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Show Highlights

Float On, for all its quirks, has ended up being very traditionally structured as a business. There are managers, co-managers, and employees who all have different responsibilities and commitments. Graham and Ashkahn break down how they came to structure the company this way, despite aggressively fighting against that mentality of a corporate, top down structure.

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Transcription of this episode… (in case you prefer reading)

Ashkahn: This is Ashkahn, my name’s Ashkahn.

Graham: I’m Graham over here. This question starts with, yeah, “how do you manage your staff, and who has what responsibilities?”

Ashkahn: How do you manage your staff?

Graham: And who does what?

Ashkahn: And do does the stuff?

Graham: Has what responsibilities? Yeah. Great question.

Ashkahn: Yeah. It’s a big question.

Graham: Great one. Good work.

Ashkahn: Very good question.

Graham: Thanks for such a good question.

Ashkahn: So, I guess one thing you should now, we’ve at this point been around for seven and a half years and have tried a number of different things over the years.

Graham: Yeah.

Ashkahn: Have been a lot more actively working shifts in the shop, and not, and so we have many things that we, I think, have tried and failed at to end up where we are right now. Not that where we are right now is the perfect system, but it at least has made it longer than all the other stuff we did that didn’t work.

Graham: Yeah. So, we can talk a little bit about what we do now, and we can also talk about some of the other botched attempts at a good management system, and some lessons at least that we’ve learned at Float On throughout the years.

Ashkahn: Yeah.

Graham: So, right now, I guess just to give a little background, we don’t actually even work in the shop ourselves. So, other than being kind of consultants to the people working the shop. There’s very little day to day interaction that we’re having in there.

Ashkahn: We have kind of, I think four total classes of employees that they could be in.

Graham: Castes, if you will.

Ashkahn: Castes, yeah, and we treat them differently. So, one is just someone in training. So, that’s when we just hire someone. We have someone that’s kind of in their training process. Then we have someone who’s kind of just a normal, their jobs, their responsibilities really go no further than coming in to work, booking people in while they’re here, cleaning, getting people through the whole process of floating, all that sort of stuff.

Graham: All the basic just float attendant or salt monkey, as we call them, regular duties.

Ashkahn: Then we have kind of two classes of manager, I guess, is the easiest way of seeing it.

Graham: Tacos and Taco Supremes.

Ashkahn: That’s our titles for them, yeah. There’s the Tacos and the Taco Supremes, and so, there’s kind of right now one person at the very top of our little system, the Taco Supreme, and there’s two people below him, and then there’s the rest of our employees. So, that’s our kind of basic setup.

Graham: It’s like a manager and then two co-managers or assistant managers, I guess, is what you’d call it below him.

Ashkahn: Yeah, and those three people do all of the kind of, I guess, admin stuff that you would consider necessary to run the shop. So, they do our shift scheduling. They run our payroll. They keep a much better eye on construction that needs to be improved, float equipment that needs to be updated. They take care of customer, trickier customer situations that come up. They take care of employee situations that come up. They have access to our bank account, they have cards that link to our bank account, they manage our finances to the extent that we need it.

Graham: They still work at shop, too, I guess it’s worth noting.

Ashkahn: They still work at the shop.

Graham: Yeah. They definitely all still put in shop hours.

Ashkahn: Yeah. They think about marketing and they help us with our marketing programs and all that sort of stuff. Kind of everything else that goes into running a float center, and we kind of step in on the highest level stuff to talk about, “hey, here’s maybe, let’s chat about marketing and where we’re trying to go”, or “let’s do an overview about what construction stuff is on the timeline and figure out what’s the best way of fixing whatever’s broken or making up dates.”

So, that’s kind of the full little scope of responsibilities.

Before we dive too much into the benefits of that, it might be nice to zoom backwards and kind of to see our path towards ending up at this system.

Graham: Up in little float time machine we have here.

Ashkahn: So, we go all the way back to 2010, and in 2010, it was us just as the owners mostly working pretty much every available hour that needed to be worked in the shop. So, it was some months before we had employees and stuff like that, and even for the first several years, we were very active, working pretty much full-time in the shop between all of us.

Graham: Yup.

