Remote Work Interviews

Conversations with leaders and innovators about how industries and organizations think about the future of remote work.
How HubSpot Is Building Remote Work Into Its Company Culture
Katie Burke: Chief People Officer at HubSpot
How Remote Teams Can Build and Maintain Company Culture
Dan Manian: Co-Founder and CEO of Donut
June 10, 2019
Interview by Sophia Bernazzani
Dan Manian is co-founder and CEO of Donut, a Slack app that pairs up different team members to build trust and collaboration across your organization.
Dan Manian is co-founder and CEO of Donut, a Slack app that pairs up team members to build trust, improve collaboration, and cultivate company culture. In this interview with Owl Labs, Dan shares his insights on prioritizing company culture at the startup stage and how distributed teams can build connections across multiple locations.

Owl Labs (OL): How'd you get to where you are in your career today?

Dan Manian (DM): I originally started out as a mechanical engineer, but I quickly moved into product management. I ran product teams for a bunch of different startups and felt the ups and downs of both great and not-so-great company cultures. I learned that company culture was a really powerful lever that drove team performance. I'd been working with startups for more than 10 years now, and it's what led me to start Donut a few years ago. My personal experience being part of high-growth teams and both the good and the bad of those companies drove me to build tools to help leaders develop and scale their company cultures.

OL: What were some of the good facets of company culture you experienced that you wanted to bring to Donut customers?

DM: Being aligned as a team around what everyone is doing, why we're all here, and developing strong personal connections and trust is so important. During the hyper-growth phrase, a company can go from a 10 or 20-person company to a 100-person company in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, you don't recognize faces, you're not quite sure why the team is so big, you don't know what the business development team is doing, or why we need so many sales reps all of a sudden. Maintaining human connection, along with understanding and empathy amongst team members, is critically important.

OL: What is some of the positive feedback you get from your customers – either remote or hybrid – about how Donut has helped them?

DM: Some of the challenges Donut helps address are more extreme when you're a remote team. We often help companies build more connected cultures and build relationships across different teams. We also help folks onboard new hires in a systematic way that gets people the right information at the right time, despite time zone differences, and helps them meet the right people from an onboarding buddy to remote lunch pals.

Both of those things are much harder to do when you're remote. You can't rely on ad-hoc watercooler moments to integrate new employees if they work remotely. Stepping out for coffee with people doesn't exist when you work remotely. The only time you're interacting with your colleagues is when you're working. There isn't that opportunity for more casual interactions, and that's one of the things Donut helps provide for remote teams. Donut will match you up with someone else at your organization, either randomly or by department or region, prompting you to hop on a Zoom call and get to know someone who perhaps you've never seen before. Even if you're just a 20-person company, if you're not working on the same projects or you're not in the same department, you may not have any reason to bump into each other or otherwise meet. This is particularly important for creating a sense of belonging for new hires during the first days and weeks.

You can't rely on ad-hoc watercooler moments to integrate new employees if they work remotely. Stepping out for coffee with people doesn't exist when you work remotely. The only time you're interacting with your colleagues is when you're working. There isn't that opportunity for more casual interactions, and that's one of the things Donut helps provide for remote teams.

OL: Who are the most common users of Donut?

DM: We have a broad spectrum of teams using Donut. They range from 10-person startups to Fortune 500 companies, including IBM. No matter what the size, they're all grappling with similar pain points. The size threshold for when folks start embracing Donut often drops if you are fully-remote or if you're hybrid. While every single employee at IBM may not be on a mission to meet every other employee – that would be literally impossible – there are still 200 to 300-person organizations with desires to understand what everybody is doing within the organization.

Our large enterprise customers often have many Donut programs running at the same time, from random connections within a time zone to code review pals to a new hire buddy program. There could be 25 different Donut channels for one region or one large team or project that's matching people up. Organizations with up to 150 folks still want to meet everybody, but once you're getting into the upper hundreds and more, we usually see more focused Donut channels.

OL: How would you describe the company culture at Donut?

DM: We're still a small team of about a dozen folks, and we're a tight-knit group. We're all here because we're passionate about company culture. We have very much an experimental mindset in terms of ourselves, and we're always trying new routines and rituals. We have a weekly team lunch, which has evolved as we've grown. We also have weekly team meetings to ensure we all understand where we are as a company in an effort to be transparent about everything.

