Managing Through Expeditions

JC Velten

4 years ago

Starting a company from nothing is a golden opportunity for being intentional about designing a coherent structure to run it; I missed it on my first startup. Not realizing this unrepeatable window of opportunity to create culture and organization, most startups end up adapting hierarchical models that have more to do with ego and big corporations, than with the efficiency and flexibility to get things done that a small team needs to have.

Before the Product, the Culture

Realizing this, once we determined we had a viable idea that could create value for users, we decided to invest time to design and agree on a structure for our then three-person enterprise. Therefore, even before incorporating, creating a website or choosing a name (which the users changed anyway), we focused our energy on creating a canvas that would enable our future team to thrive and produce without friction. We designed the structure of the company for speed and meaning around three pillars: Organism instead of Organization; Expeditions instead of Departments; and Drive instead of Hierarchy.

The Swim Organism

There is a reason why living things are organisms. This form of organizing life for resiliency is the result of 3.5 billion years of evolution. An organism powers living creatures without friction by having every part of it focused on exactly the same goal: keeping it alive to allow it to have staying power by reproducing. Everyone of us - microbes, plants, you - follows the exact same rule and that's why life is so successful, despite the occasional asteroid that resets it every now and then.

Regarding companies, we decided to follow this advice, from Seth Godin:

An organism constantly changes. The cells develop, die and are replaced. It adapts to the current environment or goes away. If you engage with a culture, if you’re part of an organism, you’ll do better understanding the system that it lives in. The org chart is insufficient. And of course, organisms tend to be more resilient than organizations.

...and that's why we do not have an Org Chart.

The Swim Expeditions

Instead, we manage Swim through what we call Expeditions. Every project that needs to be accomplished to deliver value to our users is an Expedition. We staff each with those members of the team who are motivated to be part of it (we value motivation over skill), can do the work, and step up to the challenge. We believe this kind of structure works better for us than an org chart full of VPs and a CEO who are supposed to 'know better.'

At our stage, Expeditions begin and end. For instance, launching the MVP is an Expedition, led by one of the three founders, guided by our student interns, and executed by our engineers. This Expedition ends on May 25th when we launch, and a new one - Evolving the MVP - begins. We have Expeditions for Go-to-Market, Culture, Partnerships, and even short-lived ones for important but short-term stuff, like a company camping trip once the world re-opens.

The Swim Drive

The third pillar of our company, Drive, lives inside each of us and equips us to collectively achieve the impossible, which is what we need to do. This is why, as I mentioned above, we value motivation over skills. Drive means we hire curious people that see our challenge as the next mountain they want to conquer, know how to prepare for the Expedition, and what it takes to get there.

Hierarchy in startups creates friction and gets in the way of doing things. Even here, nature has a lesson we can apply to our company. Your brain is not the 'boss' of your body (you're still smart though!). The brain coordinates the functioning of the organism; it is more a traffic controller than a CEO. The drive of every cell to live and successfully replicate is what makes the whole organism function.

At Swim, we function by making sure every single person has the drive to keep focused on the awesome mountain ahead, rather than being scared about the sometimes arduous trek to conquer it. Skill alone is never enough for a startup, and will never get you a job at Swim.

We believe the three pillars - organizing like an Organism, managing through Expeditions, and nurturing everyone's Drive - equip us to stay focused on our goal of creating value for our users. These pillars will enable us to do the work required to achieve our three-word mission:

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