Beating the virus: lessons from our seventh year running MarsBased

Captain's log, stardate d356.y39/AB

Management MarsBased Lessons Learnt Mental health Leadership
Àlex Rodríguez Bacardit
Founder & CEO
Beating the virus: lessons from our seventh year running MarsBased

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone differently and we are no exception. We want to share our ups and downs from 2020 in our annual post about lessons learnt, including management, finance and mental health, among other topics.

To make this information more readable and more easily digestible, I've broken it down into 10 key learnings we had last year that I shared with our team during our last virtual Martian Day with the ten things we learnt as a company during 2020.

Lesson #1: Once you accept one thing as true, you never bother to check it anymore

Psychologists will undoubtedly explain this better than me, but there's a strong bias in never checking the integrity of an affirmation or a fact once we've accepted it as true. For instance, someone who studied e-commerce in 2012 would know by heart the most popular e-commerce platforms out there, and when asked to recite them, she'd list Prestashop, Magento, Woocommerce, Etsy and a bunch more. Someone studying e-commerce today would know that the most popular platform is Woocommerce followed by Shopify. In 2012, Shopify wasn't among the biggest top 10 e-commerce platforms.

If your job doesn't require you to check how up-to-date these rankings are, you will tendentially remember them as you first studied them. In fact, as pointed out in this article - summarising Adam Grant's book Think Again - this happens because we don't reevaluate as we go along in life:

You’ve probably heard that if you drop a frog in a pot of scalding hot water, it will immediately leap out. But if you drop the frog in lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature, the frog will die. It lacks the ability to rethink the situation, and doesn’t realize the threat until it’s too late. I did some research on this popular story recently and discovered a wrinkle: it isn’t true. Tossed into the scalding pot, the frog will get burned badly and may or may not escape. The frog is actually better off in the slow-boiling pot: it will leap out as soon as the water starts to get uncomfortably warm. It’s not the frogs who fail to reevaluate. It’s us. Once we hear the story and accept it as true, we rarely bother to question it.

2020 shook a lot of beliefs, but we still hold as true some things that might've been true at a certain point in our lives, but it's not anymore. In 2020, we learnt how to reevaluate these things like "No one uses Shopify for e-commerce", "PHP is only good for quick&dirty projects", "remote workers just slack off at home and don't get work done", "JIRA is only for huge corporations" or "Rails doesn't scale".

Before issuing your next Solomonic statement with utmost conviction, double-check its veracity. Some statements age very badly.

Lesson #2: Small companies are more agile and can adapt better to adverse situations pivoting and correcting course every day

While the pandemic has affected virtually every company out there, it is also true that a lot of things need to be factored in to make a proper x-ray of the effects.

For instance, some countries could prepare better because they are structurally better prepared to face such situations while some others took advantage of the slow spread in warmer climates. Some business sectors have been annihilated - like music and business travel - while others have gone through the roof, such as food delivery, dating apps or SaaS.

As for us, we shared in our 'A breakdown of 2020: what a ride!' blog post that we were affected in a million different ways, but the outcome of 2020 has been mostly positive. From the economical standpoint, we hit record numbers, and we also grew the team by two people despite the overall terrible situation.

Again, a lot of things need to be factored in to understand why we didn't suffer through 2020, especially when a lot of companies similar to ours were forced to reduce their workforce, shrink down their companies or even close shop definitely.

Some things definitely helped: all of our clients have a retainer contract, so we didn't have to look for new projects when the fixed bid ones finished because we rarely ever "finish" a project. By a similar token, being an officeless 100%-remote company since our very inception in 2014 spared us from having to undergo a forced adaptation to working remotely with teams, technologies, tools and methodologies not best-suited for that. We had to do very few adaptations, and we jokingly admit that our life hasn't changed much since 2019, as we have always been working from home anyways.

But in all of this, there's one thing we know as true (although we will have to re-evaluate it often!). As a small company, we can change things around more quickly than bigger ones. As a 20-something people company, we can make a decision today and start implementing it right away, without awaiting committees, being blocked by bureaucracy and processes or generally highly inefficient decision workflows.

I meet my two partners once every week, for an hour, to make decisions and discuss strategy. In February 2020, in light of the breakout of the pandemic and its impending and dooming arrival to our country, we decided to talk every day, to make decisions as fast as possible. We had to communicate decisions to employees, change project plans, take extra requests from clients, rethink sales strategies, take care of our workforce and - of course - of ourselves, too.

