How Does It Work is our version of a Proust Questionnaire, created to reveal the inner workings of interesting companies and their people programs. Informal Systems is a member-driven worker’s cooperative that builds, secures and deploys infrastructure for Cosmos, a blockchain ecosystem of interconnected apps and services. They also build formal verification tools for that ecosystem, and develop methods to verify and validate the distributed systems within it. As an organization, they’ve experimented with transparent compensation, global hiring, cooperative structures and even paying their team members in cryptocurrency. They spoke to us about how cooperative voting works, why they build all their own people management software in Gitlab, and their unique perks! No blockchain knowledge required.
1. Where are you based?
Officially, we have offices in Toronto, Switzerland, Austria, the US and the UK.
2. How big is the team?
We’re over 50 now! We have about 15 people in our Toronto hub, and the rest are across the US and Europe. We even have someone in Brazil. We’re pretty spread out! We have a few international subsidiaries we can hire through, and if we can’t, we use Deel.
3. What do you, as an organization, value? If you have defined values, tell us about them.
Our values are Play (approach the world with open curiosity), Think (research, experiment, measure, validate), Dance (balance planning and improvisation), Love (psychological safety comes first), Serve (help others help you, recursively), Own (responsibility is for the taking), and Challenge (push boundaries, raise the bar).
Our values are a little bit different, it’s kind of a funny story. We were trying to picture a person that would embody us, and took that quite literally as parts of a body. As in, “think” was the head, “love” was the heart, “dance” was the legs, etc.
We were never going to be a single straightforward, one tagline kind of company, and we felt all these elements were important. Thinking about love, play and psychological safety was important in addition to challenging ourselves, owning things and taking responsibility. We wanted it to be balanced.
4. If Informal were a person, who would they be?
We’re exceptionally curious and open. So maybe as a person we’d be a quirky intellectual who also has an entrepreneurial side. Also someone who is very community focused. They might be part of a local co-op in their neighborhood, or active in open-source ecosystems, or even community farming. We’re trying to build a collaborative community as an organization for the blockchain ecosystem and beyond.
5. Do you have a special nickname for your employees?
We often refer to them as members, because we’re structured like a worker’s cooperative. More on that later!
6. What’s your People tool stack?
We’re unique in that we use Gitlab to build a lot of our own internal tools. Instead of HR software, we use Gitlab to manage employee profiles. We created our own system for this which is compliant, but also has version control and history tracking so people can see their history as they progress. We also built our own ATS in Gitlab that we used for a while, but ended up moving to JazzHR.
Overall, our information is mostly in Github including our employee handbook. We like the version control Github has to offer for transparency, and it allows us to have a software development inspired process where multiple people have to review a change, it has to be merged, etc. For non-technical employees this can be a good way to learn git-based processes, and we help them learn by making it a part of their onboarding. This fits our do-it-yourself ethos and our transparent leanings.
7. How are you structured? What’s your management culture like?
We’re structured like a worker’s cooperative, which allows members a voting share (one person one vote) on things like who our board of directors is, who in turn elect the management team. In a lot of startups just the founders have this power, and we wanted to turn that on its head. Any rights that common stockholders would have rights on, like changes to the shareholder agreement, a hypothetical merger, etc., the members have rights to vote on.
8. What do you not care about as an organization?
We don’t care about concentrating power and authority in just a few people’s hands.
9. What do you look for in a new hire?
Role-related knowledge, general cognitive ability, and then leadership skills and alignment with our values. We think about people who are aligned with who we are as a company. If someone is looking for a company that is going to have a fast exit through a liquidity event for example, they won’t be a fit. Leadership skills are also really important, and we don’t just mean managing people. No matter how much experience you have, everyone can take responsibility for what they’re doing. It’s about owning your work and seeing it through. We also look for someone who has something they want to achieve in working with us. We want them to bring value to Informal, but also get symbiotic value from their time with us.
