk about “what’s hot”, what happened last week, important events coming up, introduce new employees, show off new product features, review our metrics and talk about our pipeline of loans we’re going to make available for investment. It’s a great way for people to keep up on all the stuff happening at a startup like ours that’s moving at breakneck speed. And I’m always left feeling motivated to get the week going and hammering out the tasks ahead. As long as we keep it interesting, I think it works really well.
Objectives and Key Results
We recently started doing company-wide OKRs (Objectives and Key Results, basically goal setting). Okay, to be honest, I kind of hated OKRs at Google. But as we’ve grown PeerStreet from a couple people to over 30 of us, I started hearing that people weren’t sure how various initiatives fit into the bigger picture goals. PeerStreet’s business is complicated, so it didn’t surprise me too much. But when we did OKRs, it added a level of clarity and focus to our teams we never had before. It forced all of us to think through annual and quarterly goal setting for: the company, each sub-team and each person on each team. People have been able to focus on the key things they need to accomplish, which has reduced the overlapping of responsibilities dramatically. And perhaps most importantly, once people understood how their efforts fit into the whole picture, it gave their work more meaning. And that’s a powerful thing. OKRs have proven to be extremely motivating. In short, I’d highly recommend them for other startups.
Culture Defines The Business
Google is famous for its awesome culture. And it is pretty damn incredible, especially considering how big it is now. Laszlo Bock is Google’s SVP of People Operations at Google. He’s a man I respect deeply and he does a great job. But you’ve also gotta give credit to Larry, Sergey and Eric for their healthy disregard for tradition, willingness to try new stuff and gravitation toward having fun. They are also very accepting of exceptional people no matter their eccentricities. We’ve adopted a lot of that culture here. Like Google, we encourage people to bring their whole selves to work. And we’re building a culture of openness, collaboration and encouragement. The about us page of our website gives you a sense for what I mean.
One lesson I learned from Google is to surround yourself with excellent people. Seems obvious, and it is. But it isn’t always easy to practice when hiring. Why? Hiring is hard. It’s time consuming. Sometimes great applicants don’t apply and you have to go hunt them down. Other times you get three applicants who are excellent and it is hard to pick the right person (ProTip, if you’re going to need to hire that role again soon, make an offer to all three. One will be retained by her previous job and you’ll end up with two great people).
One of our best hires basically hired herself. Another heard our story over a beer and asked what the catch was. I knew I wanted to hire him then and there, but we ran him through our hiring process, which not only allowed others to weigh in, but in the end I think helped him get comfortable that we were a serious organization with smart systems in place — we got him.
Our interview process is based a lot on what I experienced at Google. We have a series of interviews, first phone, then in person, then people enter their feedback, we meet quickly to discuss why we should or shouldn’t make an offer. That last bit is done in an interview committee at the big G, but we’re small enough that the committee is usually comprised of the interviewers. The process is fast, efficient, fair, allows for healthy debate, in the end a decision is made. So far, we’ve been incredibly fortunate with the people we’ve hired and the system helps. They are Google quality, from engineering and product to controller, copywriter and real estate analysts.
Whenever possible, make meetings shorter (see what I did there?). We follow Larry’s meeting policy, which was expanded upon by my old Google+ colleague, Paul Adams (he came up with the concept of circles), now at Intercom. We’re not religious about it, but we try to be.
Plan for Growth
When we launched Google Drive, we had crazy growth goals. We had no reasonable idea for how we’d hit those goals with the anemic marketing budget we’d been allocated. But then it hit us to integrate with Gmail in a way that provided a lot of user value. We did and we hit our goals.
To keep growing Gmail, we relied on Android. To grow Google Analytics, we tapped into the ecosystem of third party consultants, formerly called GAACs; “Google Analytics Authorized Consultants.”
At PeerStreet we’ve always hypothesized there is pent up demand from both individuals and institutions for the loan investments we offer, it’s unlocking the supply side that is hard. The trick is to unlock it in a way that scales while maintaining quality. So we borrowed a concept from Urchin, the fishing boat strategy. We were building and selling web analytics software, so instead of “catching” individual customers, we partnered with hosting companies (e.g. the fishing boats) who already had all the customers with websites. And we won by implementing this strategy. We’re doing something conceptually similar at PeerStreet.
Instead of being a lender, which is time consuming and hard to scale, we partner with existing lenders. This model has proven to be smarter for a lot of reasons. Everyone knows real estate is a local game. Local lenders have a much better understanding of their local market than a centralized system ever will. They also have relationships with the best repeat borrowers who know how to quickly and efficiently rehab a property. In this industry, that is a signal of experience and proxy for quality. Because we don’t have to go after borrowers, which is super expensive, we can focus our resources on creating value for investors by surfacing higher quality investments and making it easier to diversify.
Let the fishermen fish, we partner with the fishing boats. I can stretch this analogy much further, don’t tempt me!
As PeerStreet grows, I’m sure we’ll encounter some of the same opportunities and problems I ran into at Google. And who knows, maybe I’ll end up having issues with local municipalities because our self driving employee buses are too big for the streets of Manhattan Beach. But until then, I’m focused on bringing in only the best parts of Google’s culture.
If you’ve started a company and applied any of these concepts, I’d love to hear about it.
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