Lesson #3: Sometimes you can’t be in control of anything. Just let go and concentrate on what you can do to feel better

In favourable conditions, one feels more in control of the situation. When you can take advantage of tailwinds, a small thing here and there can report big benefits.

However, when faced with strong headwinds, or a lot of big bumps on the road, things don't look so bright. In fact, for us, it's the first global crisis we faced as business owners. Not only we faced the uncertainty of not knowing what was going on - the so-called black swans - nor how long would it go for, but we also couldn't get answers from more seasoned entrepreneurs or business owners. The last "similar" situation was the Spanish Flu pandemic one hundred years ago, so no one we know was around back then!

While we managed to keep our revenues more or less untouched during the whole year, our sales pipeline dried up overnight. If we usually get 3-4 prospects per week, during March and September of 2020 we maybe received one prospect per month. I, being in charge of sales, freaked THE FUCK out. I am used to selling a new project or extending a contract with our current clients at least once per quarter, if not twice. Last year, during February and November we didn't sign a single contract, and I suffered from anxiety, impostor syndrome and a general feeling of hopelessness.

I received a lot of help and support from our crew and some of my friends, who told me to focus on what can be done, and not on what ought to be done. Sometimes, we can't be in full control of the situation.

Lesson #4: Time goes slow, until it goes really fast. Not everyone works/learns/evolves/lives at the same pace

Similar to the previous point, we can't be in full control of the timing 100% of the time. Predicting evolution or progress pace is a mere exercise in gambling in the vast majority of situations.

For example, one might struggle to pick up a new programming language more than the rest of the people in the project, but that doesn't stay true over time. Maybe, after breaking through an initial steep slope, this person will progress way faster than the rest. In fact, some of our people struggled in their first weeks/months working for us, as we have a pretty specific way of running things, but then they've exceeded our expectations big time.

The same happened with sales. As I mentioned before, sales were slow and almost non-existent for about 8 months, but once things picked up again, people were in a big hurry to get things done. In November, we signed a few projects, and we had to manage a lot of projects and releases that needed to be completed before the end of the year.

Lesson #5: Remote isn’t just about working from home

We have been saying this for years, but a lot of people learnt this The Hard Way™ during 2020.

Working remotely doesn't really mean working from home, or a coffee shop or a plane flying to the Bahamas. Being a remote worker means ensuring that you've got the best conditions to carry out your job wherever that happens.

If you are self-employed, you probably had that covered already: a good home office, ergonomic chair/desk, the right computer screen and a stable internet connection will cut it, most of the times.

However, pretty much everyone had to transition to remote work overnight, without the proper equipment, office setup, tools or even training. Most companies had never had a plan for such a situation, and while they sent everyone home in 2020, they couldn't give them proper training, coaching or the right tools and/or guidance to ensure a proper transition. In fact, not everyone might have internet connection at home or a computer they can work with.

In fact, very few people are prepared to work from home. While a vast majority of people fantasise with the idea of working from home, very few will like the reality. Working remotely comes with a lot of challenges: reduced or even non-existent social interactions, tendency to stretch the working hours, loneliness, having to cope with "less real" virtual interactions with your coworkers, and many other issues we touch on different parts of this blog post already.

Further, a huge amount of discipline is required to work from home. While office workers eliminate all kinds of distractions by simply working in a more neutral environment such as the corporate offices, working from home offers an infinite amount of distractions and duties. The discipline required to overcome them all is not negligible, and this becomes a bigger issue when there are other situations affecting your performance: motivation drops, frictions with colleagues, lack of good sleep, mental health issues and whatnot.

You will see that we speak a lot about mental health in this blog post. As a matter of fact, this overnight change, where everyone had to adapt to remote work, opened up a myriad of possible security threats and vulnerabilities for companies and even more pressure on their workforce: a quick online search will reveal numerous studies and stats on the furious increase of mental health issues during 2020, including a whole lot of them directly linked to work causes. But we're covering this later on.

Lesson #6: We ALL fuck up

The word for us, in 2020, was empathy. We became more empathic with one another, between workmates, with clients and providers, and with our most loved ones.

Last year was a complicated one for pretty much everybody out there, and we all had to deal with a million issues distracting us from work: curfews, confinements, travel restrictions, uncertainty, people losing their jobs, our partners working crazy shifts in hospitals, not being able to drop our kids at their grandparents, kids not going to school, shortage of toilet paper in the supermarkets and whatnot. Gosh, there was an unprecedented pandemic out there killing people by the thousands every day.

