Modlia is a small company that wanted to grow without taking on external finance. It discovered an unlikely source of inspiration for building an operations management system which continues to power the business today. The best bits of an old book were taken and moulded to the shape of this emerging development house.
Modlia was formed in 2008 from a partnership between Harry Bailey and Christopher Charlton. Harry was a web developer who’d amassed considerable skills in the development of sites using PHP & MySQL, giving him the ability to author what had already become known as “web applications”. Christopher was working as a freelance designer and marketing consultant creating simple websites for customers and helping to guide their marketing communications.
The pair found a level of trust and enjoyment in their work together that suggested the possibility for something more interesting. With similar views on the right approach to the design and production of web applications, they founded a business to put their ideas into practice. The first product was called “PagePlay” and has since become the bedrock of the business.
At the beginning there was no revenue. The small collaborative projects Christopher and Harry worked on were too few in number to yield any meaningful surplus and were effectively an extension of their freelancing. But if they were to realise their dream of a web application business they needed to get underway with product development and this meant finding funds. Christopher and Harry needed to invest time in product development but could only afford to do so if they still had an income. So in addition to maintaining freelance commitments and working on the new business for only a day or two a week they decided to try and fund their own development time. The only problem was that neither partner liked the idea of external investment in the business.
There was – and still is – a “circle of trust” at Modlia. Only those in whom Christopher and Harry really trusted could come anywhere near the important functions or positions of influence in the business. So a family loan was taken to pay for development time in the first year. Whether the loan was small or large is a matter of opinion. What can be said is that they couldn’t have got started without it and it’s only recently come close to being paid off.
This approach to finance – only allowing the minimum of outside interference – reflects on the integrity and personal commitment they felt towards the emerging business. They wanted always to be motivated when it came to Modlia and this would come through maintaining full ownership and responsibility. The last thing either of them wanted was for Modlia to turn into an unruly employer; a tyrant of their own making. Of course, this approach has led to an entirely different pace. This is acknowledged at Modlia: “oak trees are stronger because of their slower growth”.
Any student or observer of business knows however, that there is no such thing as equilibrium for an enterprise. As in nature you are either growing or you are contracting. So they needed to find growth strategies which didn’t involve throwing money at problems. A small team should be able to manage all of the functions with the use of an increasingly capable set of software and procedures.
Matt Chadwick joined the team first as a freelancer working a day each week but eventually becoming a full time employee. The “circle of trust” would extend to a small group of part time freelancers, family members and friends. Good systems were needed to make sure that everyone knew what they were doing and how to do it.
There may be as many books on the subject of how to run a successful business as there are failed businesses. Christopher and Harry were no different from most in their enthusiastic consumption of insights which could prove helpful in the running of Modlia. The result is a fairly broad reading list including web luminaries such as 37signals’ Jason Fried, traditional management theories but also a careful selection of airport business “self-help” books. Of course in all of these there is a lot of dross, but half a dozen have yielded the insights which Modlia has made its own.
Getting Things Done by David Allen is a reasonably well known personal productivity methodology particularly popular with those working in technology. Perhaps owing to its code-like architecture of splitting tasks down and its reference to ongoing protocols and routines.
The title which most influenced Modlia is perhaps surprising. The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Fail and What to Do About It. If it sounds like an American self-help book then you should know that it looks and reads like one too. A contemporary audience may be forgiven for thinking that Michael E. Gerber’s 1995 revisit of the 1980 original is an out of date contribution to the emerging field of “E-Business”. In fact the “E” stands for entrepreneur and its principles are as valid today as they were at the end of the seventies.
The premise is that those who think – or even know – that they are good at a certain trade often fall prey to the idea that this is all they need in order to form a successful business. See web designers, bakers, hairdressers, builders and countless others for examples. Many such people find that things rarely turn out as they had planned. The skills needed for working in a business are not the same as the skills needed to create develop and maintain it. This is a not a plea for more management training! It’s an acknowledgement that as business owners we need to work both IN and ON our businesses. That the latter is the one which is most likely to be neglected. Gerber’s simple genius in this observation is to focus our minds every day on the business we are creating rather than the product or service that it creates in turn.
