Oct 13, 2021
And so it's always been confusing to me why startups don't think about their culture from day one. And because we spend so much of our wake time at work, especially on our stage and the positive vibes or feelings you get out of helping others or contributing to the betterment of your community or society or making a difference for somebody else is such an important experience I think everybody should have,
Why aren’t we focusing on culture from Day 1? Today, we look at building connection in the world of start-ups. My guests are Josh Driver and Zach Rodenbarger from Selfless.ly. They have a lot to say about how to build connection AND their technology platform is also a platform for companies to give back, so this is like a double-impact interview.
Zach and Josh’s origin story begins just before the pandemic, launching their platform with high hopes and ideals into a pretty brutal business environment.
They are talking about how they sustained connection, built their company, and expanded the scope of influence in the midst of the dual pressures of start-up life and a bruising global pandemic. As a bit of a teaser, you will hear about the importance of taking a walk, how “hangry” can get in the way of communication, and why Nerf guns could be a good idea for your office culture.
Zach and Josh are both tech guys who are from the same Indiana town of Valparaiso. The met in 2018, committed to the concept of building a platform where companies and individuals can give not just money but time and effort to support causes that matter. The website describes the platform memorably: “Selfless.ly is a unique company that was designed by selfless people to help the world become a better place.”
I'd love to hear from both of you. Why do you think that that is even an important conversation to be having? And how would you define empathy work to me.
There's a few tangible examples.
That is Zach Rodenbarger, the COO of Selfless.ly
Sometimes in our interactions, Josh will come in or I'll come in and we'll have something and go back and forth. And then one of us will say, do you need to go for a walk?
And I was like.
Yes, I need to go for a walk. I need a little fresh air, you. And maybe that's just because we've been at our computers for a couple of hours or longer and need to have take a pause and have a step back. And so we've had that over the year, especially when we're working hard and looking at new timelines and goals and things. And I know I've needed a walk or two here and there.
We had other good practices. Sometimes it's a walk. I also find that sometimes it's a snack. I have you eaten recent links to a snack?
Yes. We've encountered the snack situation as well. Yes. Hunger is a thing so much.
And this is Josh Driver, fellow-hangry sufferer and the Founder of Selfless.ly
That was like one of my biggest learning curves early on in my marriage. I I used to think it was just Luke. It's totally both of us be like, Is this really a thing, or am I just really hungry right now? And you can't know until you're no longer hungry, like, you can't even find out.
I think that's a good follow up on empathy. It's probably easier to see in other people. And then when do we take that step back and look at ourselves and actually admit that? And I think that is really helpful to business partnership or even as we continue to onboard new employees, you know, thinking through, how am I coming across to others?
But also, do you put yourself in their shoes and how are they feeling and so kind of both well and hearing that it actually takes a foundation of some relationship and trust to be able to take someone suggestion to do something like, go for a walk. I can imagine that a less mature or self aware moments. Somebody being like, maybe even the way it could be delivered. Just go take a walk. Somebody being like, I don't need a walk. You need a walk? No, I'm just making a really good point.
But to be able to be at a place where I imagine it takes some work get to that point.
A lot of times I find with guests or people I get to work with those that really, like, are doing the work of promoting more human workplaces and more connection at work. There's an element that comes out of their own personal experience. So I would love to hear from both of you a time where meeting that connection and empathy at work was really important in your own personal story, so that could be giving it to someone or a time where you were like, I'm not. Okay. I need some support right now.
Yeah. I think when I left the startup space and went into a corporate job, I came into a workplace environment and culture that might have been a little hostile and toxic. Like, there is a big disconnect between the leadership and the teams and the mentality of you're lucky to have a job versus we're lucky to have you as an employee. I wasn't exactly realized yet. And I had noticed when I join the company in my role that there was a lot of hostile communication. People had segregated themselves on one side or another and coming into that since I had been startups for so long and been on the ground for creating that culture.
That was very new to me to be in the middle of this disconnect. And it taught me personally about how I want my next company to run and where I think we needed to head and be ego free and transparent and communicate in more of a we're all on the same level here. Like, don't view me as your boss. We're just jumping in together to fix an issue. And I think as far as feeling left out or where I really could have used some support was when my first full time job was as an EMT here, then wished hospital and going through some of the things for the first time and all the trauma there.
