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Stay Humble and Have Empathy

We recently wrapped up the 2014 Originate “Attack”, a company gathering that we've held each year since our founding in 2007. Part of the event each year is a series of panel discussions with a variety of Originate executives and advisors. It is an unbelievable opportunity for our entire team to learn from a group of people who have tremendous experience (both successes and  failures!) which helps to inform our team.  

During a panel discussion on People (an Originate core value), one comment really stood out to me as being so simple yet profound for the unique organization we are building at Originate. Bill Raduchel said that “staying humble and having empathy” is the key to our long term success.

I wanted share some thoughts on this simple statement and why I believe it is core to our success as we continue to scale our business.

Staying Humble

We have grown to almost 140 employees, nearly doubling in size since this same event last year. We work tirelessly to hire only extraordinary talent. We have been successful in assembling a team with the raw talent to compete with anyone. We are confident and embrace solving ambitious problems. As we all know, there’s a difference between confident and cocky. With great privilege comes great responsibility.

It is critical we don’t lose sight of why our partners choose to work with us. They come to us because we bring something to the table that they don’t have.  If they had all the answers and were able to execute on their own, they wouldn’t have come to us in the first place. We rely on them to set the vision and to be able to execute on the business, but it is our responsibility to help them significantly reduce risk related to their products (build the right things) and the technology (build the thing right). They are often betting their business on our knowledge and expertise.

Staying humble means having an understanding and respect for all aspects of building a successful company or product. This includes working hard to improve the skills of our partner team over the course of the relationship. Many of the techniques we use on our projects, such as our intense Origin workshops to accelerate the kickoff of our projects and our collaborative code review process, implicitly help our partners learn a new way of working.  But it also often requires more direct coaching and guidance.  For us, running high velocity projects is normal.  To many of our partners, it can be jarring at first.  In most cases, they are capable of learning, but simply need time to learn the ropes and adapt. Staying humble, and reminding ourselves that sometimes it takes time for adaptation,  is how we are able to build long term partnerships based on mutual respect.

Having Empathy

One of the most exciting aspects of the work we do is that we are often building products that fundamentally change the trajectory of our partners. What inevitably comes with these types of initiatives is a set of internal and external pressure points that our partners need to manage to ensure success.  They have numerous constituents, each with various goals and objectives.  This typically includes existing customers, potential customers, investors, other internal teams such as sales, customer support, and others.

In my experience, unusual or unreasonable requests that arise during a project almost always tie back to some type of external pressure facing the business. Recently, one of our projects hit a major milestone by opening up a brand new SaaS platform to its first real enterprise customer. The end customer is in a relatively small market where many of the potential customers regularly speak to each other through networking and conferences.  In this case, first impressions are really important, and rational product decisions don’t always make the most sense.  Instead of getting frustrated, it is our job to empathize. Prioritizing a fix for a minor Firefox rendering issue - petty as it might seem - makes a significant difference.Business conditions can trump the ideal product and development roadmap, and our ability to see these business conditions empathetically is expected.

The beauty of Originate’s partnership model is that we are empowered to voice our recommendations and advice on what we believe is right.  Empathizing enables us to make recommendations that adequately balance the best interest of the product with the realities of the business pressures our partners are facing.

Take-Away

While I found this insight highly relevant to what we are doing at Originate, both of these points speak to the broader topic of relationship management. Whether it be in the workplace or at home, building solid relationships based on mutual trust requires an investment.  In my experience, this investment nearly always pays off in spades.

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