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Nickolas Downey with Nead Werx, Inc

Culture Champion

Episode #107

Culture is about knowing what motivates your team. Nickolas Downey with Nead Werx knows exactly how to incentivize his team. His focus on celebrating his great team, and encouraging new ideas has helped to make his company a sought after place to work!

Nickolas Downey

Nickolas Downey

Founder and CEO of Nead Werx, Inc

Founding Nead Werx was the intersection of my unyielding passion for engineering excellence, and my desire to work with a deliberately chosen team of professionals to build meaningful enterprise solutions.

While it can be said I’ve built software solutions, it’s more important that I’ve built solid partnerships with enterprises we have served. Our client’s success is my driving motivation, and that mantra is held by the team I work with. Combining entrepreneurial agility with structured engineering and processes has proven to be powerful.

In January 2015, Nead Werx is formally branding our flagship solution as MerchLogix. MerchLogix is delivering Retail Merchandising Solutions that address the entire merchandising process; from product selection to shelf placement, all while reducing overhead and driving increased revenue.

MerchLogix – The new standard for well-engineered retail merchandising

His Company

His Company

Nead Werx, Inc is a full-service custom software development firm. From concept development to specification, to design and integration, to testing and documentation – we offer a full suite of software services tailored to your specific need. At Nead Werx we focus on efficiency, reliability and maintainability; many the systems we have delivered are still in operation more than a decade later. Nead Werx specializes in database driven web applications that integrate natively with your existing infrastructure and business processes. Founded in 1999 Nead Werx serves more than 50 clients in 3 countries.

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Full Transcript

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Epic Company Culture Podcast, where your host Josh Sweeney will give you, the business leaders, HR professionals and company culture aficionados the knowledge you need to take your company culture to the next level.

Josh Sweeney: Hello, and welcome to the Epic Company Culture Podcast. Before I get started, I would like to thank Prototype Prime for this amazing podcast space. For you, our fellow culturist, today we have a culture champions episode. We’re joined here by Nick Downey. Nick Downey?

Introducing Nick Downey

Nick Downey: Nice to be with you, Josh.

Josh Sweeney: Thanks for joining us.

Nick Downey: My pleasure.

Josh Sweeney: So, Nick Downey is with [Nead Werks 00:00:39]. Tell us a little bit about yourself and Need Works.

Nick Downey: Sure. So I am a Georgia Tech grad, computer engineer and I build … One of the things that’s interesting about being on this program is part of the reason why I decided to actually hire employees is because I wanted to create culture. I wanted to have the place where I wanted to go to work. And so, in kind of reviewing what we were going to talk about today, you’ve teed it up perfectly for me.

Collection of Engineers

We are a collection of engineers. The company is very much by, for engineers and we build software for retailers. And one of the things that I like is that we are in direct control of every decision we make. So, I’m the founder. I’m the sole stock owner. I don’t have any investors. I don’t have any shareholders. So, if I decide that we’re going to do something from a culture perspective, that’s it. We do it. I’m not accountable for that.

It’s really one of the very best parts of my job to be candid with you.

Some People Like Going into the Office

Josh Sweeney: Yeah. I love hearing that you wanted to build a culture. There’s so many people looking to work from home or have these big distributed teams or whatever it might be. I myself have always found like, I really like going into an office, and being around my team, and building that culture. I get energy from it.

Nick Downey: Sure.

Josh Sweeney: In certain aspects.

Nick Downey: Yeah.

Josh Sweeney: So, you know, tell us how that works for you.

Georgia Tech Co-Op Employer

Nick Downey: It’s interesting that you bring that up because one of my … So, we were the Georgia Tech Co-Op Employer of the Year for 2012 and 2017, and that’s where I get my talent pipeline from. We take these young people who know nothing. We’ll take them as green as we can get them, and not only teaching them how to build software, we teach them how to participate in an organization.

One of the requests we get from a lot of folks is, “Hey, I’d really like to work from home.” My guidance on that is two-fold.

Number one, be careful because when you work from home, home is no longer home. Home is now home and work, right?

Number two, unless you are truly an introvert, you are going to suffer.

Home Work is not for Everyone

So, one of my very best co-ops left me a year ago to go start his own thing. He was working from home for a while, and at month six, he had pretty much a nervous breakdown. His life started to fall apart and his marriage suffered as a result of it. It’s better now, but what he realized is that he needed to go to an office everyday. As much as he thought he was an introvert, that social interaction, that participating as part of a group was really core to his foundational happiness. It was really rewarding for him. We had lunch a couple weeks ago and he was like, “Man, I didn’t know how bad I needed it. So, thank you for that.”

So, one of the stories that I like to tell is that Adam and Eve screwed it up for all of us. If you read that last passage of Exodus, it’s, “You will work every day for the rest of your life.” But there’s no sentence in there that says it has to suck, right?

Josh Sweeney: Right.

Control the Work Environment

Nick Downey: So, how does it not suck? You control the work environment. People often say to me, “When are you going to sell your company?” I say, “You have to understand that my company is my happiness.” The people that I work with, and the way that we do our jobs, I’m jazzed to get up and go do in the morning, right? The fact that we make money at it is a by product of our quality of work.

It’s one of, I don’t know that I ever want to sell my company because I’m going to lose this core group of people. It’s one of thinking about the future. It’s how do I rebuild community again? How do I rebuild that culture? If I was ever in a position where Uncle Jeff came and stroked me a check for $200 million. Okay. Maybe we’ll try this again. But it’s building the company has been less a financial intention than a culture intention.