There's no debrief or support. I think it's better now than it was, but you kind of had to process and cope individually with some of the things that you would see. And so that was really difficult for me to overcome at times when you have to process seeing the such negative things at times.
Quite frankly, like volunteering someplace and getting the I feel like I'm making a positive difference outside of the trauma of emergency medicine was a big driving factor. A lot of my coworkers and stuff would turn to substance abuse and other things sometimes, but I was fortunate enough to have a good support system, whether it was my family or friend group to where if things were really getting rough, that somebody would jump in and say, hey, let's catch up or reconnect. And so I was lucky in that regard.
But a lot of first responders, unfortunately, don't have that type of network to help them with that.
Thank you for sharing that. And I imagine even as you talk about the importance of volunteering, that there's a through line to some of what you're currently doing.
Zach, how about for you?
So for me, with thinking through empathy in my past experiences, we can look to even just in the early days of self asleep and thinking about, hey, we both took this leap to start something new. And then about six months later, COVID hits. And so how do we work through this time where everything just radically changed, where we just launched the company? We launched the company in January and February of 2020. And then a month later, radically different thinking through. How is my co founder feeling right now?
How do I stay optimistic and pass that along to him and vice versa? We're both kind of feeling these challenges and seeing this real time, right that we had these ideas and projections and we're going to create group, volunteering outdoors, and we're going to invite people to these events and then that's not going to happen. And so how do we really think through and change that strategy? But also, how did I think through, you know, both of us leaving our corporate jobs to do this. And so losing that security and saying, okay, I understand that this is maybe something he's going through right now and the pressure he's going through.
So how do I stay optimistic to then pass that along and vice versa? And that was really helpful during those times?
Did you ever have days where you were both just like, really down in the dumps? It wasn't like one person could encourage the other. It was just both low, especially early on in that pandemic.
For me, I think for the most part, one or the other would see that and feel that and maybe because we're both high empaths. So if Josh was down, I was like, I can't be or vice versa. He may have a different perspective, but I remember thinking that. And so even though it was a really tough day, this is what it's all about. And so I'll stay positive or vice versa. And he would look at me be like, this is when he needs to step up.
I can't remember specifically when we had those times. But I remember even if we were going to be talking to a specific person turning in, saying, I don't have an inmate today to have this conversation. Do you mind just taking this on your own and doing that? I remember a few times where we had that discussion where if we're both feeling challenged, which is actual, we there. See, I think there were a few times where we might have just said, let's just call it a day early and go for a walk or go get a slice of pizza or something and and get out of the office for a little bit or go to the Lake each like, I think within reason we would step up on behalf of each other where we needed to.
It was just not the perfect day. Just saying, alright, let's take a break in re energize and come back to it tomorrow.
That can be so good. And it sounds like really, of course, of course, that would be a good thing to do. But it's amazing how hard sometimes it can feel in the moment, especially with the entrepreneurial churn and pressures and one's own expectations. So I acknowledge how important that can be and how like sometimes it can feel harder to do than it seems is a good job cutting.
I like to just get burn myself out trying to work on the issue at hand. Zach, does a really good job of cutting me off for like of a meter and saying, this is all the time we have for this. We need to move on. Otherwise, I'll sit down whatever whatever issue is at hand. So he does a good job of saving my own sanity.
I definitely like to break tasks up into the smallest parts and pieces and just get something done for that day or something like that. And Josh definitely wants to power through and accomplish it all in one day.
Yeah, I am that trait, Josh. It makes me think there was a there was a friend that I had in College and we used to kind of like joke about his mindset. We would joke that Ben would break his whole day down into micro goals, and it always allowed him to feel good about himself because he would be like, I'm on even the little things. Like, I'm gonna walk through the quad more efficiently than ever before and talk to two people. And I used to think like, what a funny quirk about how Ben's mind works.
But now I look and I'm like, man, Ben was probably just 15 years ahead of all of us in self awareness of like, oh, that's maybe a key to living like a more bounded and contented existence than the rest of us had a handle on at 22.
Yes, Zach is close to that, and I envy that very much because I don't have that level of organization and granularity that see and your friends have.