As any good self help book should, it raises the spectre of these issues, hinting at the fear of failure we all harbour. As sure as day follows night there is hope and salvation offered in the form of practical advice. The realisation comes as an almost literal epiphany to the pie baker in the book, whose story serves as a convenient ongoing example.
The actual advice feels at times – and certainly at first – a little bizarre and very American. Gerber advocates turning your business into a franchise. Or at least pretending to. You look at every operation the business undertakes and codify it, such that a carbon copy could be opened up elsewhere if necessary.
There is a great insight at the heart of the book for the owners of any brand – but especially for those concerned with the delivery of services. Customers enjoy repetition and predictability. There’s a nice anecdote about what happens when your barber suddenly changes the order in which things are done during your haircut visit, leading to a feeling of unease and discomfort. The lead example of a repeat experience success story is McDonald’s. Regardless of any contemporary sneer on McDonald’s alleged past environmental crimes or your views on fast food in general, it remains a remarkable brand and business. It is all based on the premise of giving the customer exactly the same experience every time she visits wherever in the world she is. We like to know what we are getting.
Of course, there is a place for the unusual, the creative and that sense of experiencing something different. The whole point of such moments is that we are acutely conscious within them of the fact that we are seeking out uniqueness and challenge. It is not our default state of being. We would soon become exhausted and overwhelmed. The exact opposite of Groundhog Day in which we can never do the same thing twice and lose all structure and meaning in our world. Our default state is to desire and pursue a repertoire of repeated enjoyable experiences.
In the process of writing down all that the business does and how it is best to be done, an “Operations Manual” starts to form. Gerber advises to create job roles to be responsible for groups of these procedures. Even if there’s only two people in the business it’s good to create as many logical job roles as are needed and categorise the lot by them.
As a post-freelancer, the Operations Manual becomes the document you can leave with people if you need to go on holiday. This is a rare occurrence for the founders of many start-ups in the early years. Later it becomes the way the whole team works together. Everything in its logical place and a commonly understood way to get things done. It’s a training tool and an ever-evolving reference guide all at the same time. Even if you never franchise the business, the manual allows your colleagues to run things without your constant input. You are free to work out how to improve the business and what it should do next – you can devote some time to strategy. You’ll add to the manual and amend it in response to edge cases from the day to day running which are presented to you by your team.
Modlia implemented its own take on the E-Myth and its been highly effective. Clearly though, a book written in 1995 needed a bit of tweaking to fit our start-up, some fifteen years later.
Modlia took the idea of job roles and applied the concept of an “ongoing buffet”. Gerber expected that as the business grew, individuals would be hired to fill a specific job role. At Modlia, each individual is assessed for the job roles to which they are most suited. So there is an overlap between the roles that each person does. As a small team including part timers this means that each role gets the cover it needs; the wheels keep turning. As individuals, it means getting a bit of variety and respite.
Modlia implemented and sustains the Operations Manual collaboratively. All members of the team are encouraged to see the processes and procedures contained in the manual as belonging to them. The manual, far from being an unchanging set of stone tablets is easily accessible and updatable through a simple online system. When something needs to be tweaked the change is made quickly and shared. It is evolving, it is alive.
Today a new starter need only be assigned one or two job roles to find everything they need to get cracking. It has not only saved time and money, it has been a set engineering principles behind a strong and interoperable team.
The E-Myth is that anyone can be an entrepreneur as long as they are good at what they do. In “dispelling the E-Myth”, Modlia has shown that you need more than simply practical capability. You need a system to underpin the minutiae of running the business. Careful Operations Management is as important for a small web company as it is for a large multinational.
People often talk about thinking outside the box when it comes to having great ideas, but you first need to have – and then take action on – the ideas you have.
At Modlia everyone in the office spends at least some time each week working on something unrelated to their day-to-day job, often an idea that doesn’t fit the current direction the company is going in, but something the person has an interest in, and without this chance would be an idea that died.