The Differentiators

In my mind, it’s one of my key differentiators. When I’m competing with Google, and Amazon, and Facebook for talent, I can come to these young people and say, “Look, man. I’ve got an organization where I pay 100% of health, dental, medical, and vision for you and your family. You’ll never see that hit your paycheck. I have an open office format, unless you want an office with a door, which you can have. You’re going to get an Aeron chair and a standup desk, and you get to pick out your own machine. I just give you a budget. You go buy your own computer, right?”

Weekly Standing Meeting

And then, we have a standing weekly meeting called the Engineering Roundtable where all the engineers are invited to come and sit. You tell us what you love, hate, or want to change differently about how you do your work. We as executives realize that to retain millennials, they’ve got to have a voice in what’s going on. Typically, if they say, “We want to make this little change to the process” we say, “Okay. Let’s give it a shot.”

So, to have that direct input in how you do your work and who you’re working with makes it not suck. So, I don’t feel like I suffer a lot of burnout at my company. It’s my happiness to be able to provide that ideal work environment. You know, we’ve all got to eat, so we’ve got to show up and do something. Let’s make it fun, right? Or at least not suck.

Get Up and Go Build

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. I’m going to go back to your earlier statement because it was spoken as a true entrepreneur. You want to get up every day and go build.

Nick Downey: That’s right.

Josh Sweeney: That’s really the fun part. The money and everything else will come. But if you have an environment where you can build and have fulfillment and have an amazing place to work and amazing people around you, that’s really why you wake up and go in everyday.

The Culture to Replicate

Nick Downey: That’s exactly right. So, like the very first company that I remember having a culture that I want to replicate was a startup that I did at Georgia Tech with my now VP of Engineering, my now Senior Systems Administrator. These are guys that … What I loved about it was we could show up every morning, and at eight o’clock in the morning while we’re eating the company-bought Chick-fil-A, somebody could say, “What if?” Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”

With that kind of brain power and that kind of desire to do in a room, you could have a prototype by 7:00 p.m. in the afternoon. It might not be customer ready. It might not be going for a sales demo. But you could answer the what if question.

Being a Builder

Now that I’ve got 35 Georgia Tech engineers at my disposal, I have to be careful about getting up at a staff meeting and saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” Because all of a sudden, people are logging overtime to go build this thing for the boss. It’s one of … I am internally a builder. 

Mom and Dad started me on a Lego. I got into software when I was 10 years old. I really like to build. I have a big shop full of tools. I like to work with metal and wood. Building is kind of core to who I am. So, I surround myself with other people who, number one, their pride is tied up in solving problems. Right? They’re solving the problem because they want the intellectual reward of solving it. Not because they’re getting a paycheck. Number two, they love to point to something and say, “I built that.”

Culture of Builders

When you have a big collection of those people in a room that operate that way, life just feels a lot better, right? It’s one of, “Of course we can do that.” The possibilities are whatever we have the time and money to do. I just can’t think of anything I would rather have as a way of life.

Josh Sweeney: So, what I’m hearing is in your current company, Nead Werks, you have this culture of builders. That people want that intellectual stimulation to go out and do the what if and figure it out. Now, I also noticed you’re an investor in a couple of different companies.

Nick Downey: That’s true. Yep.

Investing

Josh Sweeney: How does investing kind of … How does that mix with your culture of builders? Like, are you looking to invest in other companies that have a culture of builders? Do you kind of impart some of that on? What is the culture of the companies that you want to invest in?

The Founders Passion

Nick Downey: Great question. So, when I look for a company that I’m going to invest in, the very first thing that I’m looking at is the founder. Where is that founder’s passion? Right? I don’t necessarily care about the business model. I don’t necessarily care about the potential market or the potential ROI. A lot of people took a risk on me when I was a small company.

So, I feel a little bit of a moral obligation to pay that forward. So, when I meet a founder who is himself an engineer or who knows his market and his customers flawlessly, I like to take a risk. Right? Typically, for the sake of transparency, I typically invest in angel rounds. Typically, no more than 25 to start, right? And then we’ll see where they go with that.

Validating the Code

But it’s one where there’s a number of institutional investors in town that come to me and say, “Hey. Would you go and check out this company?” Because I sit with the founders and I’m like, “Let’s see the source code. Let’s see the process. Let’s see how you’re actually putting this together.” I don’t care about what’s on your Power Point deck. I want to see where your stuff is checked in. I want to see your build processes. I want to see about your architecture diagrams. Show me your schema, right?

Josh Sweeney: Right.

Money is the Side Product

Nick Downey: They’re like, “Are you for real?” I’m like, “Money is a side product. I’m a builder. Show me how you’re building.” If the team has a group of builders that are very intentional and that are receptive to my feedback on, “Hey, you might want to think about providing a white label opportunity for this.” Or, “Here are some compliance risks for your industry that you haven’t thought of.” Or, “Here’s some alternatives to how you might think about your billing modules because you don’t know how your customers are going to pay for it yet.”

More Interest in the Build

When the team says, “That’s awesome. Give us a couple of weeks and then come back and check us out again.” Then, I’m usually in a position to stroke them a check. Right? It’s one of, “Please don’t think of me as just a guy in a jacket who’s got cash. I am more interested in helping you build something, whether it’s a product, or a company, or a process that’s going to have value for your customers.” So, that’s what I look for in companies is that receptivity to, “Let’s do this by intention and let’s do this because we want to actually solve problems, not because we’re trying to extract dollars from somebody.”

