No, you’re not in the wrong place. You have not reflexively clicked on Buzzfeed. This is still Workerbee Free and I promise that the picture of a puppy featured below is absolutely relevant to this week’s essay. Trust me.
Last Friday I went up to Liverpool with my in-laws to help them choose a rough collie puppy to join their family. It was a burdensome task but, with gritted teeth, I somehow managed to get through a whole afternoon of rolling around on the floor with seven puppies, who were all only 5 and a half weeks old. Surely this is the best thing I’ve done with my free weekdays since I left my job?
We have actually been debating whether to get a puppy for ourselves, which is something Dan has always wanted and which I have only more recently come around to. If there were any lingering doubts in my mind they were summarily extinguished upon sight of those little bundles of fur.
I spent the rest of the week calling breeders as we began our own puppy hunt. In one case I found via a blog post announcing that the mating had taken place that morning. I had previously teased my mother-in-law for cooing over uterine scans of her potential puppies and here I was getting in on the game moments after the act had been completed. The blog even included some pictures of the parents-to-be “flirting”.
Having a dog makes much more sense now that I am working from home. It seemed a little cruel to all involved to get a dog while we were both working non-stop in the City, not least because my mum has a bit of a phobia and has categorically said she would not step in to look after it, even in an emergency. Now that I am at home, I’ll be there most of the time to hang out with the little guy, but also it will be there to keep me company.
It’s certainly one of the perks of being free — that I can make this kind of decision about my working environment — but it’s not exclusively a free workerbee benefit. My friend works at a solicitors firm where one of the partners brings his puppy to work with him. I think I would have been able to put up with a lot more crap at the various law firms I have worked at if there had been more pets hanging around.
My work buddy Gillian posted this picture on Instagram of a student who brought a dog in to one of the classes she was teaching at General Assembly.
firsttimeleader / Instagram
Now there are some progressive big companies that have pet-friendly policies but these are generally the exception. When does that happen? When does a company get so big that something that raises people’s morale, makes people happy, and is generally pretty harmless, becomes a health and safety issue, a professionalism issue, a disruption? When does the company become bigger than the culture of the individual people within it?
Whenever I think about the nature of the corporate entity I am reminded of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The story is a powerful indictment of the insatiable greed of the capitalist system. The book is set in the Great Depression, when drought and over-farming of land resulted in the formation of what was known as the “Dust Bowl” and thousands of impoverished families were driven from their farms in rural America in search of work. It is a compelling social commentary on the decimation of the simpler way of life that dominated much of middle America in the decades preceding the crash. The story follows a poor family of tenant farmers – the Joads – who are kicked off the land their ancestors settled during the land grabs and head off to California in search of fruit picking work. They believe what awaits them is a Garden of Eden. They are sorely disappointed.
In one scene the tenant farmers are asking their landlords whether they can stay on the land where they were raised, that perhaps next year the drought will lift and they will be able to grow and pick cotton again. The owner says:
“We can’t depend on it. The bank – the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”
So the tenants are forced to move off the land because the owners need to pay the bank. The dialogue continues as the owners say:
“We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.”
“Yes, but the bank is only made of men.”
“No, you’re wrong there — quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
Later, when the hired farm hands come to run the tenants off the land the tenants want revenge; they don’t want to go without a fight. They cry:
“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”
“I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all…”
Steinbeck was writing about the role of the banks in the Great Depression but it could just as easily apply to the Global Financial Crisis, and more broadly to how many corporations operate in our society today. It can often be difficult to discern in the actions of a big company the will and desires of the individuals that make up that company.
This comes up in so many contexts, in terms of values, prioritisation, budgeting, cutting corners, project management, product development, “restructuring”. Sometimes it is corporate governance, which is there to protect investors and other stakeholders. Sometimes management can hide behind their corporate duty of care and satisfy themselves that they are doing the right thing even if in their hearts they know they are not.
I have never personally had to consider this, but now I’m out on my own I set the culture, I decide how I do business. And the funny thing is that, even though it’s just me, only one little human being doing my own little thing, I sometimes catch myself forgetting I am a person and pretending to be a company, governed by all those powers bigger than me.