Ashkahn: We didn’t have much of a system at that time. It kind of was just a-

Graham: You could almost call it aggressively non-systematic. It was almost part of our, philosophically unsystematic, I guess.

Ashkahn: Yeah. We had very little protocols. We had no one who was, we were calling a manager, anything like that. We were just running things, and everything that happened was kind of organically happening. We were just making the decisions that needed to be made, and we were pulling the hours that needed to be pulled, and things were just kind of developing on a very real life, pragmatic, deal with things as they come up sort of basis with very little higher level, this person has these roles and this person has this title. There was really none of that.

Graham: Or even when you’re closing down the shop, here’s all the things you need to make sure happen.

Ashkahn: Yeah.

Graham: Sort of very practical kind of considerations, we also, yeah, just did without for quite a while.

Ashkahn: Part of that was because we were working insane hours and just trying to hold on to the crazy beast that we had created. Part of it was very purposeful. We didn’t want to put a bunch of protocols and stuff like that in place without really feeling like they were necessary. That resulted in us kind of pushing everything to the point that it really felt like we were hurting because we didn’t have some structure, and then we would build structure in slowly in those places that it really felt like we needed them.

Graham: Yeah. A lot of our early decisions as far as some of the wackier things that we’ve done or tried out with Float On, some of which have totally succeeded and stuck around, and many, many which have failed and totally crashed and burned, they kind of come out of this reaction to just thinking about other businesses and places we’ve worked and just what we think is kind of lame and sucks about those jobs, right?

That’s one of them, just huge oppressive manuals that have no flexibility and where you’re basically just as spelled out as possible, a distinct cog in a machine that has to go through the motions of what’s laid out and how it’s laid out for you, and we definitely wanted to give people more ability to tap into the creative side and take advantage of some of those human assets that we all possess. Get people to think about things and not just blindly follow a manual.

It was a good intention. We went in with the best of intentions, regardless of whether it panned out, which it didn’t pan out so well.

Ashkahn: Well, and that’s to say that there’s still some things we don’t have protocols for that I’m sure we would’ve come up with had we sat down at the beginning-

Graham: Yup.

Ashkahn: And tried to spell everything out. There was definitely some benefit to just realizing where we would be just completely wasting our time, so that’s nice. We still have flexibility in what we do, and leave a lot of things up to people’s personal intuition and judgment, which I think makes our customer service and stuff like that a lot stronger.

But from there, our first attempt at formalizing things was very much formalizing a kind of non-hierarchical structure, which is called a heterarchy. That’s the kind of flat, term for a flat structure, a heterarchy. That was our first goal at creating some sort of more systemized approach to how things would run in our shop. We didn’t want a single manager or any managers. We kind of wanted people to be able to take on more responsibilities, but anybody to be able to take on more responsibilities if they wanted to. If everybody in our shop wanted to, then it was, our system was accommodating to that. So, it was, again, a very kind of egalitarian approach trying to not have kind of a person at the top of a pyramid.

Graham: One of the first things we found that definitely not everyone in the shop was interested in that.

Ashkahn: Yeah.

Graham: Even with the promise of more pay. A surprising number of people just wanted to be able to clock out at the end of the day and have that kind of be the end of it, and then didn’t even really want to spend time when they’re clocked in dealing with more of the creative, administrative side of things.

Ashkahn: That was ultimately, I think, a pretty big part of the downfall of that system.

Graham: For us, just to interject there, that was one of the most shocking things that I discovered early on about how different my view of the world is from the actual world, was I thought that almost no matter what, human beings given more autonomy and more free range to do what they want, are going to be happier and embrace that. Because that’s how I am, I guess, and I just extended that to the entire rest of humanity as one does sometimes. But it turns out, no, that’s not what everyone wants. Some people really do want things laid out, and again, just sort of have this delineated time where you’re worried about a set range of responsibilities.

Ashkahn: Yeah. Running a small business is kind of a crazy thing. There’s just a lot of stuff that can happen. There’s a lot of decisions that need to be made all the time, and yeah, people just felt like they didn’t necessarily want to, everyone didn’t want to be a part of the hiring process. They were okay with just a few people hiring people, and not having to be involved in every decision.

More than anything, I think it was just feeling the weight of everything that’s happening in the shop on your shoulders. Another part of it, too, is I don’t think we ever really got to the point where as owners, we weren’t still kind of acting as a managerial decision maker.