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I find in building connections with people, there are times where it feels really easy and natural and times where it's a lot more challenging. What are times in either of you or both of you can answer where building connection at work feels really easy for you. And why.
Interesting. I would say that I'm
I love to people watch, and I'm always interested in everybody's story. How did you get to where you are today? What experiences have you had? And so it's easy for me to get to know people because I'm just naturally just so curious about everyone's story.
I find I have to be maybe a little more intentional to provide that space to connect. And maybe that even goes to our overall topic of empathy to take a second and say, okay, if I was coming in on the first day or the second week, how would I want to be treated? Because I think it's easy for me. And as I mentioned earlier, probably Josh, it's easy for us to just kind of put our heads down and work. And so taking that time and being giving that space as well to make the connection, even if it's at lunch time only or something.
But at least you're very focused on allowing that space to chat and providing that because I know for me during the workplace, well, we'll chat later or something, but if you don't provide that space, then obviously it's harder to make that connection, especially in the first week, the first six months, and things like that and thinking, when would I want to have someone reach out to me whether they're a colleague, a boss, or even an intern can be anything.
Yeah. That reminds me of even a slide that I was showing yesterday and a talk that I was doing about imagination and empathy. I hear that a little bit of what you're saying, and although that doesn't always get you exactly to the right place, because you can't ever fully know what another person is wanting or experiencing, it oftentimes will move you closer. What would I want on my first day or first week? And then to be able to act out of that can really close what can sometimes seem like a big distance.
You both kind of offered some things in your answer, but I'll ask it explicitly as well. What are sometimes we're building connection at work feels difficult.
I've started to embrace more of when I am feeling extroverted versus introverted and sometimes when I'm hyper focused on something in the distraction of having to communicate or interact can be frustrating because I need the focused time and especially with new employees coming on. You want to be available and transparent and present. And at our stage right now it's really difficult to be present with everything that we need to get done. And so making sure that I'm not coming off as disinterested is something that I always in the back of my mind.
I want to make sure that I'm not conveying because it's not true. But there are some times where I just want to get something done and want to be sequestered for a little bit.
Do you have yourself in moments like that, like needing to actively engage in self talk, even about things. So I'll get my hand like I have to think about my body language and moments like that of being like, oh, I need to show attention and care right now. I'm going to do something different. Like do you do mental pivots like that? And what do they look like?
Sometimes Zach and I have been together for so long now. I can tell with his expression where I've crossed the line of of being rational more. So there are certain triggers, I think too. And he'll say, yeah, you need to maybe just spend some time by yourself for a minute and go for a lock so I will replay a situation like that in my mind and try to think through. Alright, what did I say? Did I mean to come off this way or if I don't really came off a different way than I meant to trying to understand?
Like how did this person infer that this was what I was trying to say. And so that has been helpful to rethink the experience so that I try not to replicate that. Moving forward. I.
I Imagine there's a line walk between replaying the experience and getting stuck in a never ending loop. How do you thread that needle?
Not. Well. I like to solve everything and have closure. So if there's still a difference of opinion, I like to try to really put the pressure on myself to get it resolved. And in some cases I think I don't look at difference of opinion is like who's going to win this fight and get their way? I think it's more from their background and their perspective. Is there some truth to it and allow that was Zach especially? There are some things that he's very passionate about and has a perspective that he really feels strongly.
And I'd like to think for the most part if he fully believes in something that I may not be so sure on and wants to go that I just trust him implicitly that it's the right thing and that he's very good at doing his research and looking at different aspects of things.
Well, and out of that foundation of relationship, you know what you can extend to them.
Yeah. I think we're a lot of co founders that are state right now. We don't have time to be working on every project together, be on every call together and make decisions together. And so I think if you have a co founder that you don't feel that you feel like you have to micromanage or be a part of every decision, then that's going to be a really difficult culture to scale. It's going to make your company really difficult to grow. And so everybody that we've hired and when Zach joined Selflessly is very clear.
I want the empowerment. I want to create the space for them to be empowered to make decisions that are best for a company and feel confident that they are able to execute on whatever task.
Is this where I say the complete opposite?
This is a safe space.
