Cuckoo Culture Vol II - How we organise ourselves

Alexander Fitzgerald

CEO

Cuckoo Culture: Organisation

This is a blog post about our business. If you’re a Cuckoo team member, just about to join us or generally interested in startups, this is the content for you.

I’d also love your feedback.

Summary

How do we organise ourselves? And how do we make decisions?

These are questions I've been struggling with for the past couple of months. Business is a lot about setting up rhythms of work that align people. Those rhythms define people's day to day interactions and act as the crucible of decision making. Startups clear advantage is speed of manoeuvre. So the way we organise ourselves and make decisions are key.

This blog post answers the first question: How do we organise ourselves? And here's the summary of our answer:

  1. People: Our people define our product
  2. Structure: Areas, Teams then Leadership
  3. Direction: Set, calibrate, educate

A bit of background on myself and Cuckoo. I was originally a civil servant in the Treasury. I'm now the CEO at Cuckoo where I see my four main roles as strategy, fundraising, culture and communicatons. We started work in February 2020 and switched our first customer (my parents) 5 months later. Since then we've raised $6m in venture capital, launched eggceptionally fast broadband speeds and been voted the top provider for customer service in the country.

Now lets get into the detail.

Our theory of people

People drive communications
Communications drive systems
Systems drive product
Therefore, your product is defined by your people

My co-founder Dan introduced me to Conway's Law. It broadly states that "any organisation that designs a system will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organisation's communication structure". I loved this when I first heard it but now realise there's something missing. People.

I'm rightly proud of the twenty eight people who are now the Cuckoo team, given we started this year with six. We care deeply about who join us. So we've defined what values we value when looking for new members of the flock. When you join Cuckoo, you take a psych profile (personality and character test) to both understand yourself and help others understand you.

Tabatha and Tommy together lead our marketing efforts. Here are their results:

  • Tabatha (Growth) - Adventurer - Adventurer personalities are true artists, but not necessarily in the typical sense where they’re out painting happy little trees. Often enough though, they are perfectly capable of this. Rather, it’s that they use aesthetics, design and even their choices and actions to push the limits of social convention. Adventurers enjoy upsetting traditional expectations with experiments in beauty and behavior – chances are, they’ve expressed more than once the phrase “Don’t box me in!”
  • Tommy (Brand/UX) - Protagonist - Protagonists feel called to serve a greater purpose in life. Thoughtful and idealistic, these personality types strive to have a positive impact on other people and the world around them. They rarely shy away from an opportunity to do the right thing, even when doing so is far from easy.

You should hopefully see how the values, character and temperament of the person in a given role, will directly impact the product they produce for our business. I'd take an Adventurer and a Protagonist leading our marketing any day of the week.

So we've got a bunch of great people. How do we organise ourselves into small, coherent teams?

Anecdote #1 - The HP Way
"I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively which they could not accomplish separately. They are able to do something worthwhile— they make a contribution to society (a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental)."

The HP Way: Dave Packard on How to Operate a Company
– David Packard the founder of HP

Our theory of structure

Areas - Product, Marketing, Operations
Teams -
Growth, Service, Brand/UX, Tech, Finance, Talent & People, Strategy
Leadership -
CEO, Heads, Team Leads, Managers

When we started Cuckoo I subscribed to the notion that you set an ambitious market share goal in the future, and everyone in the business then works to that. I remember one of our early plans was to ask, how can we grow to 1 million customers? The plan was great. But was also missing something. Product-first thinking.

We've now launched 1Gb download speeds (FTTP), free setup (12 month contracts) and have an even juicier launch planned for early next year. All things we hadn't actually planned to do at the start of the year. These core product changes in turn impact how we should market. So that's why we now think of our business in three sequential areas: Product, Marketing and Operations.

Kaleidascope

Obviously these divisions are all false constructs and dividing lines we place on our collective human endeavour. But at the same time, they are useful in thinking through problems and ideas. Since telecoms is our TAM (total addressable market), our product derives our SAM (serviceable available market) and our marketing derives our SOM (serviceable obtainable market).

