How to blend strong values and high performance with Bethany Koby

As the co-founder of the startup Tech Will Save Us, which designs play experiences that kids make and code themselves, Bethany Koby has seen her company grow from strength to strength. She’s learnt how to achieve ambitious business targets, while also making TWSU an inspiring place to work where strong values matter.

Our own COO Melissa Andrada worked closely with Bethany whilst they were both at Wolff Olins, and said that she was “one of the most passionate and original leaders you’ll ever meet. For her it’s not about work-life balance, it’s about a blend. Seamlessly, she blends design and business, motherhood with the c-suite, and profit with purpose.”

Key Takeaways
  • Clarity. In order to create an autonomous, passionate workforce, it’s important to have as much clarity as possible in the company, whether through decisions that are made in key meetings, the company objectives that you set for the coming year, or the targets that you expect your employees to reach.

  • Structure. By creating a clear, objectives-oriented structure within your company, it will become easier to achieve goals, ensuring everybody works to the same standard.

  • Self-criticism.The ability to be self-critical allows you to see what you can improve upon as a leader and a business. Assess your progress towards targets at the end of a quarter. Talk to people about what could be done better after each presentation, workshop or meeting.

  • Values and performance. If performance is a measure of how well you’re doing, then your values help you assess how you get there. By introducing and reiterating values within your business you can set standards for the core behaviours that drive the culture of your business, ensuring that the overall experience for both the employees and customers improves as a result.

  • Time Off. Though being a leader of any business can be absorbing as well as time-consuming, it’s important to strike a good work-life balance and take time away from the business, even if you need to ask your team to help you do it.

“Our relationship to technology is both flawed and bizarre. We're really sophisticated users of technology, but bad producers of it.”

What inspired you to found Tech Will Save Us?

I have a background in design, but I consider my career to be in branding and innovation. Both I and Daniel, my co-founder, had experience in running workshops and teaching people about technology. As a result, I became aware that a traditional education never moved fast enough to keep up with technology. Learning was changing: the Open University was becoming popular, and we saw that the idea of ‘lifelong learning’ was becoming an everyday experience for people.

The other two pivotal moments that sparked Tech Will Save Us were the birth of my child, and finding a laptop in a dustbin outside our house. As a parent, I wanted my child to be digitally literate and fearless when it came to technology. I was upset that the toy industry wasn’t presenting technology to kids in a way that was inspiring, productive and open; in a way that they could learn and be creative.

It only took one more ‘spark’, which was finding the laptop: it made me realise that our relationship to technology is both flawed and bizarre. I think that we are really sophisticated users of it, but really bad producers of it. This was the trigger; I wanted to address that relationship, and this was what inspired us to found the company.

“The two pivotal sparks for TWSU were the birth of my child and finding a laptop in a dustbin outside our house.”

How has your team structure evolved as you’ve grown?

We bootstrapped until we were profitable, and that was when I quit my job. We started by building and developing the structure around the idea, ‘what are the things we have to be good at in order to deliver the best experiences?’ We were a pretty inexperienced team, and as we began to build that structure we began to have a much better understanding of accountability and ownership, and what we had to be delivering.

We’ve streamlined our structure to grow our business to the next phase. At the beginning I used to receive six direct reports from my staff. This was great at the start, but over time we needed to condense things into smaller, more integrated, teams. Today, our structure is focussed on the product, or end-to-end experience, for our customers, from opening the box and the packaging, to the digital tools and resources that we use.

We work based on OKRs, Objectives and Key Results, where we have a series of overarching objectives as an organisation that break down into key results. These key results have ownership, though because of the fact that we work in such an integrated way, the person who ‘owns’ a key result in a product objective might be somebody in marketing, or in production.Bethany Koby 2

It’s helped a lot: in fact, I don’t know why we never used OKRs before. We’ve seen in the last four quarters that when we’re working as cross-disciplinary teams we work better, and enjoy the process more — and so does the customer. The rhythms that we now have as a business, and that the OKRs create for the teams, is great.

“As a founder, I’m obsessed with what we’re doing, but I do have a family and I do need to spend time with them; as a result, I need my team to help me with taking time off!”

Every business has challenges — how have you dealt with that?

Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, which is one of my favourite books, helped me identify the areas I was lacking in and make improvements. One of those key improvements was about sharing information. Each quarter, we hold an all-hands company chair, where we talk about the critical numbers of the business as well as our objectives — and recently, our personal objectives as well.

My own objectives were twofold: I wanted to empower team leaders to solve problems, as I have a tendency to go to a team directly rather than speak to their manager. The second is completely different: as a founder, I’m obsessed with what we’re doing, but I do have a family and I need to spend time with them — as a result, I need my team to help me with taking time off!

Otherwise, we've made OKRs accessible to all employees through Google Docs, and at the end of the quarter we assess where we're at — I don't think we can get any better at what we do unless we look at where we fell short and why.

“I’ve always been obsessed with evidence, but I’ve grown a lot as a leader. Now I’m much clearer about which important metrics to focus on and why.”

Your business has balanced a metrics and target-driven system of business with a warm, personal approach — how do you strike that blend?

I think that we’ve gone on a real journey: I’ve always been obsessed with evidence but I’ve grown a lot as a leader, and now I’m much clearer about which important metrics to focus on and why. Two things that we do measure are our most important KPIs, engagement and sales. They are equally important critical numbers to us, and the objectives that we set help us to improve upon and boost them.

Our key values are also vital to us, and we have settled into a rhythm in which we iterate on them each quarter. We look at stories of how our values live through the business, and we use that to assess and evolve them to ensure they remain strong and true in our behaviour. It's important to have that ability to criticise ourselves.

What courses and learning experiences have you found particularly useful for yourself or colleagues?

I took a course at 500 Startups focused on performance marketing, which was an amazing experience both for myself and my colleagues. While I was initially skeptical about accelerator programmes, it was a tangible experience — we learnt through experimentation, which I really enjoyed. I've incorporated the key lesson into the way we run our business — growth is a mindset, not a collection of tactics.

What’s on your learning playlist?

One of my favourite books is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, who is an incredible leadership management writer. This book is really easy to read; it’s not jargon at all. He uses narratives to tell stories about leadership, and he provides a framework for leadership and what is important for leadership; it helped me to identify what areas I was lacking in and make improvements. I made the whole management team read it, and it even converted the sceptics. I’ve also enjoyed another book by him — The Advantage — which addresses the health of organisations.

I love rituals, and Tools of Titans from Tim Ferriss helped me set a few new rituals which have been transformative — such as writing each morning. Even my five year old son does this now!

I also like the book Do Lead from the ‘Do’ collection of books: it defines leadership in really simple terms, and describes it as helping two or more people to accomplish a common goal. I liked this book because it says that anyone in the business can be a leader; indeed, leadership isn’t a general taking people to war, there can be all kinds of demonstrations of leadership, and it’s important for us to embrace that.

I’m a big fan of both Radical Candor and Quantum Leadership. They both focus on creating autonomy and clarity, and I’m constantly searching for ways in which to create more empowered, autonomous people, by creating clarity in the business which enables them to do that.

I’ve also enjoyed The Alliance, by Reid Hoffman, which covers the challenges of managing people in the modern age, and Jim Collins’s followup to Good to Great, Great by Choice, addressing why companies thrive in difficult circumstances.