I've been trying to obviously likewise empowering each other. And we did used to be on most of the calls and get to feel how each is thinking. And so it did help in the first month to six months to be on a lot of the calls together or as he mentioned, in the same room even. And so I can overhear his call, whether he wants me to or not and understand kind of what he's thinking, the action maybe he would take or his thinking on that his rationalization, right.
What would he be thinking in the same spot and so helpful to be able to, you know, have his perspective in in the back of my mind and probably vice versa from sharing that office for the first twelve months and everything. So that's been really good.
I hear a lot of respect and self inquiry in what you both have said. And yet I imagine there's still moments where like on an emotional on a practical on an interpersonal level, you guys have missed and or hurt one another in your journey. What has making meaningful repairs looked like.
Nerf guns. Yeah. I think for one of my birthday, Josh got a couple of Nerf guns for me, and so if we need, we can shoot each other, but also part of the startup mentality, right? We wanted to bring a little bit of fun into the office, but if you needed, you could shoot someone from across the room. That's been one way.
At least I'm totally thinking of my two sons right now, and the moment where Magnus turns to Moses, and he's like, okay, you can just hit me five times in the chest. That's fine. Just don't tell mom.
The biggest issue with that is that I'm a bad shot, so I'm not even like to get I like you. I can't make my points in the same way he can, because I tend to miss him completely, whereas he's really good at targeting me. So that was, in hindsight, not a great decision for a birthday gift start.
She has to make a lot of lessons learned.
Yeah, I would recommend that to other companies unless you're really good at aiming
either that or you want to devote part of your work day to target practice.
Well, maybe you guys would like to expand on the I hear like some fun, some levity, like not taking yourself too seriously. Are there other things that you do to make repairs when you guys have gotten a little bit off?
I think that we find out if if we're having a conflict, that taking the time, like taking some space and cooling down is helpful, but also eventually, once we've had time to kind of process that situation. General, I think there was a time where I went and got a Blizzard or a box of dilly bars and dropped them off at the house. His house is like a don't let go of me. Ever don't leave me gift. I'm sorry. I was cantankerous and vice versa where I think we have a cool down moment and then we Zoom out and think about it there's.
There's always an apology and then some type of affirmation about the other one.
I know I take a little more time sometimes to each person has their kind of respective way to do that and to cool down. And some people want to solve it. Same day some people take the night, take the weekend and so, you know, kind of learning the team, learning the other person and thinking through that, you know, how to talk through that and when and maybe even is more important if it's right away or give some space.
Have you guys ever had misses? Because I hear a little bit. You know, Josh, you said I'm gonna solve it now. Person. And Zach, I need a little bit more time. Did you guys have a learning curve initially and full disclosure. I have had to unlearn in my adult relationships that tendency and belief of like, if I can just say it to you four different times in four different ways, we can figure it out right now. Let's keep trying. And sometimes people are like, no, just shut up.
I have had to learn that in general, my husband is similar. Where his cool down? He needs to think for a little bit and take a break. I think maybe in our early days I went back to like, don't walk away. Let's figure this out so we can move on. But then realizing that he needs a little bit more time and understanding to from his perspective, like, if he doesn't want to talk about it, it's not going to help for me trying to pull it out of them either.
So I've learned to kind of let that go that we're not going to necessarily resolve it today. But I do continue to like to think that I prioritize that moving forward so that we can eventually get through whatever that wall is that hurdle.
I think my learning is definitely around witnessing people and then witnessing yourself. But it's very rare to convince someone of your perspective in an argument. And if you're both on one side, an argument is not going to convince the other person to jump on your side. And so where is that our email leading or can you take a step back and then provide the reason why you're thinking this way? The reason why that person is thinking that way. It's just interesting to see how arguments heat up and things, and there's no side switching.
It's so true. Yeah. It makes me think of even a yet unresolved conversations argument that my husband and I are having and to be like, yeah, nobody ever switches sides in the middle like nobody is in the heat of it or very, very, very, very, very like the 1% does it happen and then usually with a fair degree of resentment.
Yes, that rings true.
I'm struck that you are like building culture internally, but it selflessly is also like the product itself is something that is hopefully building culture and connection in the workplace. Tell me a little bit about how selflessly and volunteering and thinking outside of yourself is good for people in for workplaces.