Graham: Mm-hmm.

Ashkahn: We never really totally got ourselves out of the shop and had a fully heterarchical structure in place. We still were kind of organically being like, “okay, well, at the end of the day, someone’s gotta decide this, so we’re gonna decide this and that.”

Graham: Yeah, we kind of had problems with both those. Getting out of the shop took a while, heterarchy was difficult.

Ashkahn: What I think I realized is that it’s, and one thing that I think makes even our more hierarchical structure now work in a way that doesn’t make it annoying is that I think what people wanted and what we needed up kind of turning our managers and stuff into was almost more like the safety net.

Graham: Mm-hmm.

Ashkahn: Instead of having someone who’s telling you what to do, it’s kind of like the managers in our shop are getting paid more because they’re the ones who have to deal with shit when it comes up. If a pump breaks, someone can be like, “Great. I’m just gonna call a manager,” or if push comes to shove, there’s a shift and there’s nobody to cover it, our managers know that it’s their responsibility to go cover a shift. That’s really kind of how, when we started going towards the process of creating our Tacos and our Taco Supremes-

Graham: We still don’t like the word manager, yeah.

Ashkahn: That was very much the perspective that we were trying to do. It was almost like these were, like the rest of our shop was, relieved to have these people there to deal with the stuff that meant that they could just not have to worry about it, much less that these people were there to tell them what to do and monitor them and make sure they were sweeping every night and all that sort of stuff.

Graham: Yeah. Also, all the tasks that you sort of just wish you had a parent around to do. It’s like, oh, we need to pay utility bills every month.

Ashkahn: Right, right.

Graham: Or, the landlord has something about the new water meter that we really need to discuss, and it’s like, can you go do that, all the adulting for me? So, almost like that role of higher level responsible things that need to get done, but aren’t necessarily the most entertaining or the fun parts of getting to make decisions. Those getting pushed to a manager, I think people were also really happy about.

Ashkahn: We try to pay attention to the things that I think do kind of lead to managerial positions and stuff getting annoying for people. So, our managers have, they don’t really have access, or it’s better to say our shop really has access to the full amount of information that’s available to anybody. Our finances are open. When we run payroll, we put our payroll reports for everyone. It’s not like there’s this secret hidden door of information that our managers get access to that the rest of our staff don’t, and I think that’s part of helping everyone feel like they’re a part of the shop and they can make informed decisions and stuff like that.

Again, some of it just comes down to responsibilities. There’s plenty of shops where if there’s a shift that is gonna get covered, a manager’s just gonna force someone to do it, and that manager’s decision of who has to work it is the final say. Instead, what we’re saying is, “Listen. You’re getting paid more as a manager to be the person who has to do the worst stuff sometimes. The reason you have to go in randomly on a Thursday night to cover a shift is because you make two, three, four more dollars than these other people, and that’s what that extra money’s going to. You kind of taking on the burden that comes with running this thing.”

Graham: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I guess it’s an interesting shift. It’s almost like taking someone and putting them into a role of service as getting more money. In a very real way, the job of the managers that we have is not to have underlings who do their bidding as much as the manager’s the one who’s at service to the shop and at service to the people under them, and less responsibility also just means less to worry about, rather than less control over their own lives. So, little different dynamic, I think, just power wise than in a lot of other businesses.

Ashkahn: Yeah. It’s interesting. Sometimes, instead of having people gunning for that manager position and undercutting their boss, we’ve had an opening before and we had to kind of coax people into being like, “Okay, someone needs to step up and offer to be the next manager.” People definitely see it as a position of greater responsibility and work and so, I think that creates an environment where people are really grateful for our managers. They really appreciate the fact that they’re there to do what they do.

Graham: Yeah. Yeah. I guess another thing that we’ve learned along the way was, it did kind of involve our more ramshackle way of just delineating responsibility in general. Again, like Ashkahn kind of said, at the beginning it was just us having things that need to get done, knowing that someone needed to do them, and kind of selecting at random from this big list and being like, “well, I’m gonna tackle this thing.” That’s just, kind of worked out, and we all just knew that at the end of the day we had to get all of these things done.

