“This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time” — spoken by character Tyler Durden in my favorite movie Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. It expresses the notion that people should constantly re-evaluate what they’re doing, and to consider if it’s the right thing in their life and the right path. We ask this of our employees — if the spark in their eyes goes away, then we’re totally ok if they look (and they probably should) for the next challenge in their life. I’ve often asked myself if everything I’m doing with Printful is still what I want to continue doing. The answer has always been “Yes. This is great. This is exciting.” I enjoy working and coming to work, and I will continue doing that.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Davis Siksnans, co-founder and CEO of Printful, the print on demand, dropshipping and warehousing startup. Originally founded in Riga, Latvia with three employees, the company has now expanded to 400 employees spanning two continents, with locations in California and North Carolina. Printful started out as a subsidiary of the Draugiem Group, an IT cluster that is home to Latvia’s social media platform — Draugiem.lv. It has now grown to become the Group’s largest company.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I’ve always been passionate about IT. I started building websites at the age of 13 — my first website was for my neighbor who was a carpenter. There wasn’t Internet where I was living, so I had to go to the local library to use it. I would end up downloading entire websites onto floppy disks that I could bring home and read on my computer. I was mostly interested in IT stuff and network configuration. So I’d read about it, then try it out at home. As a result, when the Internet arrived to the town, I noticed that the Internet provider was throttling my traffic. But I found a hack to get around it, and for a while I had much faster Internet than anyone on that network.
My parents initially thought I was spending too much time sitting at the computer and not doing enough normal kid stuff. But it turned out for the better in the end.
My cousin was also interested in IT, and he was a much better programer than I was. He had a classmate who was a programmer and a designer, but was better at web design. I was better at managing the two and figuring out how to turn software ideas into business. So we started doing all these experiments when we were teens, and then all ended up working for the Draugiem Group together.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One occasion was when our employee went to meet a business partner — Los Angeles Apparel, that was then being lead by Dov Charney. The company was going through some rough times, and Dov was in the process of moving into the office. As our meeting was underway, he was instructing people where to put his toilet seat. So that’s kind of bizarre.
Perhaps an interesting story is how we decided to start Printful. We had two ecommerce stores at the time, Behappy.me and Startup Vitamins, and most of our buyers where in the US, while the team was in Latvia. We had manufacturing and fulfillment partners who we worked with to print our t-shirts and posters we were selling. But they weren’t really reliable — they would drop orders, run out of materials that would delay production and not tell us, and take weeks to fulfill them. That all left a negative relationship with our buyers. So we bought a printer and started to our products ourselves. The printer was in one of the founder’s living room, where he would print the orders and package them with his wife. Our customers liked them so much that they started asking if we could print their designs for them. At first we thought — well no, we’re not a print company.
As demand was not decreasing, we started to contemplate this even more. Before jumping into the project and sinking a ton of resources into it, we wanted to be sure that this was a viable business idea. So we built a smoke test website in 2013, it was basically a nicely designed website without a working product underneath it. We sent an email to our existing subscriber base and got a couple hundred people who signed up to the service, willing to use it. So that was enough for us to go ahead with developing Printful.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
It’s very hard. From day 1 we had a team in Riga and in Los Angeles, with a 10 hour time difference. We had to learn quickly how to make it work.
There are a couple of suggestions that everyone should do:
– If you can meet face to face, especially at the beginning of a person’s employment or project, you should. Early on we maybe should have had more business trips between the US and Latvia.
– Try to hire people who are great communicators in written language. If you have two similar candidates, choose the best writer. This is a similar philosophy as suggested by the Rework book authors, and it’s something we’ve adopted. It’s especially important when you have large teams, and in teams that are not co-located.
– Use phone and video communication as much as possible. You have to keep in mind that email has a lot of room for misinterpretation, especially when dealing with different cultures.
– Agree on work-related terms — otherwise things can be lost in translations. You start using these terms that other teams might interpret as something else.
One thing we noticed is that as you grow, you need a different set of tools. When we were small, Skype and email was enough. Then we grew to Basecamp, and then to Jira, mostly because of how large our software team had grown.
In order to keep tabs on what each team is doing, and to keep the entire team focused, it’s crucial to have all-hands meetings where everyone is brought together quarterly (at least for us), and you have to do them in each location. But also you also require managers to have regular one on ones with each of their employees, in addition to bi-annual performance reviews. It’s a great way to show that managers care about the performance and well-being of the employee. I do them more when employees are newer, and less when they have more tenure. In addition to one on ones, I also require written reports from those who report to me.
What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
One thing we learned was that you have to remember to communicate things that have been decided locally to the team members located in other offices. We noticed that at some times you forget to inform the managers from other offices, because you think “we were all at the meeting, we all understood”. You just assume everyone was there.
More importantly, you have to bridge the cultural divide.
There was a time that the US employees thought that Latvians were mean. The Riga-based software devs by nature don’t like jumping on a phone or call, and prefer email or chat communication. As a result, a lot of social cues get lost. But I’d have to tell the US employees that Latvians may come off more direct than Americans, but that’s just how they sound and it doesn’t mean they’re mean.
Only after both teams met, the US team said “Hey, you guys aren’t as bad as you sounded”. Now I make sure that our software devs make regular trips to the US.
One thing I would’ve changed — I would’ve started face-to-face meetings between the two continents sooner.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I find that the key for a company going through rapid growth is to empower your employees’ self development. Not only we demand a culture of learning, but we provide all the tools necessary to do it.
We have books that any employees can take home. We have a company Audible account where employees are encouraged to listen to audio books.
We have regular one-on-one meetings, where we encourage bilateral feedback. It really gives me as a manager a chance to talk to the employees, and topics come up that otherwise wouldn’t in a regular discussion, like the kind of music being played in the office, for instance.
One thing that’s incredibly important to make employees thrive, is that we really need to nail the employee onboarding process. It’s something that we only started doing comparatively recently and should’ve done sooner. Now each new employee has a large checklist of things they have to go through and people they have to meet and talk to. When you’re a small team, you can get away with less. But now as a scaleup, you need everyone to be on the same page when they get started. I would say that for a company of our size, the onboarding process should be about 2 weeks.
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
Hire great people who don’t have to be managed. That’s something CEOs should be most attentive to at first. In the hiring process, if you’re hesitant, then don’t hire just because business needs are pushing you.
Other employees will appreciate working with other great people. A-players want to play with A-players. Retention is also great because of that.
And as a CEO, you need to hire great managers.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This movement is already ongoing, but the movement of what Printful facilitates — to inspire entrepreneurship to individuals, small businesses, sole owners, etc.
The majority of the world’s economy is built by small businesses. It contributes to raising living standards, which can then have the opportunity to significantly improve the living conditions of an immense amount of people.
The barriers to entry have never been so low, you can be global from day 1 with tools like Shopify, Etsy and Printful. People should just start because the right moment to start a business never arrives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time” — spoken by character Tyler Durden in my favorite movie Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk.
It expresses the notion that people should constantly re-evaluate what they’re doing, and to consider if it’s the right thing in their life and the right path. We ask this of our employees — if the spark in their eyes goes away, then we’re totally ok if they look (and they probably should) for the next challenge in their life.
I’ve often asked myself this question, and I’ve been periodically asked by Lauris Liberts and Agris Tamanis, the founders of the Draugiem Group, if everything I’m doing with Printful is still what I want to continue doing. The answer has always been “Yes. This is great. This is exciting.” I enjoy working and coming to work, and I will continue doing that.
Originally published at medium.com