Andrei Rebrov: Сulture is Something That Works When Your Policy Fails

Interview with the CTO & Co-founder of Scentbird about the role of culture within a remote team

15 min readFeb 18, 2020

We’ve already interviewed CTO & Co-founder of Scentbird, Andrei Rebrov for our blog, it was our first publication, and so far no other has bypassed it in the number of readings (and in our hearts ❤️).

Andrei has the experience of leaving a high level position in a prestigious company and daring to go on a startup-adventure from scratch to raise Scentbird, a startup which sells fragrances and other beauty products as a subscription, from 400 up to 300K subscribers with $24.4 million in investments.

He knows how to attract serious IT talent to a beauty project and organize the work of a remote team scattered from Belarus to Hong Kong, across time zones. But what is equally incredible is that the atmosphere of trust and friendship he was able to create inside. Just read what he told us:

“We have a tradition, before the end of the year, we have a group call within the team. And after we finish the “official” part, we just hang out together, midnight for some of them and around 6:00 a.m. for others, but people just stay, hang around, drink (yes, drinking together via Zoom), tell jokes, share different stories. For like three or four hours.
Yes, it’s not a physical hug, but it’s something that makes you feel warm.
Also, sometimes we play together.”

That’s why this time, we asked Andrei to talk about such a complicated topic as culture within a remote team.

A couple of words about myself: I used to be an engineer. I worked for different outsource companies, then I joined the Agile Consulting Company, where I was doing engineering coaching. When you teach other people how to do things right, at some point, engineers start asking you, “If you teach everyone else how to do things right, why don’t you do something by yourself?”

That gave me some ideas, maybe I should join a startup or start a startup. And, then, I joined one. A lot has happened since then: I moved from Moscow to New York City, hired a lot of great people for our team.

So what is ScentBird? Our customers call us Netflix for perfume, because of the way it works and our recommendation system. We ship perfume or other beauty products of your choice every month. We started in 2013; currently we have more than 300,000 subscribers. We have 140 employees (including 37 engineers) in the company. Most of them are remote.

We work in different time zones. That’s what I see happening once people join the remote company, they start to travel a lot and their location always changes. And one important thing I have been focusing on more and more in recent years is the culture.

First, we need to focus on what is culture, we need to answer this question. If we go to Wikipedia, we see some generic Wikipedia answers so that doesn’t help you much.

So for a long time, I heard different answers as to what culture is, and my favorite one is this one:

And it’s kind of true. You come up with the best practices ever, and that’s what I do as a CTO, I really care about our engineers’ practices. I want to make sure that we create the best product and to do this we need the best practices. But you can’t describe everything, and honestly, you shouldn’t describe everything because you’ll become a very bureaucratic company otherwise. So you need to create something that glues everyone together that exists, something like air, something that nobody sees, but helps you to live, helps you to survive.

I want to start with a very simple exercise that you might do at your workplace. It’s called a spaghetti challenge. You need spaghetti, one meter of string, sticky tape, and one marshmallow. The goal is to build the highest possible tower in 10 minutes. And this challenge runs across the globe, many different people have participated in it: lawyers, architects, engineers, everyone. And what’s interesting about it is that kids usually win. They don’t have the experience, know who is higher or lower in the hierarchy, how to listen, or how to do a lot of stuff that we as adults do.

But they have something more important that allows them to achieve a better result. And I really advise you to listen to this Ted Talk. The guys who came up with the spaghetti challenge did research. They were really curious about why kids are better in a challenge than adults. And then they described certain things that help them to be better in a group, be a more efficient group. And over time that research evolved into understanding what is culture, what makes a certain group more effective. They came up with the idea that there are three pillars of a successful culture.

The first one is the feeling of belonging.
The second one is the ability to be vulnerable and be safe at the same time.
And the third one is purpose, people should feel the purpose.

I want to focus on each of these pillars one by one.

Belonging is the ability to feel that you’re part of something big. It’s hard to practice it, especially when you’re remote. But there are several things that can help you to establish this connection between people, to create this feeling of belonging.

The most important one is to have contact. That’s why having video calls is so much better than chatting to each other through chat or especially in emails, because you see people; you see their emotions, you see their eyes and you start feeling different. What we also find very important for us as a company is doing offsite meetups. We gather together several times a year, do some kind of Hackathon, execute certain projects. But we find out that the most important thing we can do during these meetups is to let people talk to each other, let people understand who they are talking to, who is this person you usually see as an avatar.

And yes, an avatar is important. You can pick kittens, dogs, maybe Baby Yoda, but when people see this avatar, they might change their tone, the way they talk to this person and their selection of words.

