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This fintech startup thinks it can help companies build conscious business cultures

Can Bolt’s “culture playbook” become the 2021 equivalent of Netflix’s famous “no vacation policy” PowerPoint deck?

This fintech startup thinks it can help companies build conscious business cultures
Ryan Breslow, Founder and CEO of Bolt [Photo: courtesy of Bolt]
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Intel introduced the corporate world to the concept of Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs, for measuring goals. Netflix ushered in unlimited vacation policies. Will Bolt, a seven-year-old fintech company, coax companies into adopting biweekly performance feedback and cultures that value writing over talking?

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San Francisco-based Bolt, which offers online retailers a one-click checkout experience, today is launching Conscious.org, a public website where startups and corporations can find Bolt’s internal company handbook as well as updates on the company’s culture and guest posts from leaders. The goal, says founder and CEO Ryan Breslow, is to help other businesses seeking to mirror Bolt’s culture, which marries so-called mindfulness principles with standards for performance and execution. “The reason we’re open sourcing this is because it is really hard to figure this stuff out,” says Breslow. “You can just find what you like, share it with your leadership team, and implement it.”

Bolt isn’t the only young company to make its workplace toolkit available to other organizations. Ten-year-old GitLab, which has been 100% remote since its founding, has posted its employee handbook (7,100 pages if printed) online. Netflix was a little more than a decade old when its 127-slide “Freedom and Responsibility” deck—which revealed that the company didn’t track vacation days or expenses—went viral.

Large organizations, meanwhile, have long looked to tech companies for best practices on productivity and management. In the 1990s, CEOs trekked to Round Rock, Texas, to learn how Dell made personal computers using “just in time” manufacturing principles. In the 2000s corporations adopted communal workspaces and open-floor offices to emulate Silicon Valley campuses. “Larger companies have always relied on younger, more flexible organizations as test labs for new management ideas,” says Frances X. Frei, a professor of technology operations and management at Harvard Business School, who worked at Uber for nine months. “Emerging companies can experiment with new ways of working, in a system and culture built for creativity rather than scale. It’s a design feature of our innovation ecosystem.”

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In the second half of 2020, Bolt raised $125 million in a series C venture round; it has added more than 100 new workers during the pandemic, nearly doubling its employment; and Inc. has recognized Bolt as one of its Best Workplaces, all of which makes the company the kind of fast-growth innovator that large companies might seek to emulate. Many of Bolt’s operating values—”Live Curiously,” “Founder Mentality,” “United + Unique,”— are catnip for HR departments looking to sprinkle their organizations with startup pixie dust.

But large corporations, and even some startups, may be surprised by the specificity and deliberateness of some of Bolt’s practices. For example, the culture playbook contains a lengthy section on feedback, which managers are meant to deliver in writing at least monthly and preferably fortnightly. “One of our goals is take the worry out of the workplace,” Breslow says. “And one of the biggest things people worry about is, ‘How am I doing?’ Imagine if you’re playing for a sports team and the coach only gives you feedback every six months. You’re never going to get to improve.”

The company even encourages a framework for feedback. A coworker might first write, “thanks for,” as in: “Thanks for being more accessible.” The issuer of feedback would then add “wish that” notes, i.e. “Wish that you were more organized.” Breslow admits that “it’s a huge investment” but says frequent feedback is core to the company’s culture.

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Another key value that may strike outsiders as laborious—and perhaps unexpected for a tech company—is “writing over talking.” Breslow says a writing culture removes the dynamic where the loudest voice in the room has the most influence on a decision or dominates a meeting.  He also notes that writing promotes efficiency by eliminating unnecessary meetings. “Writing helps us to break down silos, escalate and resolve conflicts quickly,” the playbook states. The playbook’s detailed section on communication explains what platforms should be used—and how. Employees are encouraged to post notes in public channels or shared message boards. The playbook says writing shouldn’t prevent in-person meetings, but even meetings should be accompanied by written notes before and after.

Employees say all that writing can take some getting used to. “I’ll be honest, when I joined Bolt, of all the values, that’s the value I did not like,” says Roopak Venkatakrishnan, an engineering manager. Indeed, the culture is so reliant on writing that documentation needs to be extremely thorough. He recalls a time when his team upgraded the way certain systems are authenticated and wrote it up in a way that he describes as “basic.” But the team didn’t anticipate all the questions that coworkers would have about the upgrade, and Venkatakrishnan and his colleagues found themselves fielding questions at all hours of the day from engineers in different time zones. “Then one of our engineers was like, ‘That’s it, we’re going to document this entire thing.’ Once we documented it [thoroughly], and put that script in place, those questions stopped happening.”

Breslow knows that companies are unlikely to adopt Bolt’s culture playbook wholesale, and the public website is divided into modules so organizations can pick and chose the components they wish to try. “They can say, ‘Oh, I don’t like the feedback system. That will never work for us. But I like the founder mentality, and that’s something I want to implement in my company,'” he says. “You can start small.”

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One workplace issue that is still in progress at Bolt is the question of political discourse at work. Last month, software company Basecamp told employees: “No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account,” prompting about a third of employees to resign. Some anonymously raised questions about Basecamp’s culture in a piece published by Platformer.

Political conversations at work “can be destructive if not managed correctly,” Breslow says. “For us, we have work channels and non-work channels. Even in the non-work channels, you have to be open-minded.” One potential solution the company is mulling is to provide a very specific template that employees can use for political or social discourse, akin to the “Thanks for/Wish that” system for feedback. “We [are proposing] frameworks on how you post about political issues: Here’s what I found out, here’s what I believe, here’s where I may be wrong. And you would have to post in that format to demonstrate your open-mindedness about the issue before you post it.” He says the company’s guidelines will be added to the playbook “pretty soon.”

Zainab Albedawi, a learning and development lead at Bolt, gives the company credit for fostering a culture that respects and even celebrates different viewpoints. “I’m a Black Muslim woman and sometimes in tech spaces, you can feel like the other, and it’s almost like a barrier,” she says. “At Bolt, it feels like that’s kind of like my value add.”

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Glitch CEO Anil Dash, whose company posted its employee handbook online about four years ago, says he applauds the trend of tech companies sharing their best practices with the world. But he cautions that Bolt, by making its policies public, should expect its own employees to have heightened expectations that management will adhere to the spirit and letter of the playbook. “It enables accountability, and if you’re doing everything right, that’s great,” says Dash. “And if you’re not, then there’s hard work to do along the way.”

Although Bolt’s obsession with writing and feedback may seem extreme to some leaders, management experts say such documentation is very much in keeping with employees’ growing expectations around transparency and accessibility. It wasn’t that long ago that mainstream companies blanched at Netflix’s policies around vacation and expenses. But the streaming video giant “normalized the idea that some of the most talented and creative humans on the planet place enormous value on freedom,” says Anne Morriss, founder of The Leadership Consortium, which works to build inclusive executive teams. “If you want these people to work for you, you can’t invite them to come sit in your corporate cage, however gilded it may be.”