James Wong of Avidian Technologies gave me one of the funnest interviews so far. James is educated as an accountant, trained as an engineer, and baptized an entrepreneur by fire. He started his first company, an ebusiness consultancy, at twenty-four years old and sold it four-and-a-half years later.
After reviewing the pros and cons of his first startup, he decided that he was “lazy” and didn’t want to bill by the hour like he did with his first company. Instead, he wanted a business with leverage. So he started Avidian Technologies, a CRM software and product company with a co-founder Tim Nguyen in 2002.
Avidian’s mission is to create an easy-to-use CRM software inside of Outlook. James observed that most people are in Outlook all day long. Who doesn’t check their emails first thing in the morning and sneak in one more glance before hitting the sack? Since most salespeople spend 50 to 60 percent of their time in Outlook, it was an intuitive next step to create an easy-to-use CRM system inside Outlook that would spur adoption. He named it “Prophet,” which is a tongue-in-cheek play off of “Outlook.” Prophet distinguishes itself with better accuracy and farther future projection.
Today, Avidian employs thirty-four “associates.” James insists that they not be called employees and that the associates leverage the five company principles to make decisions.
James shared a plethora of interesting insights on culture, HR, and performance reviews. Here are some of his best tips.
Big on Culture and Guiding Principles
He referred to this multiple times from the beginning of the interview to the end, so I know that he sincerely believes in building a positive company culture.
His Five Guiding Principles are a neat acronym, TRUST, which stands for:
Treat each other as we would like to be treated
Respect associates for putting family first
Uphold excellence in all we do
Share success with associates, clients & world
Treasure People by Promoting from Within
James proudly shared that he often overhears associates making decisions and invoking TRUST. Most businesses just pay lip service to these types of company pronouncements, so employees easily and forget about them, just as the founders do during day-to-day operations and decisions.
James leverages the approach espoused by Verne Harnish’s Mastering the Rockefeller Habits: What You Must Do to Increase the Value of Your Fast-Growth Firm. I have to admit I’m quite a big fan of the Rockefeller Habits too. Avidian uses this philosophy for annual strategic planning, monthly GMTs (goals management team meetings), and weekly and daily meetings. One key takeaway from the Rockefeller Habits is that the faster your company is growing, the more you need daily meetings for alignment. This may be counterintuitive since most entrepreneurs dread meetings that waste time. Harnish preaches that if done correctly, meetings can be short, efficient, and beneficial to productivity.
Borrowing the Zappos Philosophy on Raises
Who cares if it takes someone six months or three years to master a skillset before they receive a raise? If it’s faster, why don’t we provide them a raise right then and there instead of waiting for a year or some predetermined HR review period? James uses this inspiration to motivate his staff and compensate them frequently in a less structured way than traditional annual compensation reviews offer.
Breaking Bread with Employees
James likes to take his associates out to lunch to just talk and listen. He views this as a casual, approachable way to learn what’s blocking them from reaching their goals. Long gone are the days when management executives would have their separate executive-only dining area!
Polite About Feedback
During the interview, James brimmed with enthusiasm and excitement. He was quick to share feedback and elaborate. So when he said that he likes to ask associates if he can provide feedback, I paused, wanting to learn more. He often starts by asking, “Can I share something with you?” or “Are you open to a coaching idea from me?” Most of the time, the answer is “yes,” especially with a softened start like this. But sometimes the answer is “no,” and then he keeps his mouth shut.
Reasonable About Raises
When providing compensation reviews, he first looks at the performance of the company. Then he’ll review what each associate wrote about his or her own performance and compare that to his thoughts. They’ll fall into a range from exceptional to medium to poor (but Avidian really doesn’t have these classifications at the company) before then talking about raises. He finds that everyone at Avidian has been reasonable with raises. And if there is someone who requests a number higher than the budget can accommodate, the company can usually find a way to offer that amount contingent upon the associate hitting a quantifiable goal to justify the additional increase.
Questions Value of Annual Reviews
At the end of the day, James fundamentally questions the value of annual reviews. He admitted that some years, he overlooked doing them. No company backlash ensued, and the business performed equally as well as the years that they did conduct reviews. So do reviews fundamentally have a positive, negative, or neutral effect?
I’m with James in fundamentally questioning annual performance reviews. I know there has to be a better way. I think we’re going to start seeing new philosophies and approaches for more real-time reviews. I believe this is better for the reviewer and reviewee versus a mandated annual sit-down.
— David Niu
For all the energy that James exhibited throughout our interview, his parting thought was the most provoking: “Do we really need annual reviews?” Because if the reason is a compensation review, why don’t we just schedule compensation reviews and do rolling performance reviews throughout the year? Or is there a way to be like Zappos, who does rolling compensation reviews along with rolling performance reviews? Ultimately, James is an ardent believer in human capital and getting the best out of people. He reads a tremendous amount on this subject, and similar to Marlaine of Apex Facility, I don’t think we’ll ever know all there is to learn about HR and managing people. But clearly, implementing proven best practices espoused by Tony Hsieh and Verne Harnish is a great place to start building a positive culture with clear values.