OL: Are actual donuts a big part of your company culture at Donut?

DM: Yes, they are. We don't have them every day but we do enjoy them when it's somebody's first day and for birthdays!

OL: Have you learned anything from your customers in terms of how they're using Donut that you're going to borrow and use within your own team?

DM: Some of our customers started taking selfies when they were in their Donut meeting and re-posting them in Slack. We had one customer who would do a "selfie of the week" and have colleagues vote on the best one. We've started doing that at Donut. We thought it was a cool idea!

The biggest myth about company culture is the idea that leaders can think about it later, as if it's something you can decide when you want to decide it.

OL: What are some myths about company culture you'd like to dispel?

DM: The biggest myth about company culture is the idea that leaders can think about it later, as if it's something you can decide when you want to decide it. Your culture is happening whether or not you're thinking about it – even if you're a 5-person company. Those roots are growing, and the more deliberate you can be about that early on in the company's lifespan, the better.

Another myth is the idea that there are certain people or teams that set the company culture. In reality, the company culture comes from everybody at the company. It's all about the team norms and how everybody works together, and everybody is a part of shaping that. Especially in the early days, every single person you hire is a key ingredient to determine the culture. Who you hire is one of the biggest culture decisions you will ever make.

OL: What's a company whose culture you admire, and why?

DM: Slack has done a great job of being inclusive of many different types of employees and people. Whether it's people just starting out in their careers or people who have been in their careers for decades and have different needs in life, they strike a balance of being a fun place to work while also being serious. They're able to balance serving their business needs with the needs of their employees.

OL: How would you respond if somebody said that they don't have time for a company culture tool like Donut?

DM: The time investment to get to know the people you're working with pays enormous dividends down the line. When you need a favor, or you need help getting a project over the line, or you need more context on what you're doing, that relationship you built is worth so much more than the 15 or 30 minutes it took to get coffee with someone. It would be shortsighted to say that this is not worth the time investment. That doesn't mean you have to do it weekly. You can do it bi-weekly or even just once a month. There are many ways to think about structuring time, but it's a great investment in your culture, which ultimately drives your company's performance.

Especially in the early days, every single person you hire is a key ingredient to determine the culture. Who you hire is one of the biggest culture decisions you will ever make.

OL: What advice do you give to companies to help distributed people stay connected to expand company culture beyond a Slack room or using Donut?

DM: One thing many of our customers do when they open a new office location is to send a veteran employee there to embed the DNA from the existing company culture into the new office. Different offices can certainly have different flavors in terms of their local culture, but it's important to make sure there's some consistency and a common thread connecting different locations. That's a common practice and one I would recommend folks do based on the success our customers have had with it.

If it's a hybrid culture where there's an office in addition to remote workers, there's no substitute for flying folks in for their onboarding week and making sure they meet the whole team and understand the culture. I would highly recommend investing in having people make a trip to the office to meet the team in-person when they start. Many companies we work with that are either fully-remote or hybrid do an annual all-hands in-person, where everybody is in the same place for a week, and that's super valuable too.

OL: How do perks fit into company culture?

DM: Perks definitely fit into the company culture. Perks are one expression of your company's values and how you value your employees and their time. One perk that we've had from the beginning is called "OOF," which stands for "Office Optional Fridays." Friday is an optional work from home day because we don't have a lot of meetings, and it gives folks the choice to focus on whatever they need to be doing at home if they prefer. We know people have lives outside of Donut and we want to support that. Giving people one more day with their dog or their kids, or 20% less time commuting, is so meaningful for them. Having it be a ritual that we all do together builds it into the culture more than just having an informal work from home once a week policy.

Other things like health benefits and parental leave policies are all statements of values that are also a statement about the company culture. More superficial things like ping pong tables and free coffee don't make your culture. It doesn't mean they're bad things and you shouldn't have them, but they shouldn't be a replacement for thinking more deeply about the values you want to communicate with your employees.

We had the team nominate and vote on a new perk to add. We ended up with a list of potential perks that would cost the company more or less the same thing to offer, so we put it in the team's hands to decide what they'd prefer. Giving employees a voice in decision-making also helps solidify company culture.

OL: What was the perk your team picked?

DM: We have bi-weekly in-office massages.