Take my email signature. This is what it used to be:
Check out my old email signature
Look at how corporate and official-sounding it is! I was an “Associate”! I had a title!
Then almost one of the first things I did after starting the blog was get a fancy new email signature for my personal email:
It felt lame to make my own one, but also kind of comforting.
Clearly I was reading too many of those start-a-business books that tell you to “fake it ’til you make it” and try to appear bigger and more impressive than you are.
I also have this problem when signing up to events or conferences now. When they ask what organisation I work for I sometimes find myself putting “Workerbee Free” (they have no way of knowing that it’s just a blog) and when they ask for my position in the organisation I say “Founder”. [Incidentally, one of my friends — and the happiest man I know — lists his occupation as “Gentleman”. Genius.]
I have also noticed this posturing in the way I have set up the blog itself. I have been struggling with the wording of the little “About me” bio on the sidebar to the right of the posts. It’s the first thing people see so I wanted it to be good. All the blogging advice out there emphasises that your copy has to be enticing, intriguing, catchy, and unambiguous to the point of stating the obvious. No one says be honest; be yourself.
So, swallowing all this advice wholesale I finally came up with:
Old version of “About me”
This was the 30th iteration or so, and I still wasn’t happy with it. The first bit is ok, I think, and I tried to be conversational and welcoming with the picture and the title. But the rest? “This is a real lifestyle blog about creating your own career and having fun along the way…”? This sounds dreadful. It sounds like sterile, stilted and vacuous. And it is an incontrovertible truth that anything that has to say it is fun invariably isn’t. It sounds like it was written by a robot.
This all dawned on me last week when I received an email from the guys over at Crowdwish. Crowdwish is an amazing startup and embodies all the values that I have been distilling and working out over the last few months. Simply put, it is an app that makes wishes come true every day. This I had to check out.
Turns out they use the power of the crowd to negotiate the fulfillment of the most popular wish voted by the users, every single day. This was an eye-opener for me. Here was a company that was built on passion and love. They want to make the world a better, happier place and they have made that the central mission of their company, not only in it’s “culture” but also in the actual product and customer experience.
I was intrigued as to whether they were planning on making any money with this idea, so I sent them an email to ask them. Miraculously, I got a response, and not just a one-liner. They said that they have plenty of ideas about how to generate revenue, in the fullness of time. But right now they are “just focussed on [their] users and trying to do something cool for them every day”. Nice. Finally, a company that is not trying to suck its customers dry.
But even more important than the actual response was the way it was delivered. Not an official statement, not a link to a press release. I got an email, from a real person. A full and detailed response. Like a human being. I was so preoccupied with the nature of the email that , of course, in an equally human way, I promptly forgot to respond to it even though I was thinking about it all week (sorry guys! I’ll get to it soon!).
This interaction made me rethink how I present myself online. I don’t have to conform to any norms (the internet is new, there aren’t many norms), I don’t have to please my bosses (I have none), and I can hardly make less money than I am now so there’s not much to lose. It confirmed to me that I want to do business in a way that feels right — and human — to me. I don’t want to pretend like I have thousands of readers on my blog. I don’t, at least not yet.
So I changed the bio. I wrote the truth, I wrote something that sounds like me. And I’d love to hear what you think – don’t be shy! It may seem like such a small thing, just a few words on the side of the thousands of words I write every week, but those few words are so much harder to write than the many.
Going forward, I really want to hold onto this idea, this sense of self, but I suspect it will only get harder the more wrapped up in things I get and the more established I become in this new world. So I must keep reminding myself: I am a person. I am not a brand. I am not a gimmick. I am not a company.
If you liked this post, please share it with one person you think would like it too. Thanks!
Love links, hate distractions. Now that you’re done, here are a few internet bits to put this article in context:
Gillian will be teaching her dog-friendly “Creating a Real Recruiting Effort in Your Start-up” class at General Assembly again on May 21st.
Check out Crowdwish here and start making some wishes. Thanks to The Happy Startup School newsletter for highlighting the work of this awesome company!