About a year ago, while hanging out with people from a friendly company in San Francisco, one of their junior people asked me a seemingly simple question: “What do you do for fun?”

I was stunned, and I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know what I did for fun, and I almost panicked from not being able to come up with something beyond hanging out and spending time with my friends and family outside of work.

Back in the real world and at home, I continued pondering this question, and happiness and the simple question of “What do I want?” have become regulars at coaching sessions, in podcasts I listen to, and in other articles.

While it took me a while to realize it initially, the biggest part of my job is now to make sure that everyone in our company is happy. I’ve been focusing so much on it that I rarely give myself a moment of happiness, or that I take any kind of appreciation for myself. All praise belongs to the team. I devoid from giving any credit to myself, simply because I think I don’t deserve it, other people do. For more on this topic see my previous post on the importance of appreciation.

While focusing so much on the company and other people, it’s easy to forget this most important thing in your own life: you.

You consider the question of what you want invalid, because you think your existence is to serve others and make them happy. Or you don’t think that you alone deserve anything, instead success and results need to be shared with the team. Claiming anything for yourself feels selfish.

All these things ring true for me, anyway.

As a founder, you’re not just financially invested in your own company. No, you want to see this thing succeed, and you want to do everything in your powers to help make it succeed, whatever it takes.

And it only takes this one more thing, right? If we can achieve X, then I can finally take a deep breath and take care of myself.

But what if after X, suddenly you want to achieve Y? What if X is never achieved, and other circumstances change the goal? What if X takes a lot longer than you thought it would (hint: it always does)?

When X doesn’t turn out the way you intended, your original goal is quickly forgotten. It’s just one more step towards taking care of yourself, isn’t it?

In the early days of Travis CI, my goal was to start looking after myself once Travis CI had reached a certain size. Then I’d finally be able to spend more time with my family and figure out what I can do for fun. That moment never really appeared, at least not in a reasonable time frame.

More growth meant new challenges, new things to learn, new goals to focus on for the company and for my own personal growth in my role. So there it went, moving the goal slightly further into the future.

This time, I set a fixed goal for myself. I had promised my daughter to take her to New Zealand before she goes to school, which is this year, and she’s now in her fourth week. We ended up planning for a seven week trip, which meant seven weeks away from the business. I vowed to be completely offline, to not read any email and avoid any contact with work, focusing on the here and now instead.

These constraints were harsh, and it posed a challenge to everyone while I was away. Everyone took some bruises, and we learned a lot along the way, we figured out where our company was still hurting and worked on improving these parts. I’m grateful for this experience, and I couldn’t ask for a greater team to handle these challenges.

The important lesson out of it, though, wasn’t that the business will be better off in the long term based on my being away. The important lesson is that taking time off and away from everything else isn’t selfish, even though it feels like that. It’s about taking care of yourself, which is more important than a lot of founders will be willing to admit.

Focusing on yourself means asking what you want, what makes you happy, what you can do for fun. In the early days of building out your business, they will feel like selfish questions, like you don’t deserve anything nice while you build up value for your employees, for your customers, and maybe for your investors.

It’s okay to think about yourself, as early on as possible. What you want is just as important as what everyone else wants, and if you don’t take care of yourself early on, you’ll look back at that time with appreciation for what you’ve built, and regret about the things you missed out on personally.

Remember that taking care of yourself can have positive impact on your company too. Everything you do sets an example, both good and bad. If you work and work and work, everyone else will too. If you find a happy medium between work and life (including personal happiness), everyone in your company will strive to follow your example.

As for myself, I’m still working on the question of what I do for fun. I’ll keep you posted.

Building out a company and a business has been my greatest challenge so far. The company’s mission is built around continuous integration and continuous improvement, the constant drive of always getting better at what you do.

As engineers, we’re trained to fix bugs, to build out new features, to hold postmortems where we analyze what didn’t work and how we can improve things.

As founders, we follow a similar pattern. We have a ton of ideas on what we want to improve, where we want to get better, what part of the product still isn’t good enough, how many more customers we want in the next 12 months. After all, our product only needs one more feature and it will finally break through, right?

Scaling up a business is, at least in the early stages, a lot about iterating on the product. We strive towards acquiring more and more customers by building more and more features, and we want to continue doing that, just like we did in the early days, because it worked so well.

Do you know that feeling? You’re never fully happy with what you have, because you have so many things that you like to improve around the product and around the company. Once you’ve fixed one thing, you move on to the next. It’s a continuous cycle, and vicious one. Nobody deserves to be fully happy until you’ve fixed more things.

I’ve been in this very same cycle, and it’s a downward spiral, especially dangerous when everyone thinks that way. Remember, as a founder, you set the tone in the company more than anyone else. If you always insist on improving, never pausing, everyone else will.

What’s missing in this picture? In the picture, we run from one thing to the next. We’re always running, we barely look back, because we feel looking back isn’t yet warranted, not before we do a few more things. Looking back would feel like standing still, like taking a deep breath, and we don’t have time for that. It’s a competitive market, the next pivot is just around the corner, there are always more reasons to keep on running. You keep running towards an unknown future, barely appreciating what you have.