Investing from Your Lens

Josh Sweeney: Yeah. It’s great to hear that your perception on investing and that you look down into those deep items. Because I talk with a lot of investors and it all seems to … They seem to all look at it from whichever lens they come from, right? If you’re formerly a CFO and now you’re an investor, you look all at the financials. Or if you’re a builder, you look at the builder side. You know, there’s a lot of different aspects around picking and choosing which ideology or which lens you want to look at things through in order to invest.

Building from the CFO Perspective

Nick Downey: One of the benefits for me having grown my company from nothing is that I have a lot of that CFO perspective, right? It’s one of, “Okay, now that I have faith that the build is going correctly, CEO and VP of Finance, let’s sit down and talk about the revenue model, right?” So, now that we know how it’s built, maybe we can actually back into the cost model. AWS if your Google Cloud of fixed cost. Your developers have fixed cost. Maybe you’ve projected support. Maybe you haven’t. Right? So, let’s start with the actual cost model. Now, let’s talk about what your customers are willing to pay. We’re going to take the Xerox model, right? What are they willing to pay? Okay. Now, we’ll line those two up. Is there margin there? Yes or no? If no, well, maybe we need to think about this differently.

Strategic Acquisition

Maybe we’re not going to be direct sales. Maybe we’re going to find partners. Maybe we’re going to build this specifically for a strategic acquisition. We know we’re going to lose money, but that’s how we’re going to present it. We’re going to say, “Hey, dear big company, you can’t build this ’cause you don’t have the right culture internally to get it done. We can. We can’t make money on it ’cause we don’t have your relationships and we don’t have your distribution network, but maybe you would just like to acquire us? Oh, by the way, we’ve already built it to comply with all of your internal specifications. We already know some of your guys from LinkedIn. They already think we’re cool.” You know?

Josh Sweeney: Right, right.

Manage by the Cash Flows

Nick Downey: I do. You know, my executive team will tell you that I manage my business by the cash flows. So, the P and L is for the tax man, right? That’s his thing. That’s just what I owe him. When I’m evaluating my own company or any company that I’m going to invest in, I want to see what’s the trailing AR? What’s older than 30 days, right? How much money do you have in the bank? Do you have payroll forecasted for the rest of the year? As long as that ending cash balance on December 31st is black and not red, we’re okay. We can keep playing, right?

Josh Sweeney: Right.

Tools are King

Nick Downey: So, I do bring a little bit of a CFO mentality, but again, one of the things that I internalized early, both in startup land and then in corporate America was that for builders in a builder’s culture, tools are king. Right? So, for example, we have a big virtualized database server in the office. It’s three years old. One of the back planes started to fail in it last week, right? So, my systems team came to me and said, “Hey, we can kind of do this stop gap for $200 bucks or we can do this sort of upgrade for like $1,100, or we can just swap the whole thing out for three grand.” And I was like, “Here’s your $3,000. Go get it done.” Right?

Approving the Budget

That whole conversation took an hour. So, from the time that they realized the problem to the time that I approved the budget. That doesn’t happen in big companies, right? That’s got to go through multiple layers. But I understand that if I’ve got 35 developers who each have their own private instance of a database running and it’s not performing or it’s not up, then I’m paying them all to sit there and twiddle their thumbs, right? So, I try to temper this, “We’re in business to make money” with the reality of, “What is the impact of that spend on an ongoing basis?”

Focus on Relationships

I’m sure that a lot of my peers would make fun of me. They’d look at my P and L and be like, “Dude, you’re a dumb ass.” One of the lessons that I learned very, very early from my father is that with the exception of relationships, and experiences, the IRS can take everything away from you. Everything. Right? There’s no material stuff, there is no bank account that can’t be seized or frozen or gone. So, when I think about my employees and the culture that I want to build, I am focused on the relationships. It’s one of, on your first day, you sit down with me and I kind of give you the lay of the land. One of my little soap boxes is, “When it’s time for you to leave, please come and have a conversation with me and I will write your letter of recommendation. Right? Wherever you’re going for whatever reason.” If I can’t fix the problem … You know?

The Greener Grass

With young people, one of the lessons is there is always greener grass. Right? And when you go across the road and you find that greener grass and you turn around, you’ll see that my grass is actually greener, and I’m going to save you a chair, man. If you made the wrong decision, that’s totally fine. Really, the caliber of people that I’m hiring, they’re going to go on to become COO of Apple or VP of Technology for Facebook, right? It’s one, I want them to call me and say, “Dude, I got this thing.” Whether it’s culture, technology, money. “How would you approach it?”

Swag for the Party

I’ll be like, “Well, if you want to fly me out to San Diego for a couple days, I’ll be happy to sit with you in your cool glass office and we can brainstorm how to fix it.” And those relationships continue today. So, we put together some swag for the holiday party. It was really cool. I intentionally ordered 20 extra and sent them to all of the former people that I still have strong relationships with. I was like, “Hey, still thinking about you. You had a hand in building this. I hope you’re doing well.” Every one of them called me personally to say, “Thank you so much for this.” You know, we had a little 15, 20 minute chat about what’s going on in your world and is your grass still green? That has really, really served me well in my business relationships for the future.

