Case Study

The Trello Story: How Atlassian's Latest Acquisition Achieves Their Success

Trello is an organization that has found great success in the past few years. With over 19 million users worldwide, and companies such as Google, National Geographic and The Red Cross using the collaborative organizational tool, it’s fair to say they’re a pretty big name. And it seems they’re only getting bigger: having just been acquired by productivity software giant Atlassian, Trello has hit the headlines and changed the way they run for good.

We recently caught up with their CEO, Michael Pryor, and found out just how they’ve been achieving this success and what their practices have been until this point. He shared with us the company’s outlook when it comes to hiring great management, compensation and maintaining the best communication and company culture whilst ⅔ of the Trello team work remote.


Atlassian

After their recent acquisition by Atlassian, Trello maintains that their concept and product will remain the fun, useable service that is known and loved by its many users. Pryor maintains that the company will continue to run as a standalone service and is as committed to their original vision as they have been from the offset. Both Atlassian and Trello focus on improving the way teams work. The companies see joining together as a logical move: with their combined goal to reach 100 million monthly users, collaborating will likely help both organizations towards achieving their aims.

 

The 30/60/90: making sure it’s a fit

Trello operates on a ‘30/60/90 day’ system to make sure employees’ onboarding process is as smooth and beneficial as possible. He says they discovered that if there wasn’t a formal day for check-ins, they would often fall through the cracks and fail to happen.

After 30 days with the company, employees sit down with their manager for a review. The same after 60. The 90 day review is then done with the VP of People: Pryor describes it as a process which tries to establish whether people are a fit when it comes to organizational culture. It comes from both sides though: these meetings aren’t just the company reviewing an employee, he maintains that it’s an opportunity for both parties to evaluate and discuss whether or not they think things are a good fit.

“You know, when you just hire somebody, there is a period of ‘was this the right fit?’ Not just on our side but on their side too. So there is the component of figuring out whether they’re doing what we need them to do according to the vision that we thought this job would have, but on the other side, is the company the kind of company that they expected it to be? We’ve about doubled in headcount over the last year, so it’s something really important as you’re bringing on new people to figure out [if it’s] the right fit.”

The company’s VP suggested this 30/60/90 process, and the organization has used it ever since. Beyond this onboarding process, regular opportunities to check things are going well doesn’t end for Trello employees. They also get the opportunity for weekly 1-on-1’s with management, ensuring that a two-way ongoing feedback is ingrained into people’s working weeks. In addition to this, Pryor himself also furthers the process by holding further meetings with each team within the organization, “skipping a level” by not including the management level. He’ll meet, for example, with the sales team without their manager, helping ensure that communication is quality, ongoing and happens across the board. In addition to using tools like Slack to keep communication levels and team morale up, having these meetings where people really get to connect with higher-level management make open conversation a norm and create a comfortable working environment for everyone.

In terms of management style itself, Pryor discusses the change he’s seen as the organization transitioned from one of 20 to its current size. Going from a startup of 20, Pryor describes the concept of management in the beginning as flat: it’s not a concept that’s really seen as necessary at that point. As growth happens, however, management becomes something that’s definitely needed, and the company has to progress with that.

 

The management challenge

Pryor’s take on management says a lot about the company’s culture and how they think of their staff:

“It’s not the old school style of ‘I’ll tell you what to do’. We don’t have that problem...we have really smart people [at Trello]. They can figure out what to do if you give them the right goal.”

Having good, effective management in place possesses its own challenges though. Pryor is aware of the many challenges that come when hiring management during the company’s fast-moving periods of change. He speaks in depth about the challenge of deciding how to select people for management roles in such fast-moving times, citing the main question of whether to bring on somebody with management experience or promote someone from within the organization. Pryor explains,

“Having done software for 15 years, one of the things I have learned by making this mistake over and over again is that a really good developer doesn’t make a good manager… some people naturally have the ability and some don’t. If you try to pick the best person doing their individual contributor job and make them a manager, that might work, but there’s no indication for what they’re doing that says they’d good [at it]. Management skills are support skills; people skills. It’s about figuring out what makes someone tick, understanding their concerns and figuring out how to make them better at their job.”

He goes on to say that once you realize the difference between the skills required of management and on the job skills, you can begin to tell who will be right for the job. When people are actively motivating, supporting and gaining respect from their team members, they are likely to become effective managers.

For a tech company, though, hiring suitable management can pose even more problems. Take managing a development team: it’s often not a good idea to hire someone entirely non-technical, as often times there just won’t be the level of respect there. But then it loops back to Pryor’s earlier dilemma: just how many developers are also going to make an ideal manager?

“Management and development are two totally separate tracks, and it’s actually the case that the highest paid developers within the company make more than the managers do. There isn’t this idea that being a manager is the ultimate goal for your career as a developer. We want people that write code and enjoy writing code to be able to do that; it’s super-useful and valuable for us as a product company and so I don’t want people to think ‘I've got into this point in my career, now I have to go and be a manager.’ I want people that really enjoy managing; caring about and supporting people, to be managers.”

 

Performance reviews

This forward- thinking style also manifests itself in the way Trello tackles performance management. The company never set out using the traditional annual performance review process. Pryor shares his outlook, stating how the old-school annual method generally results in most people being “super unhappy” as the feedback is so far removed from what actually occurred. Trello have not only established a more regular feedback routine, but also have a strong set of moral practices when it comes to keeping feedback separate from compensation.