The next thing that I find really helpful is the ability to talk to anyone in a company, ignoring ranks and departments. If you want to be a successful business, you shouldn’t differentiate people like “Hey, this is the marketing department, and this is the finance department”, you should bring people together because they are trying to solve the same problem.

For example, we’re trying to make our fulfillment part faster, that’s why our engineers talk to people who work in the facility on a daily basis; they know how they feel, know that something is broken. They help them to be better at their job. That’s why our engineering team works very close to the finance team, knows a lot about revenue reports. At this moment, they feel that they’re not just doing the code, not just creating some reports, they feel that they are a part of the business and that unites people.

What else should you do? You should always encourage people to ask questions. Some managers think that if no one is asking any questions, it means everyone understood what needs to be done. But it could also mean that people just don’t care or they’re afraid to ask questions because they’re afraid of looking silly. So if people ask questions, they care about what you do, about the common goal and they do want to do their best.

Speaking of managers, one important quality that I’ve been trying to achieve in the past few years is the ability to listen. To be a better listener is not just listening to words, but to understand what people are trying to say. Unfortunately, when we have a conversation through chat, you lose this sense of body language, lose this emotion.

When you see certain texts from a person, you often talk with, you can already feel this person, if he/she is angry or relaxed. Is everything fine? Is this person happy? Is this a joke or not? So learn to listen and learn to understand emotions, the meaning of the words.

Also, what helps a lot is watercooler talk and the ability to have this fun conversation, human conversation. And, as I read in one of the best engineering manager books by Camille Fournier, you have to have these PG rated chats. People should be able to express their emotions about what they feel about politics, movies, speak to each other, talk about something besides work. We spend most of our lives as adults at work, but it doesn’t mean that that’s the only part of our lives. So encourage these conversations, make sure that people feel comfortable about it.

The last part here is caring about saying, “thank you”. We always forget about these small things because it requires us to do additional typing, to think about it.

What many people feel when they have phone calls or video meetings is something like they can’t wait till it is finished and they can go eat, play with their children, get some coffee. And they miss this last good part, good finisher of the meeting. So don’t forget to say thank you. This is really helpful.

And this is a quote that I want to highlight here. Gregg Popovich is the coach of a great basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs. They had a very dramatic finals in the NBA. And he is one of the most famous coaches in the United States for his unique style of coaching people, of taking care of his team. And at some point, these guys lost their final and they were devastated. Popovich did his best: cheered them up and made sure that next year they would win. He said to the whole coaching team: “The other thing that you should do right now, hug them and hold them.” That’s what it means to be part of the family, when you don’t talk, when you just hug the person and that’s enough. If you do this, you create this feeling of belonging to the family, not just being an individual contributor.

So from belonging, let’s move to vulnerability and safety.

When I had just become a manager, it was, I believe, after two years at a startup my initial thought was “I should always be right.” As a manager, as a CTO, as a co-founder, I should always be right. And mostly because I want people to see me as a leader and manager, someone who is great.

But what I found out after a few years was people don’t care that much if you’re always right. What they care about is that you make mistakes, that you admit mistakes. It is hard to admit mistakes when you are a manager, but you need to do this, because every manager builds culture by example.

You cannot create a culture, if you, yourself, can’t become vulnerable. And first of all, you should “over-communicate” expectations, you should always communicate what you are doing.

Now weekly calls for me are an opportunity to show the whole team what is going on in the company, in different teams, and what is going on with myself, what I’m doing here, what went wrong, and what I learned from that and how it can help them.

You should be ready to be vulnerable yourself. And in my case, as an engineer, when I started out with this startup, I didn’t know many things like how to do the architecture right, what kind of frameworks to use. And over time, we collected the big legacy, big technical depth, mostly because of my code. Of course, now my engineers see that something is wrong. They can ask why this stupid technology was used. And I can be silly with this and say “That was the best option. I think this is still the best framework in the world.” But I want to be honest with my team and myself, I want to be able to say “Hey, guys, we have a situation where we need to act fast and fix something that has worked up until this moment. Yes, it wasn’t the right solution for long term, but now I have you and you have more experience, so now we can make this right.”

And when you do this, you set an example and then people are also ready to find solutions that work right now, and they know if something goes wrong, it won’t be a situation of blame.