Matt for example is currently spending some of his time exploring the development of an online writing tool he’s building as a proof of concept. It’s not something with any kind of priority, and it isn’t an official Modlia product at this point, but if it gets finished (sometimes things don’t work out), gets used internally, then takes the fancy of people outside the Modlia bubble, it may just be adopted as something we invest true development time in and take further.
I’ll leave him to tell you more about the tool in another blog post, but stepping outside your normal job role, or even business allows you to look back from a different point of view while making sure those ideas you’re having don’t fade to nothing. It clears your mind and allows you to have great ideas in the first place, whether they are adopted immediately, gets some outside-the-box time or doesn’t come to anything after you’ve mulled it over.
Do you get a chance to be outside the box at work?
Recently the Modlia office has become very green fingered. It all started when two of the office built their own veg patches at home and traded some potatoes for planting. This exchange led to the planting of vegetables in pots in the office and a collection of plants appearing on shelves and bookcases.
First a few of the benefits of having plants in your office, then I’ll introduce you to a few of ours!
Office plants have been proven to increase productivity and reduce sickness absence due to their production of oxygen and cleaning of the air in an office. Plants decrease stress levels and apparently increase productivity by an average of 12%.
If you’re office is noisy, they can also be used to reduce how noise carries in an office.
Originally obtained from a market with only 2 leaves and a flower, mother nature was the original Modlia office plant.
This is actually two plants, both huge, who are slowly taking over the office and have yet to product and veg!
Saved from wedding plant
As the name suggests, it was a table centre at a wedding and was saved from the skip. It has strange – almost inflated – leaves and we’ve yet to do the research on what it is.
The latest addition to the office, this is a very young tomato plant.
Various other plans that we keep around (and alive!)
If you work with a computer as part of your job and email is the preferred method of communication between people in your business then you’ll know how much of a pain in the arse email can be.
Sending an email to dozens of people is so easy that it is often the chosen method of someone getting the task or discussion it contains off their plate, even if only for a few hours.
Without any control over the matter you can have tasks assigned to you via an email and have your inbox full of multi-person unescapable conversations that there is no way of unsubscribing from.
This article is a little nod to the issue, and an education tool for you (we’re all guilty of sending as well as receiving too much email) and those who fill your inbox with tasks and spam. It contains a few tips and useful methods for reducing the load you put on others, and that they in turn put on you.
The first step is to stop sending email without thinking. For each email you send, you should first consider if it’s required at all using the questions below, and then confirm that every person you are sending it to actually has to be aware of it at this moment in time.
Do they need to know in the next hour? If it’s a relatively urgent message, then the email you are considering should actually be a phone call. If they don’t answer your call (they are allowed to be unavailable) then it’s an answer machine message or a text asking for a call back so you can discuss. Not an email.
Is it a discussion needing input from multiple people? If it’s a discussion – not a notification which needs no reply – then it should be either a conference call or you should be using an online discussion tool like a chat tool – if everyone is available but not close by – or a discussion forum – if people have different availability and can’t all be online at the same time. The many problems with email for multi-person (more than 2) discussion are that you can easily overlap your replies so that something is missed, you cannot clarify instantly if your message is misinterpreted and most importantly you cannot remove yourself from the multiple back and forth emails. An email discussion has no unsubscribe!
Does your message need diagrams or clear explanation? If there is a chance your message may not be understood clearly or it could benefit from you pointing at things on a diagram, then a face to face meeting or even a phone call would be a better choice than an email. It will take less time and ensure you don’t get the chinese whispers affect where you end up with something completely unexpected based on the words you used, and meaning your thought you had explained in your email.
Is it letting someone know about something that’s not urgent? There we have it. An email is good. Email is not guaranteed to be instant, so a delay in receiving it is possible. Don’t expect instant reading or replying to your emails. Even once we’d decided it is an email we can improve the quality of the email using short tags in the subject line and some basic rules.
