What Being In the Hospital With Covid-19 Taught Me About Running a Business
This has been a challenging year for businesses around the globe. Here's what fighting the virus taught me about building a company with 8 million users.
Fact: As of November 18, 2020, there were 55,326,907 confirmed cases of Covid-19 globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Also, fact: I count myself among one of those 55 million.
It goes without saying, my experience is far from unique. During week one, I had mild symptoms. During week two, my condition worsened and I checked into the hospital. Luckily, like most people who contract COVID-19, I’ve mostly recovered.
But the soul searching I did during those rough moments stayed with me. While times of uncertainty can be stressful and even scary, I find that they force us to take a step back and look at the big picture. For me, I started considering the “why” — what’s the point of my life?
While family takes the undisputed first place, my company, JotForm, is my second reason for waking up every day. I wrote the first line of code for JotForm 15 years ago, and since then, 250 employees and many evolutions later, it has become a significant part of my life.
At the hospital, sleep didn’t come easy. It gave me plenty of time to think about my company and what we’re trying to accomplish. Here’s the answer I came up with:
We’re trying to make a great product for many people.
It may be absurdly simple, but at the end of the day, I think it’s what all companies are trying to do. The real challenge comes down to how — how can we reach this seemingly simple, audacious goal?
Here, what I’ve found to be the pillars of building a great product for many people.
Related: Be Purpose Driven
1. Create a safe environment
When we talk about creating a safe work environment, the priority is ensuring your employee’s physical safety and well-being. In light of Covid-19, that means taking extra precautions (the WHO recommends frequent hand-washing or disinfection with alcohol-based hand sanitizer, physical distancing of at least 1 meter (about 3 feet) or more, wearing masks where distancing is not possible, regular cleaning and disinfection, and limiting unnecessary travel.)
Not unrelated is the need to protect your team’s psychological safety. Give this principle a short shrift and you’re heading toward a work culture that diminishes your team’s performance.
Harvard Business Review explains how the opposite of psychological safety—fear-driven workplaces—inhibit our best thinking:
“The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centers. This ‘act first, think later’ brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning.”
So, how do we cultivate psychologically safe workplaces?
According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, it’s not about being nice — it’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other. Teams with a trusting environment, where communication is open and honest, work better.
In today’s volatile economy, where many once strong businesses are struggling to regain their footing, a work environment that promotes your employees’ ability to think effectively has never been more important.
2. Build a great team
Building a great team starts with hiring. At JotForm, we’ve stayed true to our mantra of “hire slow, grow slow.” Not only has this enabled me to maintain my personal life (and my sanity), it’s also the reason why we’ve managed to build our ideal culture. For us, that means people who love what they do and work hard—without having to compromise their lives outside the office.
But hiring is only the first step. As the New York Times explains:
“Leaders have to play a far more hands-on role to make sure the group works well together and remains focused on the right priorities.”
To do so, they recommend creating a clear road map for your team. Track their progress and don’t forget to continually remind your team of their shared goal.
Also, set the tone for a culture that promotes respect between colleagues. As John Duffy, chief executive of the mobile-technology company 3Cinteractive, shared:
“We have absolutely clear discussions with everyone about how respect is the thing that cannot be messed with in our culture.”
Finally, don’t shy away from difficult conversations — be it tough feedback or addressing a sensitive issue, these communications are crucial for building a team that can grow together.
Invest in your people. If employees genuinely enjoy coming to work every day, it makes a huge environment.
3. Never stop improving your product
In my experience as a CEO, I’ve found that the only way to compete in an increasingly crowded field (online webforms), where tech giants like Google and Microsoft are jockeying for a piece of the pie, is to maintain hyperfocus on your product — and continually improving it.
Take our latest feature, JotForm Tables. This spreadsheet tool is the culmination of three years of work. Some companies might balk at dedicating so much time and resources to a seemingly minor feature. Maybe it’s crazy.
But we’re interested in making our users’ lives easier and if a better spreadsheet tool will do that, then it’s worth every test and every iteration.
Having a narrow focus can also prevent entrepreneurs from attempting too much, too soon. As Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried has said:
“If you can’t fit everything in within the time and budget allotted then don’t expand the time and budget. instead, pull back the scope.”
So, maintain your focus and have courage —if you think something can be improved, try.
4. Never stop improving your processes — the ‘how’
Finally, while it’s crucial to continually better your product, it’s equally important to evaluate how you work. Today’s competitive world permits no wiggle room for inefficient business processes.
One strategy we use is to encourage regular, open communication. For example, we hold weekly demo days, during which our team members can share what they’re working on and lessons they’ve learned in the past week. This way, we get in the habit of discussing both what’s going well and systems that need to be improved.
I also love this tip from Forbes Business Council: imagine doubling your output.
Explains Kyle Hermans, CEO of Be Courageous:
“That will automatically pressure test if your processes have been documented, understood and are easily transferable and repeatable to achieve scale and growth. It will also build a discipline of constant improvement.”
If you constantly consider the best way to streamline your company’s processes and procedures, you can prevent bigger problems down the line.
This has been a challenging year for businesses around the globe. If catching Covid-19 has taught me anything, it’s that I love what I do and can’t imagine my life without my business and our mission—to continue making a great product.
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