In 2008, Kris Gale was one of the founding members of Yammer’s engineering team. He stayed with the company for six years as VP of Engineering where he grew the team from three people to over 200.
As Kris transitioned his department from operating like a family to a real organization, he kept a single question in mind: “How do we scale engineering so that all problems get solved the way we would have solved them in the first year of the company?”
Today, he’s using the lessons he learned to develop the culture at his new startup, Clover Health.
Clover is a health insurance plan rooted in care management not transactions. The team uses predictive models to identify members health risks and provide preventative care.
For example, if a patient is taking medication to manage their diabetes, Clover can identify that the prescription has been linked to depression and intervene to help.
Less than a year and a half in, Clover members have experienced 50% fewer hospital admissions and 34% fewer readmissions than the average Medicare patient living in the counties it serves in New Jersey.
The care interventions, in person follow-ups, and continual health monitoring rely on a complex technical solution that’s required Kris to scale Clover’s engineering team to 70 people in the last year. By comparison, Yammer’s engineering team didn’t hit 70 team members until year three.
Clover’s competitive advantage disrupting the health insurance industry is rooted in their mission-driven culture, ability to execute, and a true celebration of autonomy.
“Engineers aren’t measured on how well they build software. They are measured on how well they build software that improves health outcomes and keeps seniors out of the hospital,” Kris explained, reflecting on Clover’s mission.
“The fastest way to achieve that may be going on a home tour with a nurse to learn what their workflow is.”
Based on their findings, one or two engineers can build an MVP to test the new feature with Clover nurses. Kris suggests working at the most basic level and monitoring data in a Google spreadsheet to determine if the feature should be built into the software.
If there is a non-flashy, less glamorous way to get their faster we should be celebrating that; Not celebrating things that demo well, or seem technically impressive.
At Clover, function trumps glamour.
The core points to remember before formally implementing a new feature are:
- Start with the company’s mission
- Create a basic version that works
- Build only what is necessary
Clover’s rapid execution is rooted in the egoless and autonomous culture powering the team.
It begins with the one-on-one conversation Kris has with each new team member to discuss the state of the health insurance industry, how Clover is changing it, and the direct role he or she will play executing the mission.
In their first meeting, Kris asks, “Now that you understand what we are trying to accomplish, you tell me. What you should be doing every day?”
Team members are then asked to study the organization and come back with recommendations.
Individuals who work at Clover are granted the autonomy to shape their roles and collaborate with others to improve health outcomes for their members.
Kris’ core management principle is: “Never stomp on autonomy.”
Don’t delegate tasks or disempower people through participation in the early days… They need to be empowered to make operational changes in the code.
Projects are executed by small groups to decrease overhead, coordination, and management.
“Part of the Clover hypothesis is that the effective care intervention protocol is going to be a cumulative result of a lot of little things that add up and are really impactful together.”
“It needs to be a forcing function of the organization that we keep batch sizes small for things we want to roll out so they can be operationalized and tested. The hypotheses need to be confirmed or disconfirmed by a really small group of leaders."
It's important to distinguish that promoting autonomy doesn’t indicate a lack of leadership.
Leaders that master sustainable growth are obsessed with constantly repeating the company's mission and working closely with each team member to help them grow personally and professionally.
Never stop preaching why you are here, and what your mission is.
Say it again, and again and again: 'Here’s where we are. This is the progress we need to make.'
Repetition is especially important for hyper-growth startups that are adding team members weekly. In addition to the founders sharing the mission, team members need to be billboards of your company values.
When meeting new colleagues, or evaluating potential ones, you want team members to be able to proudly declare: This is what its like to work here. This is why our mission matters. This is my part in it.
At Clover, the entire team participates in a weekly Demo Day where each team member speaks for five minutes about the progress they made that week, why it matters, the value implications for the organization, and how it's helping them achieve their goal.
“It forces individuals to conceptualize what they are doing and enhances their prioritization,” Kris shared.
People are better at their jobs when they are asking: How does this fit in the bigger picture?
The presentations are done with a microphone to cultivate formal public speaking and presentation skills.
Kris is specifically adamant about practices that enable team members to grow in their roles. His ultimate goal is to empower them to excel in the organization and shape the future leadership team.
As the young startup aims to close 2015, they’re driven by Kris’ belief that “winning feels like losing.”
“There’s always going to be a new problem to solve. If you feel comfortable, you’re not at a high growth startup.”
You can also follow Clover on Twitter and read these two articles in First Round Review to learn more about Kris’ leadership style.
- The One Cost Engineers and Product Managers Don’t Consider
- Why Yammer Believes the Traditional Engineering Organizational Structure is Dead
- How MeUndies Made Merchandising Their Competitive Advantage — When MeUndies thinks about their underwear subscription service they compare themselves to Netflix. What the streaming pioneer did for TV, the Los Angeles startup wants to do to your underwear drawer. The goal is to provide monthly subscribers with the staples they love while delivering elements of surprise - Think briefs with donuts and dinosaurs - right to your doorstep.
- Seedling Relies on Childhood Curiosity to Inspire a Creative Team — On a recent flight home, I spent over an hour browsing a children’s play website, completely enamored by sets like Design Your Own Superhero Cape and Invent Your Own Insects. After sharing Seedling with everyone I know, despite few of my friends having children, I wondered why the brand struck a such a meaningful chord with me.
- eero Designs Wi-Fi for the Smart Home Era — Nikhil Basu Trivedi, Principal at Shasta Ventures, recently distinguished exceptional founders by their ability to prioritize. “It all comes back to prioritization, speed, paranoia, and knowing that if you don’t iterate, even after finding product market fit, you can be disrupted by the next product,” he says.
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