Discover more from People Engineering
Why I Joined Circular
I co-founded a thing! Here's why.
This post is reproduced from Ourobouros, the Circular blog. It is personal in nature, as it concerns my new role. However, the subject matter is very much in tune with the rest of the newsletter: I talk about why Circular is the place for me to realise my People Engineering vision.
Until July 2021, I was COO at Airtasker.
I have spent the past 4–5 months since I left exploring. I have consulted, coached, written, and spent time getting to know people. It has been a wonderful and educational experience. And now, I have decided on my next act: I am joining an early-stage startup called Circular as co-founder and COO.
Circular is a startup that is bringing sustainable subscription e-commerce to the Asia-Pacific region. Our vision is to accelerate the transition to the “circular economy”: the current model of consumption and disposal is unsustainable and wasteful. We believe we can make subscription the best way to experience technology products, and that on the way we can radically extend the useful lives of devices and reduce e-waste.
The vision and purpose of Circular is certainly one reason I joined the company. But it’s not the only one. In fact, if a great purpose and vision were all it took to get me to join an early-stage startup, I would have joined one long ago.
The Startup Thing
There are many people working in our industry with a profound drive to be founders, to be entrepreneurs. Everything they do in their career is done with a clear purpose: to bring them closer to that point where they can be a successful founder, to build a globe-spanning business from the ground up.
I am not one of those people.
I have been an employee for a vast majority of my working life, and (when I stopped to think about it at all) I was happy to stay on that path. I didn’t think I had the fire in my belly to be amongst a group of people to build something from nothing.
Great founders are visionaries. A visionary is somebody with a clear and specific vision about a future they would like to bring about, and the passion and conviction to work very hard to make that vision a reality. They know where they want to go. They will endure hardship to get there. That’s at the core of being a founder.
It turns out, I am a visionary after all. I do have the fire in my belly; I was just looking in the wrong place.
I’m not a product visionary, or a market visionary. But I do have a vision: it is an organisational vision. I have a clear and specific view of the type of organisational culture and structure that I believe is most conducive to excellent performance, commercial success, and human dignity and happiness. And I will endure hardship to get there; I know this because I have not only endured it in the past but sought it out at previous organisations. At work, nothing is more important to me than making this vision a reality.
Looking back, the evidence has been hiding in plain sight, if only I’d looked for it. It was there in my actions as VP Engineering at Airtasker, and then in my transition to Chief Operating Officer. It was of course there in the fact that I write a newsletter all about organisational and leadership principles, and in my desire to coach and consult on how teams work.
When I met Nick at Circular, and started to get to know him, I realised that he was somebody I wanted to work with. He has a compelling and inspiring vision for Circular as a product and a positive agent of change, and he also has a set of organisational principles and values that mirror my own. The more we talked, the more it seemed like we could partner to build something extraordinary: a fast-growing business that serves the needs of the on-demand subscription economy, while at the same time reducing our burden on the planet. All fuelled by a singular organisational culture that prioritises excellence in execution.
While it is not quite Day Zero at Circular (Nick and the team have laid some incredible groundwork) I am excited and nervous to be joining as Co-Founder and COO. This is the place, amongst these people and this mission, that I hope to be able to fully realise my vision.
My Organisational Vision
A vision need not be original to be powerful, and mine is strongly influenced by many other great leaders and organisations. I am particularly inspired by the cultures and practices of Netflix and Amazon as articulated by their leaders, and by many aspects of Google’s culture as I experienced it in my ten years working there.
Circular is an early stage company, and we are going through a collective exercise to design our culture and values. I don’t want to preempt that. However, there are a few principles that are core to my organisational vision that I would like to share.
I begin with the principles of individual empowerment and collective responsibility. Individual empowerment means that we hand a lot of trust to every individual who works in the organisation. So many organisations don’t do this, despite charging their employees with critical roles. I believe that by treating people like adults, they are likely to act like adults. At the same time, no individual (however empowered) can achieve much without deep collaboration with their peers in the organisation. Therefore, true responsibility must rest with a team of collaborators rather than with any individual. Individual stats matter much less than what’s on the scoreboard. And the success and performance of our team is ultimately how we measure ourselves.
I am also a very strong believer in focusing on outcomes. As an organisation, what we do is less important than what we achieve. When we set goals, we focus on what problems we are trying to solve for our customers, and retain the flexibility to change the execution plan in service of solving those problems. There are a number of principles that flow from a focus on outcomes: strategy centricity, radical transparency, intelligent measurement, and a focus on learning.
To elaborate on the final one of these: it is a principle of mine that extraordinary organisations are optimised for learning. By that, I mean that their culture, processes, and incentives, value applied learning above all else. A startup is about taking a hypothesis about the world, then validating and exploiting it to build a large and defensible business. To do this, the hypothesis must be repeatedly tested and refined. Many mistakes will be made. Much new knowledge will come to light. Therefore, learning, the gaining of robust knowledge about our business and about ourselves, must be valued above nearly everything else. A culture that prioritises knowledge values data, debate, creativity, experimentation, record-keeping. A place where new things are tried and then refined (and sometimes discarded). Above all, a culture permits (and even celebrates) failure and mistakes as essential ingredients for learning and growth.
Underpinning all of this is the need to create an environment of trust and vulnerability. Many workplaces talk about encouraging people to “bring their whole selves to work”, but they often fall short. To me, bringing your whole self to work means much more than feeling safe in your identity. It means being OK with being your true self, not the “best version” of yourself — no matter your identity. It means feeling comfortable sharing your anxieties, your moods, your failures, your weaknesses, your flaws. Without this, there is not a real team, just a group of “LinkedIn Personas”. Greatness cannot be achieved without embracing our own humanity, and that of those around us.
The Circular Opportunity
With COP26 having recently taken place, a consensus has been built that for the sake of humanity, our global economy has to be completely retooled. To do so is the labour of multitudes. The part we have chosen to play is to accelerate the adoption of the circular economy, to turn consumers into custodians, to create a world where there is less waste.
Given that reducing waste is core to our mission, here’s one thing I am determined we will not waste: our opportunity. To grasp it will not be easy: it will require uncomfortable growth and sacrifice, difficult decisions, constant change, dealing with uncertainty and instability. There will no doubt be crises along the way. But I believe that with the group of people we have, with a determination to work together and keep ourselves accountable to the greater goal, we will succeed beyond any reasonable expectations.