What's A Non-Programmer To Do? (Advanced)

How I keep myself busy as Carbonmade has become more successful.

This article was published on December 08, 2010.
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Responsibilities change as the size of your organization grows. During the past few months, we've hired another web designer and a customer service guy. With these hires, and with Carbonmade's ambitions, my role has changed dramatically. I still do a lot of the stuff I outlined in What's a Non-Programmer To Do? but as our company as shifted out of the startup phase and into the small business phase, I've taken on new tasks that I wasn't familiar with before. Good thing learning on the job is the best teacher.

What's A Non-Programmer To Do?

Hiring

One of the biggest responsibilities of any CEO is to recruit talent to work for you. Now that Carbonmade is large enough to start doing so, it has become a significant part of my role to find and talk to folks. Along with Dave Gorum, who has a great eye for spotting young, hungry, and talented designers, I've been having phone and in person meetings with people we're looking to hire.

The story of how we hired Michael Sigler is actually an interesting one. A friend of Carbonmade, Pasquale D'Silva, pointed me to Michael's work one day at our office. Immediately I liked the work a lot. I asked Pasquale for Sig's AIM (yes, we all still use it). Minutes later I was talking to Sig over AIM for well over three hours. We then chatted on the phone for another hour. Then Dave and he had a phone call for another hour or more that same day.

Later that evening I called him up again and booked him a flight to New York for the following itinerary: Jason, Dave, Sig, and I went out for lunch and dinner, he stayed in Jason's apartment, and I took him on a few-hour walking tour of Park Slope (where he'd eventually end up getting an apartment).

During the second day of his stay, we offered him a contract to come and work with us full-time. That evening everything was signed and about a month later his move to his new apartment in Brooklyn was completed.

Contracts

Everyone hates dealing with paperwork. That's a given. Part of my job has always been dealing with our law firm and handling all the paperwork that comes in and out of Carbonmade. Recently, with the addition of our new people, dealing with employee contracts, salary, and raises have come into play.

I worked with our law firm to tailor a non-form letter contract for our employees. We didn't want to work with a standard contract, but rather one that corresponds to what we stand for at Carbonmade. For example, we encourage side projects at Carbonmade, which goes against most employee contracts, which stipulate that anything you work on is owned by the company. That's bollocks.

Payroll

Although we hired one guy back in July (Mike Minnick) and one guy back in August (Michael Sigler), we signed them on as full-time contractors to begin the process of making sure that we meshed.

I also needed time to set up payroll, which the United States government doesn't exactly make it easy to do. I first looked at an all-in-one solution called Ambrose that was recommended to me by a friend. It looked appealing in that they would handle the payroll, healthcare, 401k, etc., but they charged a $3,500 set-up fee and $200/month per employee. Those aren't insignificant fees.

After nearly completing the process with Ambrose, I decided to look elsewhere. There are payroll services out there that charge a lot less and during my search I found Bank of America's payroll service. BoA is where our company banks. It turns out that payroll is free through BoA if you're a small business customer.

Setting up payroll through BoA is a pain in the ass, but after getting everything set up it's as easy as a click of a button to run payroll and then another click of a button to pay the taxes on that payroll. The hardest bit was filling out all the government forms that were prerequisites to setting up payroll.

A lot of accountants can handle setting up payroll for your company, but they typically charge $25-50/month per employee. It's just not the best use of your funds when filling out a handful of forms can get you where you need to be for free.

Investors

We're becoming more and more of an investor's darling: private profitable company with swanky new SoHo loft office and five full-time folks. We've got Private Equity and Venture Capitalists knocking on our doors. I love meeting with these folks — for the most part. They've got a lot of experience working with companies that are similar to ours and often even in thirty-minute meetings they are able to pass on a useful bit of advice.

Just the other day, I was given a great piece of insight about a better way to bill customers to reduce churn. It's a little something we're going to be applying to our new billing system that's coming out shortly.

You never want to close doors. While Carbonmade runs successfully without having ever raised a dime — whether from friends, family, or otherwise — keeping options open is as much in our best interest as in anyone else's.

Speaking Engagements

I've been fortunate to land a few speaking gigs this past year. I've given two guest lectures at NYU, been on a panel at Parson's, and another panel through Ultra Light Startups. I love speaking and engaging with the startup community. Maybe it's because both of my parents are professors at Yale that it's in my blood to share knowledge and teach other people, but I can't get enough of it.

Through my talks, people in New York have found out about Carbonmade and that's helped to spread the name of our company to potential hires, investors, and drive signups. I have to admit that I secretly hand out a lot of VIP accounts if you come and talk to me after the lecture, so maybe in the end of I'm actually hurting our bottom line. ;) Spreading good will, though!

Insurance

I've always been naïve about insurance. I'm the guy who doesn't get protection plans on his iPhone or his rental car. I like taking the position that if I screw up I'll be responsible for my own actions rather than paying someone to clean up my mess. Like I said, it's a very naïve point of view.

However, in our office lease, there is a clause that we need General Liability and Renter's insurance. That led me to reaching out to a bunch of different insurance agencies to grab quotes and vet. The first one I found was recommended by Harvest, but the broker there and I just couldn't get on the same page. He kept thinking Carbonmade was a social network and getting General Liability insurance for social networks I guess is a big hassle. "You are too risky!" he said. "But we're not a social network, sir." Oh well. On to the next one.