At some point, we started actually bringing on our first staff members, which I think is pretty, probably around day one of someone else working in our shop is when they were just like, “So, do you have written down how to do any of this stuff? What are my responsibilities again? Can you document at least some of this?” It was a very slow process to get to the point we are now, which is we have a huge amount of documentation, which we just keep in our Float Helm guide where everyone can kind of see the different entries, and it’s been this move from almost no control and no micromanaging to a huge amount of really delineating what’s getting done every single day through a series of task generators and through our employee guide.

I think how we ultimately, that worry was still there of “how do we stop this level of control and tasks and stuff like that from being oppressive and being way too controlling and just kind of suck the enjoyment out of being at a job?”, and the ability to, basically just giving our staff control. Giving them the ability to manipulate and change those rules and adjust the tasks that pop up and change what’s written in the guide, I think, has been the development our of initial philosophy. It’s like, we didn’t want oppressiveness, and so we steered away from any kind of control. When in fact, people want a guide. They want to know that to do. They want to know that’s expected, and I think the way you get away from that oppressive atmosphere is to give them control over those tools and control over what they’re working on.

Ashkahn: Really, all of this is a mix of structures and protocols you’re figuring out and of your company culture, and you can’t really have either one work without the other. You can come with all sorts of clever structures for things, but if you’re not also pairing that with you telling people, “Hey, I want you to be able to make decisions. I want you to be able to feel like you can do things the way that you think are right,” you gotta kind of have that part of it, as well. If you just say stuff like that and you have nothing set up in your business to actually empower people or give them autonomy, then it just seems like you’re a giant phony.

So, you kind of, it’s really got to be both of those things working together. You have to kind of have an idea of how you want your shop to run and try to get that philosophy to the people running it, and then pair that with actual structure and systems that support that philosophy.

Graham: Yeah. So, it’s been this slow growth of our management system, which makes it an interesting question to answer. It very much did start with these kind of more high and lofty ideals, and a lot more chaos, and it’s gotten way more controlled, but a lot of those ideals we had initially, we’ve still kept, just the implementations of them have really morphed over time.

Ultimately, it settled into a lot more traditional management structure still, despite all of our trying to set up all of these alternative structures and we do do things very different in many respects. We’ve still ended up in a place where we have us as owners, and a manager who’s running the shop, and a couple people under him who are handling the kind of secondary management duties, and then just a bunch of regular shop employees below that. So, that kind of dream of having a non-hierarchical structure just got kind of completely shifted during the course of our first several years in operation just through playing around and being at least unable ourselves to figure out what the missing pieces in that puzzle were, or how to really solve that specific problem.

Ashkahn: Yeah. I almost feel like the bigger your company gets, the more it starts to go towards these crazy corporate sort of things, and then the more you need these insane sort of structures to try to counterbalance that. It’s almost like you have to, you get pushed extreme in one direction, you have to push extreme in the other direction to try to stop yourself from going full corporate.

Graham: You never want to go full corporate.

Ashkahn: With a business as small as this, you can even have this kind of normal hierarchical structure, but everyone still feels really good in their job and it doesn’t feel like they’re part of some big, dumb company with a bunch of big, dumb rules. It’s almost like we have, there’s a little bit more flexibility being a small business to have people feel good about their work without necessarily having some totally insane structure in place to make it happen.

Graham: Yeah. So, couple tips from the salt trenches over here.

Ashkahn: Yup.

Graham: Yeah. You got anything else on that side?

Ashkahn: Listen to people. At the end of the day, that’s the goal, right? So, just be able to have feedback from the people working in your shop is kind of the best way to figure out what’s going on. Everyone in our shop feels very comfortable when something sucks and it doesn’t work, even though we really think it’s the right way to do things, people are just like, “We don’t like doing this.” That forces us to have to change how we’re approaching things.

Graham: Yeah, yeah. We’ve gotten that a lot, and again, sometimes in very surprising ways where “we want you have freedom over what you do”, and people are like, “That’s not gonna work for us. We want a little more being told what to do.”

Ashkahn: I still have a dream of a totally heterarchical structure. Maybe we’ll get better at this small business thing.

Graham: Tomorrow, we’ll get working on that tomorrow.

Ashkahn: All right. Well, if you guys have other questions for us, you can go to floattanksolutions.com/podcast.

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