Short tags in the subject can allow those receiving your emails to judge what to do with them at a glance, sometimes without the need to even open it, saving them some previous time. You’ll like it and so will they.
Is it a email that’s not urgent and doesn’t need a reply? Add the letters NNTR to the end of the subject line – No need To Reply – so they will know instantly that once they’ve read the message they don’t need to send do much as a ‘thanks’ email (which you would then have to deal with!).
Is the message so short it fits in the email’s subject line? Add the letters EOM to the end of the subject line – End Of Message – so they will know that they don’t even need to open the email! They can just read the subject line then delete it.
You might also choose to combine the codes. For example:
See you at 6pm at the pub EOM NNTR
If you have decided that it is an email, then put these ideas into practice…
Short is not rude. An email is not a letter, it’s more like a mobile phone text. Less words / sentences are a good thing and a brief response should be praised. How long should an email be? As short as possible but no shorter.
Is it a notification? If you are sending an email to multiple people, but you don’t expect a reply from them, put your own email in the To: field and add all other recipients to the BCC: field. This means that if someone does choose to reply it will only come to you and not annoy the other 49 people you sent the message too. It doesn’t matter if they all know each other or not.
If you receive UNSUBSCRIBE. This means someone wants out. They don’t feel they are needed in the discussion and would like someone else – because they can’t do it themselves – to remove them from the recipients list. Be nice and when you next reply, remove them.
The Email Charter is something you may choose to mention in your email signatures. It’s a list of useful rules to reduce the pain of email while making them more useful and productive. Including the link helps ensure your brief emails and subject line short codes are explained.
Hopefully these tips will be of some use to you. If you choose to implement them across your business then ensure you let everyone know about rules before you begin using them to avoid confusion and frustration.
So next time you’re about to hit send on an email to 10 people remember to consider if they all need to know about it right now, and if it’s even an email at all.
A little further reading if you would like…
I’ve always been keen to find ways to be more productive. I know this is also true of other productive people at Modlia and of the software industry more generally. Of course, productivity is not an end in itself, but most of human civilisation seem to have been in its pursuit for a good while now. We’d all like to get more done in quicker time.
I suggest that there are three factors to personal productivity.
Some people might call this motivation. I suggest our attitude can have a massive impact on our overall productivity in two different ways. The first is concerned with ensuring we have a greater number of productive moments and the second is about our overall attitude towards work.
To get into the right frame of mind, some people like to listen to music whilst they work, and some prefer things a little quieter. Some are bothered by their surroundings more, having particular places they associate with good work; whilst others find that a change of scene can be as good as a rest. The length of time for which we can focus as well as the times in the day when we work best can also play their part. If you’re lucky enough to be able to identify some of these patterns then you might find that you’re more productive when you’re able to work with them rather than against them. For instance, a while ago I realised that my attention span has an absolute limit somewhere around the 2 hour mark. So I now divide may days up into 2 hour segments. I set myself a rule that I will only work on one project during the segment unless I finish the whole project. I don’t look at email, take phone calls or do anything other than work on that single project. The boost to my personal productivity through this slightly forced method of getting some focus has ben phenomenal.
The time of day can have an interesting impact on our ability to get in the zone and focus on quality work. Ever wondered why many programmers prefer to work at night? Swizec’s article raises the idea that good focus is often achieved at an optimal level of tiredness: awake enough to do justice to the task, whilst not enough to worry about all of the other things which are not being completed.
On the second point – overall attitude – there is absolutely no substitute for knowing that you are either working on something you love or towards something you love. Plenty of people work at jobs with little sense of purpose and end up unhappy and unmotivated as a result. Not rocket science, I can hear you cry. Given the apparent obviousness of this observation it is astonishing how many talented people allow themselves to end up doing things that they do not want to. It must stand to reason that if in your first waking moment of the day you feel good about the purpose of everything that follows, then you can have a much easier job of being motivated and productive.
You can either make your tools more effective in themselves or you can make them more attractive to you.