It’s the People

So, you know, it’s one of if you look at the company on the P and L basis, we turn a minuscule profit because I give almost every dime of it to the employees in profit sharing at the end of the year. Why? Because again, that’s my happiness. It’s the people. You know, if I’m being realistic, I cannot tell you how happy I am that Amazon did not come to Atlanta. Absolutely made by day because my job in both attracting and retaining employees would have become an order of magnitude more difficult. Right? Even if their culture doesn’t hold a candle to mine, there’s still that sex appeal, that status that, “Man, I work for Amazon. Mom and Dad know who Amazon is.” Nobody knows who Need Works is, right?

As much as my title is CEO, I do fancy myself chief culture officer. Again, it is of, by, and for engineers, and I do everything I can to keep it focused on that in a way that makes sense.

Having the Right Tools

Josh Sweeney: So, it sounds to me your culture now, very tech oriented. Make sure people have the tools. They’re motivated because they have the right tools because they are engineering-minded.

Nick Downey: That’s right.

Josh Sweeney: We’ve talked about that a lot on this show because I have the same mindset around giving people the right tools. That’s what motivates them, at least in the engineering business.

Nick Downey: You’ll notice when I walked into the studio, I was like, “Man, you guys got some nice toys in here.” It looks like your folks have the right tools to do their job, right?

Josh Sweeney: They definitely do. That’s why we invite them in.

Nick Downey: Yeah.

Relationship-Driven Culture

Josh Sweeney: Yeah. These are great. And then, you mentioned a very relationship-driven culture. So, if we go back before Need Works though, maybe somewhere else you worked in the past …

Nick Downey: Sure. Sure.

Josh Sweeney: What is an amazing culture that you experienced that maybe put you on this path to where you are now? What did you experience at another company that you just absolutely loved and had to replicate?

Most Amazing Culture Experienced

Nick Downey: Yeah. I’ve got to go back to the startup that we did, it was called Together Web. So, we were funded by the Atlanta technology angels. A couple of really kind of visionary guys in the past. They just let us do it. So, a lot of the things that we instituted at that company were really 20 years ahead of their time. So, our desks were cheap, worn doors on file cabinets that we got from the Georgia State surplus place, right? And it was a totally open office because we couldn’t afford cubes. So, when we got sales guys, we actually went and bought a couple of cubes and stuck them in the corner because they’re on their phone all day long. Right.

First to Scrum

And it was one of … We had a daily scrum meetings before scrum was a thing. We didn’t even know that that was kind of a concept and it was, I don’t want to say, Lord of the flies, but if your idea was better than the CTOs, then we gave it a shot. And we provided food and drinks and flex time and everybody … it was a bring your own device shop by nature because we couldn’t afford to buy computers for everybody.

It was like, if you’re going to work for us, you have to bring your own machine. Sorry. And so-

Josh Sweeney: You like working on that better, so it’s okay bring it in.

Engaging Since 1999

Nick Downey: [crosstalk 00:17:46] and we would buy you an extra monitor or a fancy mouse or something. Right. And so a lot of the ideas that you’re seeing is kind of requirements to engage millennials today were things that we were doing in 1999 because it just made the most sense to us at the time, both financially and from how we want it to work. And it was one where if a new team member came on board, almost everybody in the engineering team interviewed you. So it was you and like this panel of four propeller heads or six propeller heads going, “What’s your favorite operating system?”

Josh Sweeney: And why?

The Inspiration to Leave

Nick Downey: And exactly. Exactly. When I left, so that company was acquired by proficient systems. Proficient systems was later acquired by live person. When I was at that company, I eventually worked into director of client services. So I knew each of our customers intimately, when our investors said, “Hey, I want our money back, we want our money back.” We got a bidding war between our customers for who would buy us out. And ultimately I went to work for the second largest customer coming straight out of tech. They bought a perpetual license to the software because they had already integrated it into their product and I don’t want to name names, but that company was the place that inspired me to leave.

Moving on Up

They hired me on as a senior product architect. Within two weeks I was director of engineering. Two years later they were recruiting me to be the CTO and it’s a publicly traded company. I had said to my boss, VP of product at the time was like, “Look dude, I’m out. This is no good.” And so the CEO called me personally and said, “What do I have to do to keep you?” I said, “You’re going to make me CTO and be in charge of these technology decisions.” And he said, “Cool, why don’t you come down to Sarasota and spent two weeks with me and the executives, come check it out and and then see what you think.”

Evaluating the Position

So I came down, I was there Sunday night, on Monday morning, I was at his staff meeting. He was, “Hey, this is Nick Downey. He is evaluating the position of chief technology officer and this is all of his executive vice presidents” and they’re all twice my age, right? These are gray hairs, grizzled ancients and he was like, “He has full access. Anything he asks, anything he wants to know, you know, he’s not necessarily gonna be making any decisions in the next two weeks, but pretend like Nick is.” And so I watched, so each one of these EVPs had their own P and L, so is it like eight or nine different business units rolled up under one company and they were each responsible for their own product line and their own sales and they would actively sabotage each other.

Sabotage

So a sales guy would come in and say, “I have a deal that spans business unit A and C, I need you to play nice together.” And the VP of business, unit C would sabotage the deal just to stick it on an emotional psychological basis to the EVP of business unit A. I can remember sitting with Patrick, I was like, “Why did you do that?” And he was like, “Because I hate Bob.” I was like, “But we’re all one ticker symbol man.” And he was like, “Yeah, I don’t know want any stock, I don’t care. I get bonused out of my P and L.” And I’m like, “But you would’ve seen a bump from that.” And he was like, “Yeah, it would only be a thousand bucks for me personally. I don’t care.”