But I think as we see culture being a normal discussion and given that we're still in a pandemic and becomes such a volatile polarizing environment in the world everywhere.
I always try to find, like silver linings or ways to maybe take take a moment to step away from the reality. And for me, my coping mechanism is to help others. And the reason why I've been able to spend that time to help others is because I've been very privileged and had the ability to do that where I understand that's not everybody's story coming out at our platform in understanding from not every company is a Lily or a Salesforce that has massive teams that work on these big the initiatives and have the resources.
There are a lot of companies I mean humans are humans, whether you work at a Fortune 50 company or a small startup.
And so it's always been confusing to me why startups don't think about their culture from day one. And because we spend so much of our wake time at work, especially on our stage and the positive vibes or feelings you get out of helping others or contributing to the betterment of your community or society or making a difference for somebody else is such an important experience.
I think everybody should have, but unfortunately, we work all the time or we have kids or other responsibilities that limit that time. So we set out to build selflessly so that companies didn't have to try to scrape the bottom the barrel to be able to provide purpose or the positive opportunities or the community engagement. We wanted to be a partner, so every company can experience the positive effects of being a crime brand or socially responsible organization, and that for a long time has only been afforded to gigantic organizations.
And so we wanted to be be the platform everyone can use. And so we have to be obviously an innovative with the pandemic and all these things that have changed the logistics on the nonprofit side. And unfortunately, a lot of this responsibility falls on nonprofits who are trying to keep their doors open and working on their mission. And so we took on the responsibility of of taking that work off of nonprofits and working on educating companies on how they can integrate philanthropy into normal business practices like employee engagement or team building or culture or heck, even the competitiveness of the sales Department.
How do we leverage a philanthropic component while a bunch of type as I go tell each other or something? And I think if there's always even a component of that philanthropic, if there's just even a small piece that goes back or gives back, I think that that's a really great thing to hard wire into a company's culture.
Zach, anything you want to add?
Yeah, I think obviously what Josh said, one of my kind of tag lines, even as we reach out to teams and think about them is kind of selfless. Teams make the best teams. And when you're have employees that are thinking about each other and how to help each other and not always just focused on their task, that's obviously going to make a better team and environment and better teamwork. And so by thinking through, how do we make selfless employees that's really part of selflessly is to help those employees encourage those employees, not Joe's employees to find a volunteer opportunity or find a way to give back to support a cause they care about to have those matching donations from the company and actually use those.
And so all of these nudges that we want to help create selfless employees that are thinking about others and not just themselves. And so when you think about others that leads to that teamwork, really, everyone creating a better environment. And so putting all that together with what Josh said is exciting, that this is something we get to work on each day.
Yeah. Well, my brain can't help but go to some sociological context. You know, I think in generations before, what you are tapping into is this, like human desire to be a part of something bigger, to be giving back, and that there was a while in the US where that was filled by a Church that was asking for a time, and hopefully they were giving towards meaningful things in that way. But that has become less and less central in American communities. There's still this impulse, but not quite the same.
You know, there were good and bad things about that prior model, but there's not that same sort of, like regular outlet. And we're also more connected in theory, to the needs of the world. But through the lens of social media, which doesn't often lead to direct action. So, like emotional sensing, selves are out there like feeling all these things. But there's not this bridging, it towards action that feels like it builds up like a physical, real community that we're regularly a part of. And that selflessly kind of helps to bridge some of those, like sociological shifts with a meaningful offering.
I think without sounding like a sound bite, I feel philanthropy in the connection between a donor and a nonprofit or a company in its community or wherever this for profit and nonprofit connection is. For decades, we've given money to our Church, to the United Way, these intermediaries to trust that that's been utilized in the best way or is going towards the mission. And I think with technology improving and transparency, we've seen over time organizations that may not have made the best choices with the money that have come in and the the biggest concern is that this person had maybe a bad experience with this organization.
Are they going to find another one to support, or are they just going to stop supporting? And that's a big concern. And so now there's this big push for having more control over where people can donate and not necessarily have to be relegated to the confines of somebody's of an organization, agencies or whatever. But what that means is more transparency needs to be done on the nonprofit side. And the nonprofits don't have the resources necessarily to be able to give up regular updates about a campaign or whatever.