We also have teams. Think tribes of skill sets. The easy thing would be to think that only Growth and Brand/UX control Marketing for example. Or only Tech and Brand/UX impact Product. But in actual fact every part of the business impacts every other part. So our "Areas" and "Teams" are two sides of the same coin. The human service our Eggsperts provide to customers is as much "our product" as the Cuckoo website we click through.

Areas, Teams and Future teams at Cuckoo

And its leaders of teams, and within teams that embed this knowledge. So here's our rough hierarchy today:

  1. Board - Challenges strategy alongside legal and financial decision making.
  2. CEO - Leads strategy, fundraising, culture and communications.
  3. Heads - Lead strategy formulation with a core focus on Product, Marketing and Operations.
  4. Team leads - Lead specific tribes (Teams) of Cuckoo.
  5. Managers - Lead the development of people.

A quick note on scaling and how these might change. Below is a slide from a recent team away day. It's a great analogy for how a startup scales, but equally, how teams within a startup scales. Just as our Service and Tech teams might be approaching the cusp of Family > Tribe, the wider business might be moving into Tribe > Village territory.

The 5 Stages of a Startup

So in the same way the CEO (me!) sets the strategy, fundraising, culture and communications of the business as a whole, team leads will be doing the same for their teams as complexity increases.

Anecdote #2 - Startups can learn a lot from the military
“Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage in war than audacity.”
Carl von Clausewitz

Startups are often like a battlefield. Chaotic. Fast. Life or death. Ecstasy and rage. And while the perceived top-down world of the military might at first seem at odds with startup life, we can actually learn a lot. Why? The principle of mission command. Competence, trust, understanding, intent, orders, initiative, and risk acceptance. All evidenced in this great paper on the Yom Kippur War.

Our theory of direction

Set > Calibrate > Educate

People, tick. Structure, tick. So what do we do now? We need direction and we do this in three general forms: setting, calibrating and educating.

Setting is about plotting the route to the harbour of the future. Calibrating is about taking readings along the journey and adjusting course if needed. Educating is about increasing our understanding of the world around us.

👆 Direction setting

Vision (the unseen world ahead we see) - make the internet frictionless > Mission (how we'll speed up this future) - build the most powerful gateway to the internet > Ambition (what that tangibly means for us) - grow to a £1bn revenue business > Strategy (running the OODA loop) - refined by the Cuckoo team > OKRs (objectives and key results) - set quarterly to hold ourselves to account

🗺 Direction calibration

Board meetings (every other month) > Heads meetings (every other week) > Sprint planning (every other week) > Team check ins (ad-hoc)

📊 Direction education

Growth slack updates (daily) > Service slack updates (weekly) > CEO Sunday email (weekly) > Customer feedback sessions (every other week) > Management accounts emails (monthly) > Shareholder email (quarterly)

Anecdote #3 - Coordination headwinds; how organizations are like slime moulds
A long and lovely emoji deck on how speed can atrophy as organisations get bigger. Here's the crib notes on how to guard against the creep of stasis:
- Small teams, small goals
- Leadership let go of the detail
- De-couple things, aim for converged "eventual" perfection.

Our unified theory of organisation

Here's the simplified Cuckoo theory of organisation:

  1. People: Our people define our product
  2. Structure: Areas, Teams then Leadership
  3. Direction: Set, calibrate, educate

In a future blog we'll aim to also answer the next key question: How we make decisions? Some of the things we plan to cover are:

  • What's important to us?
  • Are we hierarchical or decentralised?
  • Do we wait for total agreement or do we "disagree and commit"?
  • Is it important to get decisions perfect or to get them made?
  • How do we reflect on decisions we've made previously? Are they open to challenge and re-making?
  • What do we do to ensure good decision quality?

And here's a little poem to reward you for getting to the end:

“We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lies a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.”

James Elroy Flecker

Switch broadband, for good.