I’m Out

That happened to three or four times. It was kindergarten, right? And these are 50, 60 year old MBA, seasoned executives who’ve been there, done that. And I remember, I’m a bit of a spiritual guy. I remember at the end of the two weeks I prayed about it. I was like, “Lord, what does my future look like if I stay here?” And the answer was pitch black. It was just staring into the abyss. And so I went back in to Cameron’s office on Friday afternoon and was like, “Dude, I can’t do it. I’m sorry I’m out.” And I literally resigned that day. I did my last two weeks and that was when I doubled down and said I’m going to build my own.

Everybody Cares

What I’m going to build is what I had in startup land where everybody cares. Everybody wants to build, everybody wants to be here. We all get it. They were the same team. And this, this notion of political infighting or business units, I like to joke that politics at my company does not exist. It’s because I stamp it out, right? It’s one of the minute I hear that there’s a gossip queen or some kind of internal struggle, the job of the CEO is to have awkward conversations with difficult people and I will do it every day.”

Talk it Through

Like I know you two got beef with each other and I’m just going to lock the door until we can talk it through. And if we can’t all get along then somebody’s going to leave. So if y’all don’t want to quit or you don’t want to be fired, then let’s work through this. And if HR has got to be in the room and HR is in the room and the joke is sort your trouble out yourself because otherwise we’ll take it to daddy and daddy will fix it. And that’s not a title I’m used to yet. I have a four year old but I’m still getting used to. That was really the genesis for why I decided to really take the risk on having payroll on my own is because … and even in my role as director of client services, even in engaging with sales teams at other companies, I never saw a culture of collaboration of wanting to be there.

Benchmarked by our Budgets

There’s always a, “We’re going gonna have to go talk to Susan down the hall and Susan is not going to.” Well that’s no fun, right? Or you know, finance is never going to sign off on that because it’s more than 3000 bucks. Like really it’s $3,000. Like really, like you’re a $50 million dollar company. Yeah. Well we’re all benchmarked by our budgets and like this sucks who wants to do this? Nobody. So if nothing else, I hope that I am breeding a whole new generation of leaders that will take this culture, this ethos forward into whatever organizations they build and do in the future. It’s one of, there are more important things to life than profit and I think that any good leader is going to be flexible on the measures that he imposes on or herself for how they benchmark their organization.

Worst Culture Experience

Josh Sweeney: Yeah. So just to recap one takeaway cause it’s one of our questions, which is the kind of the worst culture experience you had. And so yeah, you’re worst culture experiences, one where executives are actively sabotaging each other. Yeah. At the EVP level, right? It’s not in fighting in a department where somebody’s going to win a deal, but they’re fresh-

Adults being Children

Nick Downey: Right. It’s not like two competing sales guys. It wasn’t that EVPC had an economic incentive to defeat EVPA. He just personally had an extra grind and the company and the product and the customers suffered. And that was just beyond the Pale to me. I remember going back to my hotel room and I couldn’t even speak. I was like, “Is this really how people conduct themselves in Corporate America? Is this really what it’s like at the top?”

Because as young people coming into the workforce, we have this perception that these MBAs and these seasoned veterans have these strong leadership skills and they have this strong, we’re going to play nice and we’re all committed to the. And you find out that that’s not the case, that they’re their children.

Kindergarten Analogy

I literally, my analogy is it was kindergarten. I went and took the blue toy away from Bob because I knew it would make Bob cry. Like, really? No, no, I’m never going to play in this space again. I was like, “I’m done. I’m finished with corporate America. I’m not playing this anymore.” And another company that I worked for in the interim, we were building a web portal for customers to come and retrieve. Okay. So company collected call detail records for the school system in multiple different states. And the idea was that you could present that for billing to reconcile against what they were being charged. So we controlled and ran the actual phone systems for them. We collected up all the call detail records to compare to the bill.

Prototype a New Job

Well, we had two people in the office whose job it was to go fetch all those off the server, burn them to cd Roms and FedEx them to the customer so they can do the analysis. It was almost a full time job for those two ladies and they also had their regular jobs to do and so I came onboard and they were like, “Can you just put this on the web and the customer can come and fetch it?” And I was like, “Yeah man, give me two or three weeks.” And so sure enough, prototype worked. It was great. It was all built to exacting technology standards at the time. I did a friend of mine who was a security engineer, brute force it, he couldn’t break it. So then we went to IT and I was like, “Hey, we need port 80 opened up on this host.”

Preventing the Savings 

And he was like, “No, we’re not going to do that.” “But why not?” “Well, I just not secure.” I’m like, “No, I’ve got my 200 page audit here. This is a secure.” Well, well I was like, “How about we get to go get an SSL certificate? We’ll put it on 443.” “Well I’ll think about it.” And so we went and got the SSL cert. We put on 443. We still had our 200 page audit. “No we’re not going to do that. It’s a security risk” I’m like “I’m going to save the company $80,000 a year and I’m going to make these two lives better so that they can actually do their jobs and you’re saying no, and the only thing you’ve got is that you’re not comfortable. Right? And what can I do to make you comfortable?” “I’m going to take it up with your boss” like you do that.

