Company Trip to Toronto and Montreal, and lessons learned

It was time for something new! Previous trips had led us to San Francisco both in 2015 and 2016, and to New York and Boulder in 2013 and 2014. Sure, the US is our largest market, but a bit of diversity can’t hurt. We have a long-term goal of visiting Australia (once we hit $5m in revenue) but we’re not quite there.

So this time we decided to pay our Canadian customers a visit. Sadly we don’t have that many customers in Canada, and they are spread out. But Montreal and Toronto are not that far away from another, and a train running between the two cities seemed like a great bonding event too. Off we went!


We had a blast!

As always, it was great to hang out with the team, attend a workshop, organize a coding challenge, and most importantly meet so many customers. Compared to San Francisco we met far more smaller customers, which was however just as enlightening. The Bay Area crowd tending to fast-grown companies of 500 employees is simply not our average customer, and while we want to cater to those too, our average customer is more like 100 employees. We met several clients in that range, plus even a family run, third-generation import/export business. Believe it or not, after seeing the n-th hipster startup, a 50+ year company was one of my highlights of the week.

In addition to customer visits and team work, we had our share of team-building shenanigans, including the cheesy-sounding axe-throwing classes, which despite initial hesitations by many team members was a huge success.

Nonetheless, we have come to a point where we have to adjust our company trips. We’ve simply grown a bit larger than at our previous trips.

Lessons learned

Visiting customers with the entire team only really works in San Francisco

While we visited plenty of great customers this time around too, due to our team growth we could only send every employee to two meetings at most. Not every client we have in a city actually has time that particular week to see us, and we didn’t want to send more than 5 or 6 people to any one client.  The only place where we have so  many clients that even a team of soon 30 SI staff can meet 3-4 clients each is San Francisco. But we can’t always go to SF, meeting the same clients all over again.

So in the future, we’ll have to accept that not everyone can see customers all the time. We’ll focus our company trips on internal workshops, and rather than us all flying to customers we’ll fly some select customers to us instead, setting up longer term workshops than individual visits.


Flying to North America is turning into a bit of a logistic challenge

At our very first company trip back in 2013, we were eight people, three of them based in the US and in Australia. It was just as easy to fly to the US as it would have been to fly to Europe. Over time the Berlin office grew a lot faster though, to a point where we now fly 20 people across the Atlantic and only 4 stay on their own continent. If was worth it in SF to some degree, but it is a bit lopsided if 80% of the company battles jetlag, and flight expenses become a very high part of the trip’s cost. While the occasional visit to the US or Canada is great, we shouldn’t always fly there just because we initially flew there.

But if we don’t have to stay close to clients (see above), then we can definitely consider European goals. Yes, it makes it harder to also get the US team to visit the Berlin HQ in spring/summer, because that would be two intercontinental trips per year. But other than that, the advantages of staying local on the next company trip (but maybe still somewhere a bit warmer than Germany…) outweigh the downsides in my opinion. Southern Europe would seem like a good compromise.

We’ve outgrown AirBnB

We’ve traditionally made heavy use of Airbnb, because it allowed us to book stunning places at moderate prices. Initially we all fit into one place, the last two trips we rented two larger places, but in Toronto and Montreal we ended up renting four places in each city. Now that we’re 20+ people at a trip, it’s increasingly hard to find Airnbns that are able to accommodate say half of the company. Although the places we found were in walking distance of another, not having one that’s large enough to host us during the day was a real problem. It’s just getting inefficient to coordinate everyone, and we didn’t fly around half the world just to end up Slacking another “oh you’re at that place now, give us 10 more minutes”

Also, Airbnbs just lie too much. While we did research even harder than last year to find good places, it still didn’t work out all the time. As an example,  the “3rd bedroom” in my Toronto place wasn’t much more than a walk-in wardrobe (5sqm, no window, and a sliding door). Two sleeping sofas were right next to the street with no blinds. Some other apartments were absolutely stunning… but that only added insult to injury. 🙂

Even if all apartments had had at least a “decent baseline”, it’s still be a problem if some rooms are significantly better.