“We try to keep conversation, discussions and feedback seperate… a lot of companies don’t, but for us those are two separate things: how do you get better at your job and where you are and your experience in your role within the company...if you put those two things together then the performance review becomes about ‘did I do well enough to get paid more?’ It makes that performance so tied to compensation instead of to some intrinsic value of 'I really enjoy what I'm doing and I'm trying to do a good job.’”

A part of this ongoing feedback culture is ensuring every employee gets the time and input they deserve. The company makes sure to keep a formal process in place that means every employee gets the time they need to ensure both a smooth onboarding process, and constant development throughout their time with the company.

 

Company culture

With ⅔ of its staff working remotely, Trello doesn’t see communication as an obstacle: it’s something that’s ingrained in company culture and reflected in its practices. It’s accepted from the offset that there’s no way to hold a meeting with everyone physically present: a majority of people will probably be working remote and present via video conference. Pryor maintains the idea that this is a positive and having the majority of staff in the same position creates a sense of equality across the board; it’s not just a couple of team members feeling as if they’re missing out on something by not being physically present. He shares how the organization overcomes not all being in the same place at once:

“I think the issue with remote people is also that you don’t have a lot of serendipitous conversation happening across teams. The teams are talking all day long…they are in chat, they are in video conversations, they do 1-on-1’s; it’s all very scheduled. To do their job they have to communicate with each other; that happens, but they’re not necessarily talking to people in other teams across the company about anything, like other things that might not be job specific, and so we try to foster that.”

And foster that they are. The company has initiatives in place to make sure people are connecting on a level outside of just work-talk. They’ve put in place an optional weekly event where a program sends an email to four people across the company. Those people then meet and talk for half an hour about anything at all. The initiative is called “Coffee talk”. With so many staff remote, a space and a time can be arranged between the four team members for a coffee via video conferencing. Such initiatives are a great way to ensure team members can really connect with each other on a level outside of work. Whilst this opportunity is open to all staff, it’s especially optimized by those working remote. Pryor shares his inspiration behind these coffee dates and why taking half an hour just to chat is actually hugely beneficial for both staff members and the company itself.

“It creates camaraderie. People feel more free to talk to other people when something comes up. So, whilst communicating by chat, if there’s somebody you don’t talk to very often or don’t know very much about, there could be a high likelihood that some kind of communication is misconstrued... but if you know someone that doesn’t necessarily happen. If they’re joking, or rushed, or whatever it is, it helps a lot with that - with the ‘Oh, I know this person. I know a little bit about them, I can actually go ask them a question that I have.’ It just opens up those lines of communication that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”

Trello also ensures all it’s employees get together a minimum of once a year at a company-wide meetup. Although as the organization expands, this can become more difficult in terms of practicality, it’s still something which Pryor sees as important in the running of the company, and ensures people continue to connect on a personal level as the company expands.

 

Times are changing

As the company is expanding so rapidly, and has gone through many changes over the years as they do so, Pryor is conscious of making the right decisions.  He says they have brought in many people from outside the organization for additional knowledge and assistance.

“We get that as you grow your company, people are taking on jobs they might not have ever done before. These are new challenges they’re facing. So, regularly, we bring in people for leadership and management training.”

The company also optimizes Slack use to ensure it’s beneficial for everyone. They have a channel that’s just for management; anyone who is managing anyone across the company is in it. It’s used to share information and experience, help people learn and discuss and figure out any issues. He also highlights the importance of speaking with other companies in similar situations, and gaining knowledge from their experiences and how they deal with relevant issues.

 

Goals

Amazing company culture aside, Trello also sets great focus on setting goals that get them where they need to be. Pryor shares the company’s process when it comes to goal setting, establishing that whilst processes aren’t always formal, they keep track of progress. They work on 3 year goals, broken down into yearly then quarterly ones. Their focus is lately on tracking metrics which make sense during this growth period.

“We basically went from a company that was entirely product-driven to one that  had a real marketing and a real sales department. All these other pieces of the company started to fill in and we got to a point where product can build things, things that marketing can talk about, and in turn find people who become leads for the sales team. So, as that started to happen, we realized we could tie all these things together and come up with metrics that everyone was contributing to at a higher level.”

For Trello, it was at that point no longer just about people’s individual metrics like how many sales they made that month, but also on a company-wide level. It’s, as Pryor describes, aligning all those things  that helps you grow together.

The way they face compensation is entirely separated from these goals and metrics though. Pryor establishes that throughout the company, compensation isn’t related to performance in any way. Instead Trello uses salary curves to benchmark themselves against other positions in the market: he’s adamant that if there’s two people at the company with the same job and experience, they’re going to get paid the same amount; whatever works for the company at its current size.

“I don’t know if that works if you are a company like Google - like a bigger company, but for us at the stage we are, a lot of the upside for most of the people working there is we are all betting on the equity piece as being - that's why we are doing this, right? To build a really valuable company: everyone shares in that equity piece and that's the biggest lever that people can pull. We want to pay a fair market salary for the compensation, but we don’t try to incentivize people through dollars to do a good job.”

 

Trello really does seem to be an organization which understands its people. There’s a great emphasis on communication, organizational culture and great performance management. As the company is expanding, and with so much of the Trello team working remotely, it’s interesting to see how Pryor and his team ensure things are running smoothly and that employees are having the best possible experience at work. As the company continues to develop, and sees the much talked about collaboration with Atlassian take place, Trello is definitely one to watch this year.

 

 

Photo by Hamid Palo