Jumping Through Hoops

I remember he called me back later and he was on speaker and I was really frustrated at that point in time. It was like, “Jerry, I don’t care what you do, man. I get paid to write the software whether you run it or not, and if you don’t want the company to have the cost savings that’s on you, and it turns out my boss was in the room.” Kevin was like, “Hey, I’m sitting right here.” And I was like, “Kevin, I’m sorry.” And he was like, “Yeah, I don’t blame you, we’ll call you back.” And that was the end of the phone call. Four days later they did actually open it up. But again, it goes back to one of this dude’s five Tim was a tiny bit threatened. The notion that even though I had jumped through the hoops to meet everything that he wanted and it was going to, the customer is solid and the business is solid.

The Frustration of the Roadblock

Just to have that kind of roadblock. The frustration was more than I could bear. I was like, “Why bother? Why am I showing up if this is what it’s going to be?” And I find that, that is a common frustration for young engineers is if I’m going to build the thing, the most important thing to me other than knowing that I built it is that it’s being used and that it’s driving value. And so at least within my company, I control that. So we’re very clear about what we want built. If people have ideas for new, better, different, we’re absolutely open to that. And I try to champion anything that was built that didn’t necessarily originate in my head or the VP of engineering’s head. And that has been really, really rewarding for us because they go home and they show it off to their friends, right?

They’re like, “Dude, check out this thing that I built and the CEO sponsored it and we’re actively using it in the company.” A matter of fact, next week there’s going to be a new HR guideline that says, “This is the way you have to do the thing.” I had an impact on an organization that’s a difficult psychological device to replicate any other way.

Safe Space for Vulnerability

Josh Sweeney: Yeah. The fiefdom, the protectionism. In another fiefdoms, interesting concept that come in-

Nick Downey: I just will not tolerate it. I will not tolerate fiefdoms. It’s one of nobody is an island and your emotional attachment to a thing is not enough of a reason to not do it. And if you need to sit with me for a couple of hours and we’ll just talk through what’s making you anxious or what’s making you scared or why you feel threatened. Awkward conversations with difficult people. One of my other jobs is to provide a safe space for vulnerability. What is it that you’re feeling threatened by? And it’s one of, maybe we are moving your cheese a little bit, but I’ve got this new block of cheese for to go after.

Rate of Change

It was like, exactly. “Are you sure you still want to eat this old cheese man like marijuana?” I know it’s changes awkward for everyone. But Frank Blake’s got a great quote “if the rate of change inside the organization ever falls below the rate of change outside the organization, you’re in hot water.” And so one of the things that I try to counsel to people is that the only constant in life is change and the sooner that you can accept that and roll with it and realize that it’s not a personal reflection on you and that you might not have the ability to control it, the sooner you are going to be successful in, the sooner you’re gonna find a little bit of happiness.

Processing the Change

I do champion change management and I’m guilty of it myself. Sometimes I really don’t like it. Right? And I’m like, I’m just gonna close my door for three hours and process this change. I don’t like it, but I understand that that’s what we have to do. And I’m sure that in a week I’ll see that it was better. Maybe this afternoon I’ll see that it’s better. And unfortunately I have a wonderful group of counselors. Again, my executives are seasoned gray hairs, emotional maturity off the charts. And so they can say to me, “Hey, you’re having a young person’s responsibility.” “I am. Please feed me my own koolaid please for a minute. When I look back at my life, the accomplishments that I am most proud of is when I take people from A to B.

The Money we Saved our Customers

It’s not what we’ve built. It’s not the money we’ve earned, it’s not the money we’ve saved customers, the accolades we get. It’s when someone comes in and says, “I’m in this place and I can’t get anywhere, but here” say, “Let me show you how you can get much further.” Just to watch them grow. And again, that’s where my day to day happiness lives is providing the culture that allows people to grow, that gives them the freedom and the safety to do that.

The Satisfaction of Watching Others Grow

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, I know there’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction you get from watching others grow and having a hand in that. Right? So even I’ve done it in a business world where you see the growth for an employee, a colleague, whatever it might be, and that you were able to help. There’s a lot of fulfillment there all the way down to coaching youth sports.

Nick Downey: Right. Well, you know, you couldn’t throw or hit a baseball at the beginning of the year and now look at you, you’re on par with everybody else on the team.

Josh Sweeney: That’s an amazing experience.

Looking Back

Nick Downey: It’s so wonderful. If I had to pick like two again, I take my co-ops, let me cook your noodle for a minute. My co-ops starting this fall will have been born in 2000. So yeah, that’s the, we take them. Some of them will be as young as 17. Most of them are 18, maybe coming up on 19. Right. And it’s one of, they don’t know anything. So I can teach them what it is to show up on time. I can teach them what it is to participate in a meeting correctly. I can teach them how to speak to a customer, I can teach them a language in an email in addition to how to write code and how to check in and and and all that good stuff.

Parents Approval

And so on two occasions I have had parents come to me after the fact. So these are, these are moms and dads of my co-ops who. So if you’re an exceptional co-op that need works, we will offer you a full time job when you graduate and that’s my talent pipeline. It’s difficult for me to go out and just straight retain new grads or to get seasoned talent. If I can embed my culture into your person as you’re coming up through school, hopefully you will paste place a premium on that when you are evaluating job offers from other employers. And so it’s one of a matter of fact. I encourage all of my co-ops before they take my job offer, go get yourself job offers. This is how you present yourself to Amazon. This is how you present yourself to Facebook.