One of the best productivity tools I’ve discovered is Alfred; though it’s difficult to explain to those who have not experienced it. It’s a set of keystrokes and shortcuts which allow you to manipulate files, open applications and to search for information and resources on your computer with much more ease and speed than comes built-in with Mac OS. It’s the first new piece of software I’ve installed since I switched to Mac in 2002, which has genuinely improved the way I use my computer.
We all use lots of tools everyday – be they physical aids or pieces of software – so we are aware of the difference that improving or upgrading those tools can make.
I suggested that either the effectiveness or attractiveness of a tools could be altered. This is – of course – a nonsense dichotomy. The more enlightened among you already know that, in most situations, making a tool more attractive also makes it more effective. Rubbermaid and Method are brands which solve highly practical problems using design attractiveness to make their products more effective. It’s a point Stephen Fry reinforced in an recent interview for the BBC about the success of Steve Jobs’ Apple. The essence of the point is simple. When we enjoy using something, we use it more often, and we often use it in a more considered and thorough way. I have never vacuumed so much since I bought my Dyson. I don’t mind telling you that it is insanely satisfying to use a piece of British engineering which so obviously improves my world with great ease and efficiency. Objects of functional and aesthetic beauty invite us to develop a relationship with them and to use them properly. So go on; invest in that lovely new Moleskine notebook or at least download Alfred – you wont regret it!
For the avoidance of any doubt in the difference between tools and techniques, it might be useful to recall that phrase so often used in relation to newbie middle-aged cyclists. Indeed, no one wants to be thought of as having “all the gear and no idea”.
Technique is about how you do things as well as knowing what works best for you. Unfortunately, productivity is an area which provides rich soil for a forest of (largely unhelpful) self-help books. Despite this, there must still be value in appraising those skills which are as fundamental to a productive life as are reading and numeracy. To ask ourselves the question: how do I work best, is to appraise and make possible the fine tuning of our own personal operating system.
We have long been fans of a certain methodology when it comes to productivity technique. Though I’m loath to call it a self help book, you may disagree. Getting Things Done by David Allen is a both an entire system and a set of useful principles for personal productivity technique.
I first discovered it during the first year of my career. I recall being stressed beyond my wit at a small PR firm whose MD had (perhaps foolishly) loaded me with a rather uncharitable number of projects and responsibilities. Getting Things Done (GTD) assisted with both the practical task of coping with the massive and disorganised workload, as well as the higher-order task of deciding that the world of PR was not for me!
GTD has yielded many helpful principles including: reviewing active projects on a weekly basis; storing each action only once; capturing thoughts and tasks for later processing and; having a list of tasks appropriate to contexts such as “flight”, “desk” or “home”.
In addition to whole systems or approaches to technique, everyone has their own good habits. Creating and sustaining good habits can be as much as most of us ever want or need.
Asking you to accept that all improvements to productivity can slot neatly into one of my three categories might be a little audacious. Let’s now extend that audacity by suggesting that really great productivity actually comes from combining all three. The three factors of attitude, tools and technique form a highly virtuous trio.
GTD delivers real benefits, but it demands a certain commitment to keep to the system, to follow its rules. So there’s no point taking it on unless you have the right attitude and are prepared to focus – at least for example – on your Weekly Review. But it’s also a two-way process. Some of the higher principles of GTD allow you to assess the bigger decisions and responsibilities you have, which can help you to solve problems of background attitude. I quit my last job and setup my own business on the strength of these processes. That was 5 years ago now, and it was one of the most important and beneficial things I ever did for myself.
Some of the ways of getting the right attitude could definitely require good technique. For you it might mean scheduling the right kind of work for the time of day or having a decent playlist of vocal-free music on standby in your iTunes for those times when you need to get back in the zone.
What have I learned in my somewhat obsessive quest for better personal productivity over the years so far? For one thing there’s no ideal method or even combination of methods. It is however, absolutely worth continuing to experiment and revise. We all need to keep working on and upgrading our personal operating system – so why not enjoy the process and do a good job of it?
