“We’re Base. The only CRM built for people.” – That’s their slogan, this is their story.
Frustrated by their own experiences with CRM, the team founded Base in 2009 built on a strong internal belief that businesses deserve better, smarter software. They’ve come a long way since then and today they announced a $15 million dollar Series B led by RRE Ventures, Index Ventures and OCA Ventures.
I decided to have a chat with Przemek Owczarek (@powczarek), a software engineer working for Base right here in Uppsala. Przemek has been involved with the company since its humble start-up beginnings and I was keen to probe him on some of the nitty-gritty detail behind their growth.
Firstly, congrats on the funding news! How early did you join the team at Base?
Thanks! If you don’t count our two co-founders I was the fourth hire so quite early! Now we’re a team of over 80 people, I work remotely these days out of Uppsala here in Sweden.
As part of that early team you must have come across a lot of interesting challenges as the start-up started to scale. What have been the biggest?
From an overall business point of view the biggest challenge has been continuing to recruit top development talent as the company grew. From a dev point of view it was managing the communication and workflow to ensure complicated projects still got delivered on time. When you’re a small team of a few people you have no formal way of working, but with over 80 people it is totally different and you need more structure in place.
Lets talk about recruitment. It’s a common pain point for any start-up trying to scale, how has Base tackled that?
Firstly, Base has been very involved in the developer community at our HQ in Kraków. For example we regularly sponsor hackathons (both external ones and those for our company) which not only helps raise our profile but often leads to us hiring developers directly. We’re very active in having core team members at Base give talks at tech conferences and we try to get involved with most of the local developer meetups. We had this thing called ‘base station’ which we set up at one of our last conferences where programmers could compete on coding challenges and win prizes. At the last one we gave away a drone robot to the winner! We normally get these events filmed professionally and promote the video content afterwards too. Like many start-ups we also do more quirky and viral stuff.
Quirky and viral stuff? I’m intrigued, please do elaborate…
OK so this year we spotted that some larger companies in Krakow such as Sabre were going through structural changes and were laying off staff. There was generally a bad vibe around these companies and many of the developers, who’s job security was being threatened, were thinking about a change of scenery. We stuck up billboard adverts on the other side of the street (some employees could even see them from their office windows!) and pointed people to the domain notaplaceforyou.com which explained about the cool culture we have here at Base. It worked quite well.
We stuck up billboard adverts on the other side of the street (some employees could even see them from their office windows!) and pointed people to the domain notaplaceforyou.com
Nice! You mentioned having to re-think the way you managed your dev ops and workflow. What did you change exactly?
At about the 40-person mark (which arguably was a little bit on the late side) we started changing the way our teams were structured as the old less-organised ways were simply not scalable. We formed ‘experience teams’ (there are about 7 in total) and rather than splitting the company into traditional departments (e.g. front end, back end, iOS, etc) we split them up by the experience areas they were working on for example ‘Big Data’, ‘Email’, Sales/Leads, etc. We often have a mix of people on these teams including development, design and Q&A. Essentially we have built lots of ‘mini startups’ within our company which helps to keep decisions agile. The structure is completely flat and aside from our two co-founders who help to co-ordinate everything, we don’t really have any management layer that sits above these teams (just like a true start-up!).
At about the 40-person mark, we started changing the way our teams were structured as the old less-organised ways were simply not scalable.
That sounds quite idyllic. Flat structures seems to be increasingly common especially for tech companies, but how do you keep a grasp on company culture at a fast growing start-up that is hiring rapidly and has no formal management layer?
Certain members of the company are in our ‘core’ team and that normally means they have worked with us for a while and have proven themselves to be good ambassadors for our culture. Every experience team has a core member on board to ensure our culture and core values get communicated from ground up rather than top down.
OK, let’s get really nerdy here and talk about some of the lower level code-level challenges you’ve seen through scaling. Have you taken any decisions here that have paid off?
Firstly, we have had to rethink some of our early ‘perfectionist’ culture especially when it comes to bug fixing. We used to spend a lot more time when we were smaller fixing each and every bug, but when your start-up scales you’ll quickly realise that the 80/20 rule applies and that 20% investment of time will impact 80% of the important bugs. We use data heavily in this process to work out which bugs really do need fixing based on how many users and core paying customers are affected (often it’s not the ones you might initially think).
When your start-up scales you’ll quickly realise that the 80/20 rule applies and that 20% investment of time will impact 80% of the important bugs.
Secondly, after around our 5th developer joined the team, we decided to invest some time into swapping to a ‘service oriented’ development architecture. Before this we would have one big app that did everything. Now, we have lots of smaller ones (maybe around 40) that talk to each other internally but also externally via API’s. If one service goes down then it’s isolated to just one feature and it helps us co-ordinate our development efforts in a more scalable way. It probably slowed our development cycles down by around 5-10% but overall was definitely worth it and I don’t know how we would be running things now if we hadn’t made that decision.
Managing communication across the company must become challenging as the team grows, do you use any specific tools to manage that?
We use Hipchat rooms for instant message based company conversation (which get broken up into skill areas and ‘experience team’ rooms). We get important deploy notifications and error alerts also in Hipchat. We use Yammer for higher level company updates. Other than that we leave individual task management tools down the the experience teams themselves as every team is different, some use Trello, some use Pivitol Tracker, some use Github issues, whatever gets the job done.
Insightful stuff Przemek! Thanks for your time.