Co-Op Job Offers

If you want bring your job offers back here and I will armchair quarterback that paper with you and my only ask is that I get an opportunity to amend mine based on what I’ve seen. If I offered you 85 and Amazon offered you a buck and a quarter, maybe you do the cost of living adjustment for Seattle, maybe I come up to 90, like what can we do here? And point being is that some of them stay and some of them go. And on two separate occasions I’ve had parents come to me and say, “Thank you. You were exactly the person that my child needed in their lives at that point in time.” When you think about being a parent, you spend these 17 years shaping and molding and growing and building this person and then you send them out into the world and you have no idea who they’re going to encounter.

Formative Years

And most psychologists will tell you that our formative years are like 17 to 23. This is where our impressions of society and the world and life and ethics are really foundationally, and by 23, 24 at least for a male, you’re buttoned up at that point. And so to have a parent come back after the fact and say, “You did me a solid you, you did for me what I would have done for my child, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” that moves me to tears every time. I’m like, there’s no higher praise that I think you can have as a person than a parent to tell “You you did right by my kid for a period of time that was really important in their life.” And so, again, back to the culture piece, I try to build an environment that, that will produce amazing future leaders.

That’s, that’s what’s really important to me.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, it’s fantastic. You get that opportunity to get them on as-

Blessing of Epic Proportions

Nick Downey: Truly a blessing of epic proportions. Yeah. One of the things I love about the co-op employer of the year award at Georgia tech is that it’s not like a traditional award. So a lot of the awards in town, like small business person of the year or best places to work, you apply for those awards. You can go get an employer to nominate you and then you go fill out this long application process and at the end of the day it really feels like they’re selling a fancy dinner with an awards thing. At the co-op program at Georgia Tech, you don’t even know that they’ve opened up nominations.

Nominations from Students

The nominations only come from the students and then based on the nominate the number of nominations and the quality of them from the students than a closed body at Georgia tech decides who it’s going to be and so you literally get a phone call out of the blue says, “Hey, guess what? You won this award.” Like “What? I didn’t know I was in the running.” They were like, “That’s cool. Just come here and accept it. There’s a luncheon on this day.” I was like, “Do I have to pay to be there?” “No, of course not. Bring as many people as you want. It be nice if you’d talked to us about three or four minutes about what you do” and I’m “Okay.”

Twice I’ve gotten that phone call and it’s the most authentic award I’ve ever won because I can’t nominate myself, I don’t apply for it, I don’t have any decision making. It doesn’t cost me anything.

Josh Sweeney: And hiring people to go.

Nick Downey: There’s nothing you can do. And so-

Josh Sweeney: To come together and apply for you.

Treat People the Way They Want to be Treated

Nick Downey: And that to me is the proof of the pudding of building a culture that treats people the way they want to be treated when folks entirely of their own volition say “You deserve some recognition for this.” I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. So yeah.

Josh Sweeney: My last question for you is it’s New Year, 2019.

Nick Downey: Yeah.

Josh Sweeney: What part of your company culture are you most looking forward to enhancing?

Future Culture Initiatives for Nead Werx

Nick Downey: That’s a great question and actually I’ve been thinking about that one for a couple of days now. One of the … we’re in a really fortunate position from the business perspective in that we have a lot of opportunity with a lot of customers and so one of the things that’s kind of primary importance to a lot of my millennial employees is that work life balance. And I’m cool with that. I get it right. You owe me 40 hours a week, what you do the rest of your time is your business now again, because I used to be an engineer because I get it, your salary is based on 40 hours a week and then I pay straight time for any extra time that you work.

Extra Salary is NOT Enough

So take your salary divided by 2080, the number of man hours in a year. That’s your hourly rate. If you work 60 hours in a week, you get paid for 60 hours in a week, right? If you work 80 hours in the week, you get paid for 80 hours in the week. Now, if I was a young person and I had that opportunity, you damn Skippy, I be working 80 hours a week right? I’d buy myself a tesla, pay my student loans. But surprisingly enough, a lot of them don’t, a lot of them are perfectly happy to work 40 hours a week and even though the opportunity for extra money is there, they don’t take it. Actually at the beginning of this year we had announced a new policy. We’re not only are we going to pay you for that time, but you can also accrue extra vacation time.

Extra Vacation

Almost on a parody basis up to a certain maximum mouse. So Standard vacation award at any works as 15 days paid time off. You get that on the day you start. So if you want to take three weeks vacation and then start work, you can. With this, you can accrue, I think like up to another three or four weeks vacation in the year just by logging some overtime. And just this week we’ve started buying meals both for breakfast and for dinner. So if you’re there before 8:00 we go out and cater breakfast and if you’re there after 6:30 we cater dinner. And even with all those extra perks, I’m still not getting a whole lot of folks logging over time.

Work Life Balance

I totally respect them for looking after their work life balance and I don’t want to burn them out, but kind of navigating this opportunities of business and providing the right alignment of incentives for the employees is a culture place where I’m navigating a little bit. I never want to be a video game shop where I’m saying, “This is crush week. Everybody’s got to work 80 hours a week and even I’m going to pay for. You’re going to be here on Saturday.” Hell No. That makes it suck right back to me. The interview. It’s not going to suck here. So the other thing that I’m really trying to … it’s always top of mind, but we might actually crest 50 employees this year and I try to make sure that we celebrate each individual employee publicly in some way, shape or form for whatever achievement it may be.