The time investment to get to know the people you're working with pays enormous dividends down the line. When you need a favor, or you need help getting a project over the line, or you need more context on what you're doing, that relationship you built is worth so much more than the 15 or 30 minutes it took to get coffee with someone.

OL: On a different note, how can hybrid companies better include their remote employees when they're not present for those ad-hoc in-person hallway conversations or beers after work?

DM: Being the remote person in a meeting that's mostly made up of people sitting in the same room together can make it incredibly challenging to try to follow along. I've seen companies do a few things about that problem. Some teams set the rule that, if anybody has to dial in, everybody dials into the video conference. Even if it's five people in the same office and one person remote, everyone dials into the Zoom meeting so it's a level playing field. 360-degree video conferencing cameras can help with that, too. Another strategy is to make co-located team members take turns being a remote meeting attendee so everybody can build empathy for what it's like to be on the other line.

In terms of the watercooler moments, it's important to use messaging tools like Slack as more than just a work tool. Make sure you have social channels so people can participate in conversations about their favorite TV show, sporting event, or whatever it is.

I've also seen companies hold remote happy hours, where the employees all dial into Zoom with a beer. Lots of companies use Donut for this exact reason, because it creates an agenda-less meeting where you can simply get to know someone, whether it's one-on-one or in a small group.

OL: Along with Donut and Slack, what are other important tools for effective team communication and collaboration across different locations?

DM: In addition to Slack and Donut, I definitely recommend Zoom or another video conferencing tool. If a Slack conversation is getting complex in an office, you might swivel your chair and talk to someone face to face. Now, we see remote folks replicating that by spinning up video conference rooms on the fly. If people work from home, it could mean giving them a budget to deck out their home office with great headphones, an awesome webcam, and big monitors so they can do that well.

Other important tools for distributed teams are recognition platforms. Bonusly or other Slack integrations allow for asynchronous peer recognition where you can celebrate wins together. Some companies create a channel for giving shoutouts, so there are several ways to implement that. Having a built-in process for recognizing people is important because it happens less naturally when you're not sitting together in the same room. It's also key to use great tools for knowledge-sharing and documentation, whether it's a wiki tool or using Google Docs or Dropbox Paper in a structured way.

Health benefits and parental leave policies are all statements of values that are also a statement about the company culture. More superficial things like ping pong tables and free coffee don't make your culture. It doesn't mean they're bad things and you shouldn't have them, but they shouldn't be a replacement for thinking more deeply about the values you want to communicate to your employees.

OL: What do you think is keeping remote work from becoming more common? Do you think we need better tech or different leadership development? Or do we just need more time for it to spread?

DM: We need a bit of all of the above. We're fighting a lot of inertia to make a big change to the way work is done, and there are lots of unknowns involved. How you do a lot of the things you do in-person need to change for remote work to succeed. Remote work is a great fit for some people, but others love working in an office.

InVision is one of the shining examples of a big company that's fully remote that was built that way from the start. They've hired an entire workforce that had embraced remote work from the recruiting process. But if you work at a large enterprise company that wasn't built to be remote from the ground up, there would be a slew of consequences to implementing remote work all at once. For larger companies, implementing remote work might mean starting with smaller teams, or baby steps, first. The technology that enables remote work has come a long way, and if you're using the right tools, that's not the biggest impediment to remote work anymore. It's things like process, structure, and communication that organizational leaders will need to think through and experiment with.

OL: What do you think the future of work looks like 5-10 years from now?

DM: If companies like ours who are working on these problems are successful, I hope we'll be spending a lot less time on the mundane, trivial, administrative things, and a lot more time thinking about strategy and doing higher-level thinking. Good tools will facilitate that, but they'll almost fade to the background. You won't be thinking, "I'm using this app." It will simply make your life better.

OL: What do you love most about what you do?

DM: I love hearing customer stories about how they're using Donut and how it's benefited them. At this point, we've made millions of introductions across all of our customers' companies, and being able to hear some of the anecdotes and the relationships that have been built and the business outcomes it's achieved is incredibly fulfilling. Seeing a customer's delight and creating "wow" moments when we make things that are easy and fun to use is incredible. One thing I've always liked about what we're doing is we're using chat-based technology to drive real human interaction and connection. It's fun to build a technology platform where the outcome is real-life human interaction.

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