And therein lies the problem. Appreciation feels undeserved, it feels like you’re stalling. You can’t allow yourself to marvel at the thing you’ve built for fear of wasting time not improving that thing, for fear of appearing selfish or bragging.

It’s good to push further and improve what you have.

But if you never take the time to appreciate where you are, you’ll be running indefinitely, and you’ll expect everyone on your team to do the same thing. If you don’t pause to celebrate achievements, neither will they.

Travis CI is now a team of 23 people, it has more than 2000 customers all over the world, and it’s running more than 230.000 build jobs every day. The running self would tell us that we were probably lucky to get here and that we need to continue running to make sure that we can keep and grow those numbers.

A different kind of me can now pause, take a deep breath and be incredibly proud of what we’ve built so far, regardless of where it’s going in the future. This new me I only got to know this year, and I’ve even started accepting the seemingly selfish thought that I had a part in achieving that.

It’s okay and necessary to give yourself credit for something you’ve done, but to get to that point, you need to stop running every once in a while. Taking a moment and a step back to reflect and appreciate what you’ve already achieved can be a much more powerful and energizing experience than always looking for more things to improve.

There's a term which in the sense of hiring (and firing), is more loaded than anything else. I'm talking about the culture fit.

A recent post on the Lighthouse blog (a product I'm actively using and that I'm a big fan of, by the way!) states that not checking for culture fit is one of the eight interview mistakes that cost you great candidates.

The post brings up the most peculiar example in this regard, a company culture of drinking (disclaimer: I've been a non-drinker for more than 16 years now). If your company has a culture of heavy drinking, then you can be sure as hell that someone like me will neither fit nor want to fit into that culture.

Startup culture in particular is known for their silent rituals and expectations on new hires. If a mum or dad can't go out to a bar at night, that's a thumbs-down, right? After all, they're not willing to socialize, and your company is like a family. A family that drinks together to create and maintain bonds.

The word culture fit continues to be thrown around both as reasons not to hire someone and to fire someone. It's a simple explanation, and it should be clear to anyone on the team (and the person affected) why they're not a culture fit, right?

There's one fundamental mistake in both using and looking for culture fit as a means for hiring: You're assuming that your current culture is healthy and doesn't need to be changed.

Using culture fit as a reason to fire or not to hire says more about you than it says about them. It says that you're not willing to dig deep and figure out what exactly you think doesn't match in your expectation and a candidates personality. It shows that your culture is a fixed property of your company and team, one that can't be changed, one that is exactly where you want it to be.

Culture fit is a reason to continue maintaining the status quo.

But let's take it one step at a time.

What is culture?

Culture fit is a loaded word, because the word culture has so many possible definitions. There are a lot of layers in your company.

It's safe to assume that culture is represented by your company's and team's values. If you've poured lots of work into those, then you have a good definition of your team's expected behaviour.

But culture goes beyond that. Culture is what happens at your company every day. Culture includes founders buying themselves expensive cars from a secondary investment.

Culture includes silent expectations like going to socialization events in evenings, like drinking at bars, dinners and other company events. No one wants to put those on job ads, right?

Culture is how you write and phrase your job ads. Culture is whether you're looking for rock stars or want to build a great team and help people grow. Culture is how you pay your people. Culture is how a CEO behaves towards their team and in public. Culture is how leadership fosters and drives change. Culture is how you treat your customers. Culture is how you treat your team. Culture is how open you are to changing the status quo. Culture is a team that only consists of white dudes in their late twenties.

Culture is that ping pong table in your office. Culture are all those free and unhealthy soft drinks that your company keeps in the fridge. Culture is serving your team breakfast or lunch (or both?) every day to make sure they're in the office for as long as possible. Culture is talking about commitment issues when someone on your team needs to leave early because they have children to take care of.

Everything you do every day, in your company and team, is part of your culture.

If your assumption is that no one should be able to be a part of that and that it's written in stone and cannot be changes, then by all means, hire or fire based on culture fit.

Culture fit is a means to keep people out of a protected and privileged circle, rather than to protect that circle's values, which is probably what you think it is..

Culture fit is a means to avoid talking about whether your culture is healthy and whether it needs to be improved, and most importantly, to avoid actively changing and improving it.

Stop using "culture fit"

If culture fit isn't a reason for not hiring someone or firing someone, then what is?

Culture fit is a loaded word because it can have so many meanings, it can apply on so many layers of your company. Using it means you want to spend little time on figuring out where exactly someone isn't a good match for your own expectations and why those expectations exist.

The best way to avoid falling into the culture fit trap is to have an honest look at why someone doesn't match your expectations. Did they not match implicit or explicit expectations? If they're implicit, are they really a part of your company culture? If they are, why are they not explicit?

If socializing over drinks is an expectation you have, then you should be honest enough to make it an explicit expectation. Or, if you want my advice, you should revisit why and whether it's such an important part of your culture.

Because I can tell you right here, making it explicit will help keep even more people out of your precious circle. Parents, people of religion who don't drink, non-drinkers. You can be sure that those people will never be part of your team, and that your team will continue to attract the same kind of people that are already a part of it.

"Culture fit" hampers the biggest benefit of any great team: diversity. Stop using it and start looking at the real reasons why you don't want to hire someone. They might not be their flaws but yours.

Tags: culture