Celebrating Each Employee

That takes real diligence. I have to be in touch with supervisors, with managers. I have to be listening for even little things. It doesn’t have to be related to your work. It could be that you were super awesome to another employee that was in a tight spot. We have a policy whereby you can gift your vacation to somebody else if somebody else has got a life event that requires them to be away. Sometimes people have to go home and they live 30 miles away from the office and they don’t have a car. There’s lots of opportunities to celebrate contribution that are not necessarily work related, but finding those contributions, finding a safe way to celebrate them and to really let each employee know that they are individually valued is at the top of my mind.

Profit Sharing

We do profit sharing every year. One of my personal goals is so the IRS has got some limits on what I can do for profit sharing. And so in my mind, there’s this number that I’m working towards. So if I’ve got 50 employees, the maximum I can give every employee is $32,500. So that’s 50 times 32 five. I’m looking forward to the day when I can say, “Hey, this is all the money I can legally give you.”

Josh Sweeney: Merry Christmas. Love it.

Culture Opportunities

Nick Downey: Yeah. Other than that, just keeping my eyes and ears open for any culture opportunities that come up. Again, we regularly solicit feedback from employees. We have an open door policy with all the executives, whoever you feel safe with. And really as I continue to grow and continue to have to compete with the folks, making sure that my culture is solid is absolutely top of mind for me. My title is CEO, but I do fancy myself chief culture officer because that’s why I built it.

In Closing

Josh Sweeney: Well, that was a lot of great information. I really appreciate you joining us today.

Nick Downey: It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you very much.

Josh Sweeney: Thank you. You’re welcome.

This has been the epic company Culture podcast and this is our culture champions series. With Nick Downey, you heard it, go out and find ways to give your employees as much money as legally possible.

Right?

Nick Downey: Amen.

Subscribe

Josh Sweeney: If you have any questions about this episode, you can comment on YouTube or find us on SoundCloud, stitcher, and iTunes. We’d love to get a five star ranking from you if you enjoy the content and have a great day. Thank you.

Speaker 1: Thank you for tuning in to today’s episode of the epic company Culture podcast with Josh Sweeney. If you enjoy this content, please subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud, or stitcher. For additional content and transcripts, visit epicculture.co. If you have questions or topics you would like us to address or expand on, tweet us @epicculture1 or email us @podcastatepicculture.co.

 

Podcast Highlights and Resources

Quotables:

  • We’ll take them as green as we can get them, and not only teaching them how to build software, we teach them how to participate in an organization. 
  • We as executives realize that to retain millennials, they’ve got to have a voice in what’s going on. 
  • With that kind of brain power and that kind of desire to do in a room, you could have a prototype by 7:00 p.m. in the afternoon. 
  • I am more interested in helping you build something, whether it’s a product, or a company, or a process that’s going to have value for your customers. 
  • When I think about my employees and the culture that I want to build, I am focused on the relationships.
  •   I intentionally ordered 20 extra and sent them to all of the former people that I still have strong relationships with. I was like, “Hey, still thinking about you. You had a hand in building this. I hope you’re doing well.” 
  • If people have ideas for new, better, different, we’re absolutely open to that. 
  • If the rate of change inside the organization ever falls below the rate of change outside the organization, you’re in hot water.

GA Tech Co-Op

Whether you are a student seeking the best in relevant education or whether you are an employer seeking well-educated, student talent, the co-op program can help you meet your long-term goals for work-integrated learning through a committed partnership.

For over 100 years, both students at Georgia Tech and employers from business, industry, and government have formed co-op partnerships to help develop the best-educated engineers, scientists, and managers. Co-op is the link between the classroom and the workplace. Knowledge is gained and transferred between students and employers in alternating semesters of school and work, typically with the same employer.

Multiple semesters are required because real learning takes time, commitment, and patience. Co-op at Georgia Tech is an optional, five-year program.

Lego

It is the LEGO® philosophy that ‘good quality play’ enriches a child’s life – and lays the foundation for later adult life. We believe that play is a key element in children’s growth and development and stimulates the imagination and the emergence of ideas and creative expression. All LEGO products are based
on this underlying philosophy of learning and development through play.

Only the best is good enough
True to its motto ‘Only the best is good enough’, the LEGO Group has been emphasising the importance of high quality since 1932, where the founder Ole Kirk Kristiansen began
making wooden toys. High quality and safe products have remained the focal point for the LEGO Group throughout the years – and it still is. LEGO products are tested rigorously to live up to the strictest safety and quality standards
as well as our own high expectations. This approach has made children and adults return to LEGO products time and again.

Systematic creativity
LEGO bricks are all part of the LEGO system, which essentially means that they can easily be combined in innumerable ways – and just as easily be dismantled. The more LEGO
bricks you have, the more fertile your creativity can become. The combination of a structured system, logic and unlimited creativity encourages the child to learn through play in a
wholly unique LEGO fashion. 

A positive impact
The LEGO Group wants to leave a positive impact – be it in respect to the Group’s stakeholders or the wider community.
The LEGO Group is committed to caring for the environment and the society that children will inherit, and to inspiring and developing the builders of tomorrow.

Prototype Prime

Prototype Prime is a 501(c)3 non-profit incubator focused on early stage software and hardware technology startups. Our mission is to provide startup companies with the support they need to launch & scale.

Funded by the City of Peachtree Corners Prototype Prime is a regional affiliate of the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) at Georgia Tech, and is located just 30 minutes north of Atlanta.

Our suburban location within a 500-acre commercial office park, adjacent to a custom- built intelligent mobility test and demonstration track, is the ideal place to envision what smart cities of the future will look like.