It’s tempting to say that hotels are the solution.  But hotels are very expensive. Especially downtown, but really everywhere. Also, unless you get entire suites, hotels typically don’t have a living area nor kitchen. I fear if we just go with “average business hotel”, then despite immense costs we’ll get negative feedback that people couldn’t hang out with their team, that their rooms were tiny and uninspiring (and probably still had some noisy neighbor).

If possible we’d find apartments in a single building, or maybe a conference hotel that’s somewhere affordable in the countryside. But it’s unlikely that hotel in downtown will work.

Our “Small Improveathon” was interesting, but not my best idea ever

This time around, we decided to have a “Small Improveathon” during the time when we weren’t meeting clients or workshopping. We had our Customer Support/Sales/Success team put their product manager hats on, and vote on product small improvements that would make their lives easier. We reshuffled the dev teams to then compete with one another to fix or implement as many improvements as possible by end of Friday. Our goal was to mix developers so they’d work with people from other dev teams, and to encourage direct conversation between the customer team (which is mostly based in the US) with the Berlin developers.

While we did end up working on lots of tasks that the customer team really want to see fixed, it didn’t inspire enough cross-team collaboration. In order to be efficient, the developers divided the tasks and worked on many items on their own rather than together with others, and while some coworking with the customer team happened, developers preferred tasks that didn’t involve too much collaboration in order to code faster. Sigh. While the competitiveness added some fun, and while getting the Customer team more involved certainly helped, the ongoing work was more on the dev side, while other people lacked overarching goals.

Our options moving forward? We have tried many things over the years, and all of them come with their own set of drawbacks. When we dive very deep into big feature-topics, people love the discussions but feel it’s sad if we can’t implement all of the ideas (we get that already after a one-day Hackathon really).  When we get more pragmatic and work on features rather than new concepts, then “It’s just like normal work, I don’t need an offsite for that”. When we experiment like with the Improveathon we run the risk of having the wrong incentives. When there is no structure then the more structured people are unhappy about lack of structure, and vice versa.

Assuming we don’t visit customers as much, we’ll have more time. We should use that time to plan a multitude of shorter, one-to-two-day workshops in different team constellations. We could have 4 parallel workshops running Monday and Tuesday, then 3 different sessions on Wednesday morning, one shared session on Wednesday afternoon, and then again 4 workshops covering Thursday and Friday. It would be intense, and it would have to be prepared way ahead, but it should work.

A focus on just one- or two-day-workshops could be very fruitful, while not risking to get so committed by a full-week workshop that the plan devised becomes sacrosanct (“hey we already worked for 5 days on it so let’s not change it anymore”) or that we run into diminishing returns (“the first 2 days were super inspiring but then it all somehow became debating over details, i don’t have to be remote for that”). By mixing things up several times we’d have most people working with most people at one workshop or the other

Support should not suffer, and the bug inbox shouldn’t overflow by the time we’re back

In order to maximize time together (and in order to code a lot) we neglected support. And once we got back from the trip (note that many people extended their trip by a personal holiday week to see more of Canada) we were overwhelmed with bugs. This was both frustrating to customers, to the support team, and even to overall dev team productivity, because once we got back on top of bugs, four weeks had passed and most developers were thoroughly disconnected from their projects,

So in the future, we need to do things a bit differently. By spending less time in transit, and by not coding features, and by timeboxing workshops, we should be able to set aside time for support and bugfixing. We should actually fix a bugs more aggressively in the weeks leading up to the the trip, so we don’t have a big backlog to begin with, and we should use the opportunity to collaborate more between Support and Dev too (“live bugfixing“?). We probably have to use the calendar to slot in enough time, and of course we won’t be able to deal with everything. But if every developer could spend an hour a day from 9am to 10am, and if we had two developers each day spending an extra hour in the evening, we could at least get rid of the worst bugs in a timely manner.


In summary

Despite some new challenges and some lessons learned, it was a great trip. Check out the video! We’ll keep doing company trips, and we’ll definitely visit San Francisco again with everyone involved. But in 2018, we’ll look at European locations, we’ll try to find an entire apartment building just for us, we’ll plan the week far more in advance, and we’ll make sure to invite clients to some of our workshops too. Stay tuned.

Until then – video time 🙂