I find it really great to speak about group goals when we want to make some decisions. For example, one of the decisions that we are working on right now is our technical roadmap for this year. Obviously I have a lot of ideas about what I want to see in our product, in our technologies stack, but the truth is I don’t use this technology on a daily basis. There are other people who will use the process that they should come up with, not that I should dictate everything like “This is the process you should use, because I like it.” So instead of a list of tasks, they should do, sometimes it’s better to ask, “What do you want to see?”. And it completely changes the way you plan things, how you do communications.

A couple of months ago, I heard the joke that some company decided to reduce the number of managers they have. So they sent all the managers to a remote island and said to them: “You should continue to do your daily job. You’ll be on this island for months, then you’ll come back and we’ll see what’s happened with your teams.”

So one month passed and there were teams that started to perform worse. There are teams that become better without a manager. And there are teams that changed not so much. Definitely, the team’s performance was highly dependent on their presence.

And after I heard this joke, I learned that actually, that is one of the practices in Japanese companies when they take over all of their management, send them on a sea cruise and then see what happens with the teams. So they understand if the manager doing a great job or not. And honestly, my job here as a CTO, as a co-founder, is to make sure that the company can exist without myself.

And there is another couple of quotes from one of my favorite books called “Creativity Inc.” It is a book about Pixar and the way they come up with their amazing cartoons and movies. One of the most important parts of this process is the brain trust.

Brain trust is the process when on a regular basis the director of the movie presents the current plot, current ideas, current sketches of the movie to everyone in the company who wants to participate. And the most important part of this presentation for this director is to gather the feedback, don’t get offended by it, listen to what people are trying to say and adjust the movie. And sometimes they do three, four different brain trusts before they come up with the “true” idea.

For example, “Toy Story”, the first chapter, their original characters were completely different from what we saw in the end. Or another great example “Up”, if you read the original plot of this cartoon, it’s a very, very different story.

And this is how they describe these brain trusts: “Turn pain into progress. To be wrong as fast as you can is to sign up for aggressive, rapid learning.”

Yes, this is painful. It takes time to collect this feedback, to process this feedback. Need to not be offended, because the feedback is not about you, it’s about the job you do.

And the last part is the purpose. Purpose is something that we hear a lot, especially if you read the amazing book by Daniel Pink called “Drive: What really motivates us”.

Somehow I was able to attract lots of engineers into a startup that sells perfume and that sounds as far as possible from technology. I think the main reason why I was able to do this is I was inspired by the whole idea of selling perfumes online through the recommendation system. And I was always selling this idea to everyone that I was interviewing.

Now we have a very diverse team in terms of functions, and we do a lot of interesting things here from the website perspective, from an operational, an infrastructure perspective, from our algorithm. I could talk about it all day. But it still remains important to keep in mind the purpose of what we are doing here, why we are here.

And to do this, you should always be transparent with your goals and why they matter. And one thing that I started to do recently, just last year around September, is a very basic function that every manager should do — one-on-one meetings. I just call and listen to my team members, take some notes about what we talked about. The main goal for me in doing these one-on-ones is to make sure that people understand what’s going on, why our company is doing certain things and all the possible questions. Unfortunately, many people turn one-on-ones into some status support meetings or into some other type of manager meetings.

Also, you should be transparent with the priorities and not just like this is the number one thing, this is number two, and this is number three. But you should explain why you think in that certain order in some way like “Guys, these are our goals for this week, and this is why it is important for our business.”

And the last one — measure what matters. In the startup world with its speed, it’s really easy to forget what’s important, what the goal was that you’re trying to achieve. Every company, no matter where it is located, no matter what its function is, people need to always know where, as a company, we are going towards.

And the final quote that I want to present here is very unexpected. There is a great book, “Extreme Ownership” that describes how U.S. Navy SEALs work as a team, how they achieve these fantastic results. And it’s all about the mission, about how they committed to this mission.

“There were no more questions. The most important question had been answered: Why? Once I analyzed the mission and understood for myself that critical piece of information, I could then believe in the mission. If I didn’t believe in it, there was no way I could possibly convince the SEALs in my task unit to believe in it.”

I guess the final point is you can’t “do” culture alone, because culture is something that is around everyone in your company, everyone in your team. And you should ask for their help building this culture. You should always forget about yourself and think about what’s next, what makes us happy, makes us productive, effective, and how we make sure that every time we open our laptop, we are not afraid of incoming notification from Slack, but instead, we can’t wait to see our coworkers.

We can talk endlessly about remote work because we practice it ourselves and believe in it. But, the words of СEO’s and СТО’s of other startups with teams distributed around the world will sound much more convincing. Go ahead and check out the recording of Andrei’s “The role of culture in a Remote Team” presentation at our Remote-First Conference here.

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