No bullshit culture at a startup – how it works for Ukrainian Mate academy during wartime

Mate academy is an ed-tech start-up which aims to help people learn coding via its own technological platform. Before the full-scale Russian invasion, the company’s total headcount was about 60 people; after February 24, it has been doubled. No bullshit culture works great for Mate academy.

As pointed out at Mate, the growth took place due to a transformation of the labor market. The company used it for filling its own vacancies and collaboration with foreign companies that hire their students. In addition, Mate has entered the Polish market and launched training for three international groups.

Will it be possible to reach this growth in crisis without truly motivated employees? Certainly not. It’s a tough challenge to build a strong team because it’s not enough to simply supply employees with powerful computers and offer free lunches. Company culture is the best tool for uniting a goal-oriented team. What does it consist of and how it works for business, Mate Academy’s representative told in a column for AIN.Capital.

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Mate academy co-founders: Max Lysak, Anna Apostol, Roman Apostol

What is company culture?

It’s quite easy to find a definition of company culture with plenty of interpretations. On the whole, it includes a coordinate system and values to ensure team work and development. Culture is what you tolerate.

For Mate employees, company culture is all about company/start-up/organization self-awareness; it’s about your performance when there is no supervision. Their  mission lies in making the world a better place; no copy-pasting. This drives everyone in the company to be result-oriented and grow continuously.

It’s not enough to claim your company has a culture, however. In fact, each business should have one and it differs from company to company. To make it work, founders should translate company culture into their actions and employees should blend it into their values. After all, it should be authentic. It was Roman Apostol’s work experience he received with Preply and Google, as well as a few fuckups, that made no bullshit culture take hold at Mate academy.  

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Screenshot from weekly TGIF meet at Mate academy

No bullshit culture 4 core values: 

1. Act in the best interests of the company

Act and make decisions like a CEO. Eliminate bureaucracy and look for the opportunities to perform better (improve your results).

For example, the company where Vadym, lead software engineer at Mate, used to work was looking for a front-end developer. Vadym contacted Mate academy coordinators requesting them to send a few CVs of their students. One of them got a job offer, and as a result, Vadym got the referral bonus which he decided to donate for Mate academy development. 

2. Full responsibility 

Mates avoid rules. Each employee is a Swiss knife-man. For example, to enable employees to take full responsibility for certain parts of the product, all developers are involved in fullstack rather than solely frontend or backend. People get freedom and responsibility to do what is right for the company. They act in the best interests of the startup instead of making sacrifices. 

As a result of the full responsibility, the third value comes into play—”unlimited vacation” policy. 

The founders believe employees should go on vacation when they feel it’s time to recharge batteries instead of being allowed to do so by the policy guidelines. If you’re a high performer, nobody really cares how long your vacation is or how many times a year you take it. 

At times employees might have second thoughts on whether they take too many holidays, particularly if their manager doesn’t vacation that often. In this case, the rule of thumb is to take a vacation for sure if you haven’t done so for a long time. 

It’s an enormous benefit to hire responsible employees who understand when it’s the right time to take a vacation and use it accordingly. Interestingly enough, they often come up with unique business insights while having a rest. Another considerable benefit brought on by having no vacation policy is that when given an opportunity to take some time off, an employee gets inspired to go the extra mile and perform better. 

3. Be humble

It’s less about just being modest and more about being sane. Don’t put your ego on a pedestal; learn to publicly admit your mistakes and develop empathy. To err is to be human. We grow professionally by admitting our mistakes and embracing better decisions. 

Being unable to admit mistakes will be eventually translated into toxicity. It’s something any business strives to eliminate.  

4. Be ambitious 

Mate employees are committed to personal development. Career plays a dominant role at this stage of life. Having said that, it’s important not to equate this with self-sacrificing. Being ambitious comprises high motivation and continuous challenge, and the only way to rise to the challenge is to step outside your comfort zone. 

Roman Apostol points out that they were able to establish rules that blended in these values. Mate academy philosophy is based on the following principles:

Hire A-players

The Mate team is well aware of the requirement to perform well. Each employee accepts this at the very first stage of their employment. 

Here are 4 main benefits of working with high performers:

  • The more top performers you get, the higher the talent density is. This results in motivating others to do their job well.
  • Ideas are implemented faster and routine tasks are solved methodically.
  • High performers are brave and reliable. They don’t have to be given a greenlight to make a decision when it’s crucial to do it here and now. At the same time, this decision is trustworthy. In 99% of cases it will be reasonable: based on relevant data or A/B testing.
  • Low performers won’t fit with the company culture and they will quit as a result. 
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Self-nomination for performance review 

Performance review process is quite remarkable at Mate. Here your salary won’t be reviewed just because it’s been a year or more since you’ve joined the company. Based on your performance, you should self-nominate to make the salary review happen. 

Mate employees can self-nominate even quarterly if they have an impact on company/product/cross-functional team metrics and briefly describe these in the google document.

Thus, 3 assessment criteria are taken into account: leadership, difficulty and impact. The document should contain specific figures (metrics from CRM or Amplitude). 