And so we've set up nonprofits to kind of fail from that regard. And then Conversely, I think we nonprofits. They're always fundraising. I've started my own nonprofit. We're always trying to raise more money so we can continue with our mission. And that leaves people out that may not have the liquidity or the resources to be able to participate financially, and we have to jump in. Or at least we take on some of the responsibility of how do we jump in and equate somebody skills and volunteer time to be worth just as much, if not more than them writing a check.
And so I think it's a generational shift about what philanthropy is starting to look like when we launch selflessly as we continue to grow selflessly. There's always people from the charitable sector that have their own perspective. You need to trust. This organization has been around for a century that they're just going to be doing the right thing. But we tend to grow because people want to break out of what the mold of philanthropy has been and want to have more control and be able to make more direct impact by us connecting those two sides and really always innovating on how to keep those two sides connected.
That means more resources go to the charitable sector. It just looks a little different. It's not an entry on a bank account. It might look like a donated product or a brainstorming session or some skilled services, but it can be helpful to breaking up some of the foundational infrastructure is a good thing, and I think we're along over you to really start shaking the tree and and changing what is no longer working. And that's a hard thing for people that have been in this space for a long time to necessarily want to accept.
Yeah, something that I heard both of you say as a mark of differentiation that you have cultivated and enjoy is a sense of whimsy, and maybe not taking ourselves too seriously. Tell me how that shows up in selflessly.
Well, my office looks like a kid play room. I just have random stuff all over the place, and then we have a Bulldog in the office. But I think the way that we talk to people, the way that we put ourselves out there, we didn't win the virtual background thing when you made those for your background as your company logo and all the strategic stuff. We didn't do that. I put on a background of me standing at the podium on Jeopardy or just keeping it. I'm sure people for first impression at times like, who the hell is this guy?
But I think that if we were always trying to display, everything is running great. We don't have any problems. We're constantly growing and just a few months away from being the Jeff Bezos to this is really nobody believes that. First of all, instead of constantly say everything is working. There isn't one company that everything's running smoothly, but I think we personality, my personality. We would probably suppress a lot of who we are individually if we always had to worry about being a highlight reel and being being always on and calculated and putting on this this front.
And I think having more real conversations, joking around, making mistakes, owning them and moving on or being open about what we've messed up for, mistakes we've made, I think, is so much more valuable in creating a deeper connection with our staff, which our network, our investors and being open and also accepting of the feedback too.
We don't want to be a vendor or a tech provider. We want to be a partner. And I think that us being vulnerable and embracing that were not perfect, I think, is important to set that expectation for whom we're interacting with.
Absolutely. You want to be able to have fun with your team. You want your team to be able to have fun with customers and on those conversations. And you want people to look forward to having time together, whether it's on a Zoom call or in person, especially for your internal team. But then that customers start to feel that as well and enjoy the conversations with you. And maybe in the software, you start to see certain aspects and certain animations come across the screen or something like that.
You're starting to see a little bit of other software as well, but we want to be have that enjoyment, especially if we're looking at company culture and encouraging people to get out and have some enjoyment and purpose and things like that. We want to come through in our mission and our software and allow really customers internal external everyone to start to see that, feel that and really enjoy the software and enjoy working with selflessly and working for selflessly.
If listeners are intrigued about the platform, the mission, you guys in your story, where can they go to find out more about selflessly and how it can be used to build and increase the sense of connection at work?
Our website is Selflessly. I and our social media Tags or give selflessly on the Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and our email address the general email for Zach, it is Hello at Selflessly IO.
We get all kinds of requests companies that want to become B Corps or our favorite messages or hey, I want to. We're a small company and we don't think that we can really make an impact. Can you show us how to do it like those are the things we really enjoy spending time with. Also, I think hearing from people that may want to start their own company or want to brainstorm. Sometimes we make time to have a coffee with a potential entrepreneur or give some feedback, help others where we can.
We'd love to hear from anybody who wants to reach out.
Here are three key takeaways to build connection and care in the workplace…
To find out more about the work of Selfless.ly, visit https://selflessly.io