10. How do you handle team members taking time off?
Because we have employees all over the world, we lean towards the highest maximum time off policy in the countries we hire from and normalize that across the organization. So, if one country has 5 weeks off as a standard, but another has two, we’ll go with 5 for the entire company, regardless of location. We also try to normalize policies like parental leave across the jurisdictional boundaries. This isn’t always totally possible, so often we’ll say something like “6 months OR your local standard”.
11. Do you have any interesting benefits or perks?
When folks join we give them Atoms which is the native token on the Cosmos Hub. We are major development contributors to the Cosmos Network so this allows new employees to be engaged and have an opportunity to interact with the software Informal is helping to build. We also have spiritual days for non-Christian holidays and a wellness stipend.
12.What’s your hiring process like?
We try to make our interviews supportive of all different types of personalities. Some people think fast on their feet, and some people like to take things home and be more thoughtful about it, and that’s okay. In the first interview, we ask them to present and talk about themselves and why they want to join in any format they want.This could be a live presentation or just something they sent over, or just a conversation.
In the second interview, we ask them to do a task, either live or take home, just to see how they approach a problem. In the third and final interview, we cover leadership and alignment. We don’t like using the term “culture fit”, as it can be pretty subjective, but this is definitely more of a personal “get to know you” interview. We talk about Informal’s values, see whether those resonate and align with their own, get into what motivates them, and what they want to do in the world.
13. How do you ensure you’re building an inclusive environment?
It’s a cultural element everyone works on. We have councils within the company that focus on various initiatives, and this is one of them. We are always evaluating how we’re interviewing people or evaluating performance so we’re making sure not only a certain type of person is set up for success. Generally, by being structured equitably as a worker’s cooperative, we are trying to put power back in everyone’s hands and dismantle various forms of supremacy that way. Our compensation model is totally transparent as well, so everyone knows how those decisions are being made. We want to avoid the best negotiator getting the best salary. These processes help us ensure an equitable environment.
14. What’s a people decision the company made that you regretted, or had to give up or walk back?
We originally thought we would concentrate hiring in Toronto, Switzerland and Austria (our major hubs), but it was really limiting, so we focused on time zones and meeting overlap vs location. We were losing a lot of opportunities and a lot of amazing people.
15. What are you bad at, as a company?
Sometimes we’re bad at saying no. We have these huge aspirations all the time and we want to do everything we can. For example, early in our company lifecycle we tried to build and incubate a few different and divergent businesses, and we realized the overhead and effort was more than what we could support. We decided we needed to focus on what we’re really good at and double down on that.
16. What’s an unexpected thing you splurge on?
Travel. We don’t see each other much so sometimes we fly everyone out to the same place. Last time we went to Berlin, and next we’re thinking we’ll do France or Costa Rica. We also just bought some baby swag for people with new babies! Surprisingly expensive, but cute!
17. Finally, does Informal have any unique rituals?
- At every all hands meeting, we start with 10-15 minutes of praise. Anyone can give praise, and it’s a nice way to start off.
- Also, at the beginning of any meeting, we do a little personal check in. What is the state that you are coming to this meeting in? Are you tired, are you happy, are you sad? This can be helpful context and keeps things human.
- At the end of every meeting we do a little retrospective on each meeting. How did it go, did we achieve what we wanted to, is there any feedback?
- We have a reading club for our engineers. They aren’t really reading books, but tutorials and manuals on different technologies and languages. It helps them bond but also become more well rounded technologists.
- We have a podcast only for members, called Informal Stories! We do interviews with people across the organization and learn about their story and what they’re into personally and professionally. It’s kind of an undertaking for a 50 person organization, but it’s so great, and people really love it!
- We have a cooperative council that gets together to reflect on how Informal’s cooperative principles are developing and how member-employees can influence the governance of the cooperative. This helps us stay true to our ethos.
*Compiled from an interview with Arianne Flemming, Informal's Chief Operating Officer.