It was difficult to avoid reading the press or Twitter every day to keep track of the progress of everything. Every single update on the pandemic was worth its salt, especially in the early days, as the reports of new cases came in or when stricter regulations were being enforced. Every day, we were waking up to a different situation, and there was little we could do to plan, and our capacity to adapt was being reduced over time, which eventually affected the way we worked.

I think I can speak on behalf of everyone in the company when I say that we have never been so distracted during a big chunk of 2020. We also spoke to our clients, and they were going through a similar situation, so we both eventually acquiesced in a sort of mutual understanding that we all needed to take it easy in such a difficult year.

Here's an example:

MarsBased coffee mug

Every year, we design new merch for our team and clients. In 2020, we decided to create new coffee mugs.

Notice anything funny?

We didn't, either. A total of six members of MarsBased - including the three founders - didn't see the typo in "Alen Ideas" (should've been "Alien Ideas") so we ordered a bunch of them. It was only after having ordered them that we saw it, too late to cancel the order.

We decided to suck it up and accept this chain of failure as a good learning from last year. In fact, we ordered more mugs with the correct text and we sent every MarsBased employee one model of each, without revealing the story. Most didn't realise until we shared the story on our internal communications tool.

We ALL fuck up.

But we also...

Lesson #7: We ALL do incredible things

Impostor syndrome is real. In fact, after more than seven years running this company, I still cannot cope with it. I suffer from it on a weekly basis.

On a bigger or a smaller scale, some of my workmates experience it too. We too often hear things like "I don't feel like I know enough to speak about this", or "I can't show anything worthwhile with the rest of the team".

As a full-remote company, we need to do an extra effort to get to know all the members of the team, because under normal circumstances, we meet three or four times per year. Now, it's been well over a year and a half since we last met (December 2019). This lack of physical interaction is detrimental to forging bonding between the team members, especially with new hires. We've got a few people we've never met in real life because of the pandemic.

Thus, we have a tradition of showing cool things we do, and sharing the highlights of the week on Fridays with the rest of the team, work and/or personal, not with the intention of showing off (we have social media for that), but to share that we're all human after all, with our ups and downs, our good things and our bad things.

We are most of the times pretty bad at judging ourselves, and what is irrelevant to us might be of very high value to others. Only an open culture of acceptance and sharing can help to ease such limiting mentalities.

Lesson #8: Open up not only for yourself but also to help others.

Mental health has been the elephant in the room throughout 2020. All of the sudden every talks about it, but it is still socially unacceptable to admit that you need it or that you need treatment. All kinds of it: social anxiety, burnout, stress, impostor syndrome, depression, isolation, etc.

I have recently started opening up about certain things bothering me or developing into a problem and found a positive surprise: I made others feel better. While I can't say I experience more joy by opening up, I know others felt it, because that conversation created a safe environment for them to join, which sparked many great conversations last year.

Other people, with different personalities, can experience feeling better only by opening up, of course! It's only that it had never dawned on me that we need to be more empathic and think that sharing a bit about ourselves can help a great deal someone else.

Leaders of the world, if you want to lead us all out of these depressing times, open up about your fragility and your vulnerabilities.

Now, that's the kind of leadership we need.

Lesson #9: Sometimes it just does not work, but with good communication no one gets harmed

With all of the above, I can honestly say that I painted a good picture of where we were last year, and a lot of people will be able to relate to it.

We have all felt like we've underperformed or been less focussed because of many reasons, during 2020 and 2021. Empathy helped a great deal to bridge differences and solve problems, but there's something else to it: good communication.

We have always been very good at communicating, precisely because we've always been remote. This lack of meeting in person forced us to develop excellent communicating skills to manage expectations, maintain alignment throughout the length of the projects, define project requirements, negotiate and in many other areas. However, the need for good communication has never been so crucial as in the last 18 months, because even if we were correctly prepared for this global situation, most people weren't.

Doubling down on maintaining clear, concise and well-timed communications spared us from diving headfirst into failure or trouble with clients, partners, employees and providers.

Lesson #10: If we can survive this, we can survive anything

Let's finish this on a positive note. This might look like it only applies to us, because all in all, we haven't had the roughest year, so to speak. My message for the team, with this one, was that we made it through together, and everyone contributed greatly to keep the company afloat.

However, I think that this can apply to us all as a society: we're beating the virus. We'll bounce back stronger from this.

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