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Four Leadership Lessons From The Early Days Of Abebooks

It was a running joke at Abebooks that you had to put your desk together on your first day. But it wasn’t really a joke, you actually did have to build your own desk. 

When I was hired as employee number eight, I remember wrestling with my drawers on the carpeted floor, feeling sweaty, and wondering if this really was my new “tech” job. 

As the company grew, it was common to arrive in the morning and see a new face trying to jam their new drawers into their desk. It was a right of passage and the start of the culture experience at Abebooks.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve co-founded two technology companies with my husband and built remote, global teams.

But my start in tech came with my first career job at Abebooks. This is the home where I learned four key lessons that became foundational for how I lead and work today.

Look after your people

When Abebooks was born in 1995 just as startup culture was just being birthed.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland came out and I saw that our little world was being emulated in shiny, new Silicon Valley. 

Startup perks didn’t exist yet and, for perspective, it took several years to implement credit card payments online because e-commerce was brand new. 

Our founders didn’t have a frame of reference for how to reward or recognize their employees, but they knew that looking after their people was critical.

Donut and muffin Wednesday was born, and the team would flock to the kitchen for the best pick.

Our “office mum” Carol was hired to look after the office operations, but she was also hired for her empathy and to ensure that we had what we needed to be successful and happy in our roles.

When Abebooks really started to become profitable, the four founders felt that issuing stock options for their employees was critical. This generosity made me feel valued, seen and showed me in a tangible way that the founders cared.

Takeaway: Looking after your people takes many forms. You need to use a variety of mechanisms so that everyone feels valued in the way that matters to them.

Give people the opportunity to grow and make mistakes

My first manager, Judy, believed in setting big, hairy, audacious goals. 

It wasn’t uncommon for her to swing by your desk, give you a mammoth project, and end by saying, “Have a think about it, then come and see me in my office with any questions.”

Judy believed that people are more capable and more resilient than they think they are. She was always stretching us and giving us more responsibility because she believed we could do it. 

And, when we were given this room, we took it. Over time, we came into her office less for questions and started taking initiative in projects and managing teams. 

Importantly, even when we screwed up, like when I misspelt large words on a booth backdrop targeted at librarians (the horror!), she taught me a proofreading trick I still use today (read it backward) and we moved forward. 

The backdrop was reprinted overnight at great expense and Judy asked me to not do that again. I have never again made a mistake on any printed material.

Takeaway: I learned from Judy that when you expect great things from your team members they will rise to the challenge and deliver. This is a foundational piece of how I manage today.

Co-founder relationships are hard

In the early days, two of the Abebooks co-founders shared a small office together while the rest of us sat in the open space area. 

They had their desks side-by-side and you’d often hear laughter coming out their door. I remember they had a small megaphone that would amplify and change their voices, which resulted in a lot of hijinx.

They’d have regularly lunch together or huddle up with other developers to strategize a change.

These early growth days were exciting and fun.

If it had been today we’d have been called a unicorn startup—experiencing massive growth very quickly. 

And, with this growth, a layer of management was hired to create more structure and process—something we needed.

Consultants came in, a board was created, and we moved offices twice. 

All of a sudden it was three years later and we were over 80 people.

Our co-founders didn’t have an office together anymore and, one morning, I went into the board room for a meeting and there was a large dent in the drywall. 

News trickled through the office as to what had happened. 

The previous afternoon, our two co-founders had a very heated discussion about strategy and one had thrown something at the wall. As one of the programmers told me, “Mum and dad are fighting.”

The two men who’d told jokes during my interview were locked in deep conflict, which made me feel sad and nervous.

Ultimately one of them stepped away from the business and, as hard as it was, this experience prepared me for my own co-founder struggles.

I’ve split with co-founders and even married one of them. Co-foundership is incredibly complicated and difficult. 

Takeaway: You will experience many highs and lows with your business partner but you’ll get through them and be okay.

Rituals are important

We had all sorts of company rituals that grew organically. 

My first team activity was being a team member on the Abemates, our Selkirk waterway rowing team. We trained every week, starting in the spring, and then had a fun race day competing against other businesses in the area.

But my favorite ritual was the lunchtime hackysack group. Anyone was welcome, at any skill level. We implemented the “no sorry’s” rule, which meant the polite and apologizing Canadian in all of us wasn’t allowed to say “sorry” if they missed the hack. 

There were more rituals: coffee runs, backyard BBQs, parties, the annual GolfaQue (golf and BBQ event), running club, and more.

These rituals brought different team members together from across the company. I got to know developers, finance staff, and operations team members outside of project work.

Takeaway: Creating deep culture happens away from your workload. Rituals can be replicated online for remote teams like 4 pm drinks on Fridays or Mario Kart Mondays. Find a group activity that you love and share it with your team.

Decide what matters to you

Leadership is personal to everyone. We all come into a role with different experiences and expectations.

My best advice is to reflect on your career and discover the things that are important and matter to you. 

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When I founded my first company I knew that I wanted to work every day with people I respected and cared for. And many of the lessons from Abebooks have helped me grow as a leader and grow my people. 

The biggest thing I know is that if you take care of your people you are setting a solid foundation to grow your business.

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