MetaLab is an interface design company that specializes in taking ideas from “napkin sketches” to fully realized digital products. In addition to working with clients like Slack, Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube, and TED, they’ve also developed their own products, including Flow and Pixel Union.
The company was started nine years ago by Andrew Wilkinson, who strongly values culture and is a thought leader on entrepreneurship. One of the interesting choices he made early on was to keep the company based in his hometown of Victoria, BC, a small city on Vancouver Island, even as his clients grew to include Fortune 50 companies and Silicon Valley giants.
Some of the other elements that influence MetaLab’s culture:
Complete autonomy: “Feel free to work whichever hours suit you best. We aren’t paying attention to when you’re at the office, and we don’t care who stays at their desk the latest. Seriously.”
Unlimited vacation time: “We really don’t want you to work yourself into a stupor, so take vacation time whenever you need it. All we ask is that you come back fresh and ready to do your best work.”
Remote friendly: “Work from wherever you want, whenever you want. Want to go live in Thailand? Ok. Want to work full-time while you travel around Europe? Sure. Send us a postcard.”
Excellent benefits: “Our generous benefit package covers everything from dental to massages. You shouldn’t spend any time worrying about essential medical costs. It’s covered.”
We recently connected with Andrew to talk about the culture at MetaLab, the role of his Head of People Ops, hiring for cultural contribution rather than culture fit, and his philosophies on working smarter, not harder.
In 1-2 sentences, how would you describe MetaLab to a non-technical friend?
When the world’s top companies have an amazing idea for an app, product or service, MetaLab helps them build something beautiful and easy to use.
The word ‘culture’ is ubiquitous in the startup world, and its definition increasingly subjective. What does company culture mean to you?
You’re right. “Culture” is ubiquitous, and depending on who you ask, it can mean just about anything—which can lead to it having no meaning at all. To us, it means the continuous pursuit of building the best, most talented, and happiest team we possibly can. So far, I’d say we’re doing something pretty unique.
Did MetaLab have a formal process to establish its culture?
Like many startups, we flew by the seat of our pants in the beginning. We were a small, tight-knit group of hard-working people who loved the projects we took on and enjoyed working together. At various points in our growth we made efforts to preserve those core values, and when we reached a certain size, this meant creating a few formal processes about how we hire, how we onboard, how we decide which projects to take on, and what policies could bolster all of that.
We were excited to see you have a Head of People Ops rather than a traditional HR role. What made you decide to forgo the HR department, and what does Elexa's role actually involve?
We’re all about questioning unquestioned traditions, and since MetaLab is it’s people, we felt the title was more reflective of the role. We wanted someone on the leadership team who focused not only on finding our future colleagues, but also on ensuring we remained an attractive team to be a part of, and a great place to work.
Elexa makes sure we offer a compensation and benefits package that keeps our team happy, and professional growth opportunities that foster our culture of learning. She also makes sure everybody loves what they’re working on and, if that’s not the case, she helps people make that happen. Lastly, she enforces our “no asshole” policy, which we take pretty seriously around here.
Beyond skill sets and work history, what else do you look for when hiring?
We really look not just at what a candidate can do now, but what kind of potential they’ll have years later. This industry can change so fast, so we really look to see that each person we bring in has a serious love of learning. It’s one thing to be great now, but when things change down the road—and they will—are you so fired up about what you do that you’ll stay great?
Cameron Conaway's article The Trendy New Form of Discrimination mentions that Flow hires for cultural contribution rather than cultural fit. Can you share any examples of this in practice?
Sure! I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of hiring solely based on a need. You know, “we need an Android developer,” or whatever. While that’s definitely the case, seeing a need is also an opportunity to ask “What do we have?” The answer to this question can inform your perspective, and therefore what kind of questions you ask during the hiring process. After thinking on that question, for example, you may find that you still need an Android developer, but you also need an Android developer who isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo.
I realized that leadership was far more about envisioning the future than it was about grinding away. It was more about delegating tasks to people who could do them better than me so that I could step back and see the company from a distance. Andrew Wilkinson
You're a big proponent of working smarter, not harder. With a flourishing business, high profile clients, several products, and a growing team, how do you determine where to spend your energy?
I really just learned through a ton of trial and error. I questioned myself a lot, especially when I’d see other people in leadership positions working so hard that they’d catch a few hours of sleep under their desks. Was that how a leader led? Was that what it took to be successful?
Over the years, and after meeting a ton of awesome people and reading more books than I can remember, I realized that leadership was far more about envisioning the future than it was about grinding away. It was more about delegating tasks to people who could do them better than me so that I could step back and see the company from a distance.
This realization was huge for me, and when I actually started to live by it, my businesses grew like never before. As for hours per week… that’s probably the last variable I track—and usually I don’t. I’d say it like this: I’m not anywhere close to sleeping under my desk, but I’m also informed enough about my team that I can see where we’re headed and where we need to go.