3 Things I Learned At FreshBooks

After 3 interesting years of working for FreshBooks the time has come for me to head back to graduate school to indulge my fascination with digital anthropology and how our use of technology is transforming our culture, cognition and identities. While I’m excited about the future I can’t help but look back on what I’ve learned over the past 3 years at one of Canada’s best known tech firms.

Solve A Real Problem

At this point in the Internet’s existence we’ve seen all sorts of products and services of questionable real world value pop up and fall by the wayside. As a serial early adopter I lost track years ago of all the “Service X is Closing Down” email notifications I get for things I forgot about completely after kicking the shiny web app’s tires once or twice.

A very smart man I worked with used to reply to virtually any question about whether he could build a complicated feature with “Sure, it’s all just built out of code.” That might just be the coolest thing about programming; if you can imagine it, you can probably build it. But whether you should build it is another story.

Part of FreshBooks origin story is the simple, infuriating moment a decade or so ago when the CEO accidentally saved over an invoice and lost valuable paperwork for his consulting company. It’s a simple story about a relatively non-sexy task, but right away the majority of freelancers can identify with the pain.

My Takeaway: By all means build whatever you can dream up, it’s a great way to learn, test out new languages or frameworks, or just pass a rainy Saturday afternoon. But don’t mistake “cool” for “useful.” If you focus on a real problem that you know people are experiencing you have much less work ahead of you convincing them that what you build is something they should care about. My dog might need a social network, but I definitely need something to handle storage and citations for academic papers I read. (Paperpile, I’m looking lovingly in your direction.)

Give a Damn

FreshBooks is well known for their exceptional customer support. It isn’t marketing hype, nor is it a facade the support team puts on when they come into the office. From Day 1 on the job every single person at the company is immersed in customer support. Your first month, even if you’re a new exec, is spent answering phone calls and emails, getting to know the users and the product.

By the time you move on to the role you were hired for you have a very real sense of what people love and where they’re getting frustrated. Designers can imagine actual users they’ve conversed with try to navigate their new UI elements. QA and dev can remember the frustration in a user’s voice when they’re tackling a bug. Being able to genuinely empathize with the people you’re interacting with not only leads to higher quality work but it also deepens almost any other encounter. It’s a skill worth cultivating.

My Takeaway: Honestly ask yourself if you really care about what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it for. If the answer is no then take a step back and re-evaluate. Remind yourself that your users are each a person with unique needs and concerns, and put yourself in their shoes. Nevermind treating people the way you’d like to be treated. Treat them the way you’d want your mum to be treated. Trust me, it feels good.

Embrace Change

When I started at FreshBooks I was on the support team and there were 60-something employees. By the time I left I was on the dev team, by way of the QA team, and the company was above (to the best of my recollection) 140 employees. The org structure had changed several times. The organization of the dev team had been through multiple iterations, including a final (for now) dramatic shift to agile scrum last summer. Strategic initiatives were developed and adapted, and in some cases abandoned or even resurrected. As a naturally change-averse person I had no choice but to get comfortable with change, and I’m better for it.

My Takeaway: The idea that what you’re going to end up with is exactly what you envisioned when you started a project is a fiction. If you buy into it you can miss out on opportunities while you’re too busy seeing what you expect rather than what actually is. Don’t keep pivoting for the sake of change, but do keep asking yourself if you’re on the right track, if what you’re doing makes sense and is the best approach. You may take a different journey than you expected, but you’ll probably be a lot happier with the destination.

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