I have always had peaks and troughs in my productivity. Some days I will do very little or nothing that I was supposed to get done. Some days I will do all that was required and more.
It’s important to understand the difference between being active and being productive. Activity includes such things as catching up with the backlog of tweets on Twitter, making sure you aren’t missing out on what your friends are doing on Facebook and installing updates of software to your computer to see what has changed since the last version. Sadly none of these things are what you probably should be doing during work hours.
At Modlia we implement many of the methods that David Allen talks about in his book The Art of Getting Things done. These include steps to emptying your email inbox, emptying your head into a system you trust and choosing the right thing to be doing right now.
I am no great example of constant and perfect productivity, but I have learnt a fair few things that may help you get the edge and stop yourself wasting most of your day doing the wrong things.
The biggest and best change for me was email.
The first step was turn my inbox upside down. New email now appears at the bottom of the list, forcing me to see the oldest email I haven’t dealt with again and again until I do something with it.
Doing something with an email could be one of delegating it, deleting it, adding an event or meeting to a calendar or creating a project or action from it. I’m sure there will be more about all these in a future post so I won’t go on about them too much, other than to say that you should read your inbox from top to bottom, old to new, and before you move to the next email you should have done something with the last one which allows you to remove it from your inbox.
Being interrupted is a killer for productivity and one that used to really damage my periods of being in the zone.
To stop interruptions I did three things:
I started working from home two days a week. I still have three days in the office to interact with people and discuss ideas and problems, but I have two full quiet days where nobody can tap me on the shoulder, wave at me or shout my name because they think their problem is more important than your work at the point in time. It may not be an option for you, but maybe starting early and finishing early could get you time in an empty office in the morning?
I started to use the headphone rule. If I have my headphones on, I am busy. No exceptions. It goes for anyone else in the office too so that I don’t interrupt them. Some offices use closed doors as a sign instead. Same idea.
I stopped communicating for periods of time, usually 30 minutes. Sounds silly but not answering the phone and closing your email, twitter and putting your mobile on silent won’t kill anyone. If it’s important they will leave a message and if it’s really important they will ring continuously until you answer the phone. Often what is really important to someone else isn’t important at all.
Split your tasks down
Take a task that you have to do and break into smaller pieces, then do the same thing again and then once more. The smaller the task, the more likely you are to want to do it. The more small tasks you get done and tick off, the more productive you are being, the more productive you feel and the more productive you will continue to be.
You all know the feeling of starting a large project? Well don’t start a large project, complete one small part of one small part of the project.
Next actions and finding who is responsible
Although it’s not really talked about openly at Modlia, we have a simple rule. When you send or reply to an email or other communication you must always do one of these things:
Confirm that you will take the next action. The task or project is now your responsibility and everyone else can forget about it until they hear otherwise. They don’t need to worry because they know you are taking the next action.
Ask if someone else is ok to take the next action. If you feel that someone else is more suited to taking the task or project forward then why not suggest it. They should reply with one of the options here, and hopefully they will just confirm that it’s now their responsibility.
Confirm that something is no longer important and can be binned. If you realise you don’t need to continue doing a task or project then let the other people involved know. They all have a copy of the email so let them all know they can bin it. Dead ends are fine as long as everyone knows they are a dead end.
Ask for more information. If you can’t do any of the above then this is the other option. Find out more so that you can then do one of the above.
It may seem like it’s less related to productivity, but actually the time taken to decipher emails which contain none of the above are a waste. There is nothing worse than having to send yet another email just to clarify where the project or task lies.
It’s that simple. You think you are getting it done. You probably could be getting it done faster or better if you walked away from your desk every 45 minutes and did something unrelated like read a book or sketched a picture or walked around the block on the phone to a friend.
Find what works for you
I have talked about what works for me above. Some of the methods may work for you and some may not, but the best thing to do is keep trying new things. If they work keep them and if they don’t then bin them.
There are plenty more ideas I implement, and I am sure there will be a follow on post at some point in the future.