We had a short debrief on Slack before Jake and Jarratt disappeared into the night, retreating back to their much-earned glasses of wine. I, on the other hand, got thinking about how the perception of fault and blame is attributed to small and large companies.
Who says I don’t know how to have fun 😄
It was the aftermath of my first ever downtime experience with the HelpDocs team, so you’ll have to forgive me. My illustrious leaders were half-way around the world trying to relax after a busy day and had only come back online to save us from utter disaster.
And save us they did! Like superheroes responding to spotlights in the night they flew in, and with a BISH, BASH, BOSH had saved us from sheer catastrophe.
Ok, so I’m over exaggerating a little. The truth is it wasn’t all that dramatic. In fact, even calling it downtime is an overstatement, but it feels like the most accessible way to describe an issue that arose from one of our vendors inadvertently changing some security stuff.
In the absence of a technical blow-by-blow discussing search clusters and SSL configurations, the term ‘downtime’ will suffice. The long and short of it is something broke, I couldn’t fix it and panicked like one of those myotonic goats that pass out when startled—YouTube it…you can thank me later 😉
I froze. I was petrified this whole situation was going to look bad on us, even though it was a result of someone else’s actions, and despite figuring out what the issue was and fixing it in minutes. I didn’t really know why I was so worried, I only knew I was worried.
In my last post, I gave my account of what actually happened. I wrote about how I’d built the issue up in my head, and our failings as a team for not being prepared for me meeting a solo-catastrophe head on—Feel free to go ahead and take a look if you need a little context 🙃
But now I’ve had some time to think about it, I realize all this fear and anxiety stems from my insecurities about how we’re judged as a small team. And that’s something I definitely need to work on.
Size =/= Reliability
There’s an unspoken sense of trepidation when it comes to dealing with small businesses and startups. An apprehension that stems from the illusion that a bigger company is a more reliable one—thus smaller means less reliable.
Maybe it’s a numbers thing. We’re told there’s strength in numbers and that makes being a small team a lot harder. It’s a lot easier to blame a small team for an issue than it is a global powerhouse.
There’s no doubt the startup world is volatile. It’s part of its charm, I guess. But this volatility isn’t universal, and day-to-day reliability isn’t really affected by how many employees you have, or how much some VC thinks your worth.
It’s easy to get caught up in unrelated data points, and I need to remind myself they’re not an accurate reflection of reliability. There are just too many variables.
I think—and this is particularly true in our case—the reliability of a business hinges more on their particular approach, and how they mitigate their shortcomings.
For example, we know our team is smaller than many. And it works for us. Some might see this as a shortcoming when it comes to support, but the reality is it’s just not, largely because our software is incredibly well-built and also because we mitigate.
We can supplement our size with the use of tools, being flexible with our schedules, and managing our user’s expectations. In support terms, this means dogfooding our knowledge base software and helping our users self-serve, educating users with content, and all pitching in on support tickets.
I believe we’re a closer team because we’re a small one. The added bonus is being small keeps our overheads low and our profitability high, which in turn makes us more reliable. What’s more volatile, a 30-strong company with $5m in
debt funding and are therefore not profitable, or a 3-person bootstrapped team who’re profitable and growing steadily? 🤷
The Problem with Being Quiet
In two years, HelpDocs has gone from being bootstrapped in a garden shed, to a company comfortably (and very profitably) supporting our salaries and expenses. In terms of growth—albeit arbitrary in the context of reliability—we are doing pretty well.
While we’re a small team we serve some of the biggest brands on the planet, without issue. Yes, we are small—in the sense that we are a 3 person team. But our customers range from Fortune 500s like Walmart to innovative startups like Sphero and Sia.
In fact, our knowledge bases are helping teams working on cancer research, developing groundbreaking educational robots, building incredible software.
Small team, sure. Small impact? Hell no!
You probably wouldn’t know that, though, because we don’t talk about it very much. In fact, we don’t make much noise about ourselves at all. Boasting just isn't our thing. Even those few paragraphs made me feel a little ill and in need of a shower. 🚿
I think there's a fine line between transparency, sharing our thoughts and projects, and outright boasting that I'm yet to navigate well.
Internally, we are 100% transparent. But it’s not a part of our culture to share things outwardly. We don’t talk specifics around our growth rate very often, and we never share revenue data and user stats. Sure, we occasionally tweet about how many requests we’ve had in the past month, but that’s about it.
What we do share is rarely outright promotional. It's mainly thoughts, occasional stories about our daily lives or perhaps stories that might help another bootstrapped company navigate something in the future. But we don't big up the HelpDocs software.
Of course, I don’t begrudge anyone who does promote themselves or share internal data, it’s just not for us. If you want to buy ads on billboards and busses or share your revenue, fill yer boots! For us, it would feel too much like we’d be doing it to show off. And to what end?
Sure, we might boost our egos a little, but we'd make those who aren’t doing so well feel even worse. They’d feel bad, and apart from perhaps a slight sense of superiority, we wouldn’t get anything out of it.
So, while being quiet might do little to change how we're seen as a small team, the alternative would just be adding to the noise, in an already deafening world. 📢