Each employee is well aware of how all this works since they fill out such documents right after their 2-month trial period. Newcomers may additionally use a guide explaining how to do it step by step.

Mate academy hasn’t deprived their employees of this opportunity even over the entire period of the full-scale war. Neither the procedures nor the requirements have been changed. The founders kept reviewing salaries since the first day of war. Thus, 10% of employees submitted extensive evidence of their impact on Mate academy results and got their well-deserved salary raise. 

Most effective employees are awarded with shares 

The major reason why people working at start-ups get rich lies in acquiring shares which effectively makes employees become co-owners of their company.  Mate believes in the Silicon valley model: those who make a significant contribution in the company’s success should be granted the company ownership right.

Silicon Valley employees usually are awarded with stock options (the right to buy a certain number of shares for a discounted price). Since they aren’t so common in Eastern Europe, Mate prefers shares over stock options. It’s also better for employees considering they don’t have to buy these shares. 

Having made a significant impact on the business metrics, in 6-12 months one might be offered to acquire company shares. While this text is being written, 25% of employees have received company ownership rights. 

Startups go for multi-skilled managers 

A good manager can do both: performing well even if it involves some manual tasks and teaching others to do the same. Therefore, being aware of your candidates’ skillset will land them a suitable role in your company. 

Master the art of feedback

Make sure you discuss all key decisions with your team and welcome well-grounded counterarguments. 

Feedback culture is essential. Mates have regular sessions on giving and receiving feedback. 

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“No rules rules” written by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer is used as a guideline at Mate, particularly when it comes to the 4A feedback model: 

–  For giving feedback

Aim to assist – feedback must be given with positive intent. Giving feedback in order to hurt the other person isn’t tolerated 

Actionable – your feedback should focus on what the recipient can do differently. It has to be something specific a person can act upon. 

– For receiving feedback 

Appreciate  – listen and analyze all feedback. Be open-minded and grateful 

Accept or discard  – it’s important to be grateful, but the decision to react to the feedback is entirely up to the recipient. 

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Transparent communication in the team 

It’s okay to have a transparent discussion on performing tasks. It surely works as  everybody is aware of what’s going on. For example, Mates communicate in open Slack channels to ensure everybody is in the common information field. In fact, a large number of 1:1 talks, which are typically held in companies, should instead be taken to the group channels. 

Cross-functional teams rock

Vertical structure is doomed to failure in startups. This top-down chain of management just doesn’t work. Horizontal structure married with cross-functional teams ensures the startup’s efficiency and growth. Founders’ leadership skills also play a key role here. Each employee should be well aware of the business goals and what exactly they can contribute to reach them. 

OKR instead of KPI

It’s believed that KPI limits the growth mindset. Thus, employees might have concerns about being punished for not meeting KPI targets, so they will be less ambitious and motivated to aim high in setting these indicators. As a result, KPI isn’t the priority for the startup. 

OKRs rock here. The idea is to set ambitious and challenging targets even if it’s not clear how to reach them at first. Moreover, Mate team OKRs are always ambitious, so a 70% completion rate is a reasonable indicator. In case this rate is lower, the team admits they went too far. If the completion rate reaches 100%, it means the team should aim higher next time. 

The founders believe that it’s crucial to try new things to make OKRs work. So they’re carrying out experiments. Some of them are successful and Mate is growing as a business. 

OKRs are discussed at the TGIF (Thank God it’s Friday) meetings once a month on Friday. It’s the time to estimate how likely it is to reach OKR targets considering the current progress. 

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It’s okay to fail 

A culture of experimentation is definitely a good practice. While carrying out experiments, some of them are doomed to fail, and that’s okay. Take it as a lesson. 

  • Don’t take it as your personal failure
  • Share all kinds of experience with your team
  • Analyze your conclusions / experiments 
  • Prevent similar failures in the future 

For example, the Mate academy platform shows student’s progress in the courses they take. It was calculated previously by means of a complex SQL query which worked incorrectly at times. So Mate developer Yurii rewrote the code, but the website loading got slow after deployment. 

The team was discussing some possible solutions but none of them seemed to be effective. Among others, they were considering the use of the Amazon X-Ray. After doing proper research, Yurii was able to make a decision to eventually launch it and  share his knowledge with the team. This feature is to date running seamlessly, and more importantly, it’s convenient to use.

Mastering the art of letting people go 

People usually don’t stay in one company for life. Mate academy emphasizes that they are building a sports team, not a family, so it’s okay when at some point somebody finds a new workplace. 

The best way to quit is to tell your manager before starting interviews with other companies. In this case, when people openly talk to their managers, they will be assisted in finding a new amazing job outside Mate.

In fact, employees themselves will benefit from such a way of changing jobs. Companies might request references from a previous employer, so it won’t look good if one is looking for a job behind the back.

Instead of conclusions 

Company culture success is the result of continuous attempts to improve skill sets and analyze failures. The main rule is not to simply copy what others are doing, but create an authentic company culture for a specific team. It took 6 years for Mate to shape no bullshit culture, and today they’re looking for new ways to get better.