I looked around a bit and found three respectable outfits. I sent them all an email and played the "whoever gets back to me first with a reasonable quote" wins. I was surprised that it took a couple days for everyone to get back to me — I thought brokers would be faster to respond. Either way, I had two of the three folks find quotes for us. One came back more quickly than the other and offered us a great quote through Traveler's insurance so we went with that.

Now getting into a skateboarding accident in our office won't be such a big deal.

Office

Back in September 2009 we began subleasing an office with Harvest. At their and our growth rates, I knew that we would need to move to a new office sometime during 2010. I began looking for our own office to rent out as early as December 2009. You need to give yourselves a fair amount of time, as office rentals are much longer leases than apartment leases — ours is four years — and good spaces are harder to come by.

I love our building in SoHo, so when I heard a rumor from Anthony and Dane of Squarespace that they were moving offices sometime in 2010, I went to them to discuss the possibility of taking over their old space (on the fourth floor of the same building). Both of them were happy to pass it on to us with the condition that we'd take it over no sooner than when construction was done in their new place.

Not a problem. We were still only three people full-time during the first half of 2010, so moving into our own 2,400 sqft loft wasn't a priority for us… yet. However, as the year went by and Harvest's office filled up with new folks, we felt serious internal and external pressure to move into our new space.

Although Squarespace was moving as quickly as they could — contractors in New York sure take their sweet time building out office spaces — it was definitely a stressful time for me. We initially thought we were moving into the space on May 1st, only to be delayed all the way until the end of September.

I met with the landlord several dozen times to go over the terms of our lease, negotiate the costs, and generally ask him questions about renting in his building. Our landlords are great folks — a rarity in New York — so working with them has been an absolute pleasure.

Finishing all the moving arrangements and signing the lease felt like a gigantic burden lifted off my back. About six months worth of stress — would we actually move? — left my body and mind when I was handed the keys.

Office Supplies

I think we all take for granted the stuff that goes into outfitting an office, but we shouldn't. Jason and I tasked ourselves with outfitting our office with everything we needed. Just to rattle off a few of the over 75 orders we placed through Amazon (thank God for Prime): trash baskets, pens, coffee maker, tea maker, plants, phones, refrigerator, microwave, Bucky balls for our steel wall, a tool set, etc., etc.

I wanted to get beautiful desks for our new office, and I found a shop in Germany that made custom steel, wood, and linoleum desks that I just had to have. I spent countless hours dealing with their production and shipping, not to mention customs (the biggest pain of all: I think they thought I was reselling the desks), and delivery. If I had to do it all again, I probably wouldn't. I don't think it was worth the headache and (literally) hundreds of hours and dozens of emails to get the desks here, but I'm still happy that they're finally here and awesome.

Services

Signing the lease was only the first step in moving into a new office. Now I know why people hire office managers. Since we don't have one of those, I handled setting up our Internet service through Time Warner, our electricity through ConEd, our landline phone service through Verizon, our water service through Poland Spring, our office cleaning service through Four Star Cleaners, and monthly new shipments of supplies through Alice.

Financials

As we grow, we gather more and more useful information that we can start to act on. Information gathering is both useful and frustrating. On the one hand it's great and gives you insight into your business, but on the other hand you may not have enough of it to be statistically informative early on and/or you don't have the bodies to work on the results.

With new people we are finally able to start acting on a lot of the information that Jason and I have been gathering over the years. At nearly 300,000 users, we have a lot of rich information to work through. I've been working with a friend formerly at Goldman Sachs and now at the private equity firm Silver Lake who's helping us look at and analyze our data.

Just last week we ran a cohort analysis and put together phenomenal projections on what our company can achieve during the next three years — all based on a mixture of historical data and our roadmap.

Accounting

We have an accounting firm, but what they do really only sees us through the end-of-the-year work, with quarterly phone calls sprinkled throughout the year. The heavy lifting is done by me at the end of every month. I have to be sure from month to month that we don't overspend and can better plan out our hiring.

Things have only become more complicated as we've added new people, paid for new services, and acquired a lease with people subleasing from us. More money coming in means more money going out and more money to account for. It may sound funny, but watching and tracking our finances on a daily basis has caused me to develop a sixth sense about how much money we have, what our growth rate is, and how and when we can spend it.

Planning for the Future

Something I like more than anything is thinking about the future. It's one of the things I have the luxury of thinking about, as Dave and Jason are both heavily focused on the day-to-day product stuff. I like to come up with ideas for laying out our roadmap.

My particular excitement in this business is setting out projections and employee charts, worrying about long-term churn reduction, increasing life-time value, planning new features, thinking about big marketing pushes, and anything and everything that's three-plus months down the road.

Motivation

Leading by example is the best motivation, but oftentimes knowing when to chime in with something encouraging is just as good. Keeping up morale even through long and tough development cycles is a job in itself. Both designers and developers can get disheartened and lose sight of the big picture.

Even though you may not be the person who can actually jump-start Photoshop or TextMate to help them tweak the product, being there with them and cheering on their work can help a lot. Don't be too proud to order delivery food for your team at the end of a late night or pick up drinks and snacks at your local convenience store.

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