How letting 3 people go re-defined our company culture

Culture at Xeno

According to pop-culture, working in startups means working in a small team with a lot of fun and freedom, where the dress code means shorts and t-shirts, and furniture means fancy bean bags. What they don’t show us is the harsh reality, a day in and day out marathon of work with a hope of making it big and the countless failures you have to deal with along the way.

We at Xeno, take pride in our culture and it reflects in everything we do.

Now building the right company culture is done by

  • Hiring the right people
  • Creating the right environment for them to work
  • Firing the right people with the right process and intention

This is the story about the time we fired 3 people at Xeno on the same day and how that became my biggest failure.

It’s about the awakening that happened in our small 1000 sq ft office space, where individuals from across the team came forward and hustled to turn my biggest failure into our team’s biggest achievement.

It was a regular Monday afternoon when Pranav,  co-founder & I broke the decision of letting these 3 people go.

Suddenly, our happy company culture turned into a place full of questions and uncertainties. What happened in the course of the next 24 hours changed the way I thought about the team and awakened each one of us in the company.

For confidentialities sake let’s call those three people Tom, Dick, and Harry.

And here goes the three stories:

Story of Tom (from Inside Sales):

Tom was brilliant, funny and a very smart kid. In fact, at Xeno, we used to call him “the Xenopedia”, because of his extravagant knowledge about everything in life.

Someone almost right out of college, who would always come to office with brightness and a smile. One of the very few guys I would discuss different topics like politics, culture, philosophy, etc.

However, he could not perform in the role of Inside Sales Executive. He himself felt like he might enjoy a customer success or a marketing role more. Unfortunately, at that stage of the company, we did not have a role to offer him in another department, so we had to let him go.

How Tom reacted

He was very shocked when we dropped the news, but after talking for half an hour he chose to accept our decision because he believed that we were doing the right thing for him. He also committed to work with us without salary, until he found a new job.

The entire company believed in him and decided to go overboard to support him. To my amazement, they implemented a new company-wide KPI to help find a job he loves.

On a simple tracking sheet, Tom listed down his favorite companies he wanted to work for, and the entire Xeno team found references through their network for him at those companies.

Everyone also pushed him really hard, motivated him on a daily basis, prepped him for the interviews and made sure that he be at his best.

Eventually, Tom got an offer letter within 30 days from a company where he wanted to work.

The support from the entire team towards making his exit better was brilliant. However, what matters now is that he is happy with his new profile and doing exceptionally well in the new role.

He still visits us occasionally to revisit the old times. More importantly, Tom keeps referring Xeno to the brands he is working with.

Story of Dick (from Outside Sales):

Dick is an all-time hustler, a person with built-in sales DNA and who gets things done in his own unique ways. He is outrightly opinionated and doesn’t shy away from keeping his critical feedback to himself.

He has a huge passion for driving & he’d go to racing events over the weekend. That guy’s discipline towards his passion was insanely admirable and as an entrepreneur, you always want to keep such talents close to your sleeves.

But we had just pivoted our business to sell only to enterprises and were still figuring out how to crack deals in the enterprise space. Since we didn’t know when we’ll crack the problem of enterprise sales, we wanted to reduce our cash burn. So we made the hard decision of letting Dick go.

How Dick reacted

Dick is a hustler and you know what, a hustler always finds a way to solve a problem. And shockingly his immediate response was: “I don’t want any salary for the next quarter but I want to be a part of this company and prove to myself that I can crack enterprise sales”.

The next day, he created his own 30, 60, & 90-day plan with audacious targets. If he didn’t meet any of the targets, he’d walk away. His confidence & drive inspired us.

By taking away the financial objection, upon which we took the decision of letting him go, he made us believe in his ambitious plan and we decided to take the bet.

Dick did it. At the end of this quarter, he overachieved his targets (120% to be precise). Just for the reason that he loved the culture and everyone in the company, he had found a set of people with whom he could share his dreams and work together to achieve them. And now we have set bigger targets for the next quarter and we know we will achieve it.

He always kept pursuing his passion for driving and he recently represented India at a rally and had a podium finish.

Story of Harry (from Tech):

Now, this was a very difficult situation as Harry started working with us even before the company was registered. We got him when he was still in his 3rd year of college and was part of our weekend marathon of work, FIFA and more work for over a year.

The story of how Harry, Pranav and I, working from a small room and breaking the restaurants market is for another day. Personally, we become very close friends to the extent that we were flatmates in our first 4 BHK office, which was the reason that this one was a tough call.

Professionally, he is audacious and passionate about coding. He worked on all the technology from backend to frontend to android technologies with a lot of enthusiasm.

However, over time, I felt that his enthusiasm had faded. He had a lot of potential to grow in his profile but somehow we weren’t able to nurture that.

I believed it was time for us to let him go for his own benefit.

How Harry reacted

Now, coming to the toughest and most exciting part of the story. We sat down with Harry and tried to explain our reasoning but he wasn’t convinced.

What hit him the hardest was that in a way, he thought we had betrayed his trust. This decision was not totally based on our finances, but also our judgment of his performance. We finally agreed to part ways.

That was the toughest night of my life when we communicated the decision to Harry. I kept thinking about whether I made the right decision or not. Just before sleeping, I decided to address this to the entire Xeno team in the morning with an open Q&A forum.

In the morning, everyone for the first time gathered for the meeting before time. I was ready for a backlash, for a civil war. But what happened next will shock you, it surely shocked me.  

We spoke about our reasons for letting Harry go, since, almost everyone was close to him. In the middle of the meeting, one of his teammates and an early member of Xeno, Nishant stood up and suggested a solution.

How the Xeno team reacted

He said that he is willing to take a pay cut and buy Harry more time to ensure that he performs to his best potential. I was baffled!! After him, 3 other people from different teams stood up and expressed their desire to take a pay cut.

Every founder dreams of a situation where every person in the company becomes a mini-CEO. That day I could see 4 mini CEO’s standing in that room. One small initiative by Nishant caused an awakening in the room. They created new KPI’s for themselves and a 30-60-day plan for Harry and ensured that Harry overachieves them.

24 hours ago, Harry was wretched and had almost lost the trust of working at Xeno. But, after seeing the immense support he acknowledged the criticism, accepted the plan and started working on overall improvement

Our attitude determines how we look at a setback”. To Harry, it was a stepping stone to success. A few months back, he was scared of taking new challenges, experimenting with new ideas and was always filled with resentment.

Just this week he added 3 new powerful features to our product. He went on to encourage the entire tech team to work on the product roadmap for next year. He has also taken additional responsibility of managing the Delhi Tech team last month.

The action of those four people made each of us realize the true meaning of leadership. So here are my thanks to Ashad, Arjit, Yogesh and Nishant for taking up that responsibility and correcting my failure. And they did this for the sole purpose that we always do things differently.

Wrapping Up

Every time I think back about this story, it still gives me goosebumps. We let 3 people go, the first chose to work for us for free for a month, the 2nd one worked for free till he became the best salesperson at Xeno & for the 3rd one his salary was paid by the team for 2 months. Never have I ever heard a story like this ever before.

These events that happened in a course of 24 hours redefined our company culture and my belief of making Xeno, the best workplace culture in the world just skyrocketed. A few months back I was running a company with a few people trying to achieve a monetary target. Now, I am going through a journey with a set of highly motivated friends for a need to make an impact in the world and that’s not my achievement, it is all our achievement.

If this story gave you goosebumps like it gave me, please share it to spread the word for the power of culture & the power of the people in the Xeno team who made this happen.