Mailbox is an app that turns your email inbox into a to-do list, and offers a whole new way to think about email. turnstone spoke with Co-Founder and CEO Gentry Underwood about what culture means, and how being acquired by Dropbox has changed their space.
What do you think of as culture at Mailbox?
For us, culture is a way of talking about what ‘good’ looks like and what the ground rules are for how we’re going to work together. My background is mostly from IDEO, a design firm. And my cofounder was from Apple, so our cultures are very much influenced by those two places. And we put a high premium on constructive, collaborative problem-solving. Building on the ideas of others, being optimistic in terms of the belief that you’ll find the solution. Holding firm to a vision of what could be as opposed to getting bogged down in the reasons why it’s going to be hard. That kind of thing.
Similar to that is a way of evolving ideas that’s iterative and puts some heavy emphasis on the team and not so much the idea belonging to one person. Ideas are these things that evolve and everyone helps contribute to. So we’ve strived to create a culture that creates like IDEO like might (in terms of that collaborative aspect, for example), but to do it with more of a process of getting stuff out the door like Apple might (in terms of actually shipping and producing and holding that tension between that blue sky and rubber meeting the road).
Is there anything about your space that influences your culture?
Yeah, I mean, space-wise that means a lot of shared spaces. In IDEO, you either have large, open common spaces, or you have focused project rooms; project spaces. And project spaces are great because they’re like shared high-resolution displays. You put photos and sticky notes up on these walls, and all the walls in the space become like a common notebook. And you’re living inside of that notebook, and that notebook’s evolving as the project’s evolving, and people can point and reference things on the wall; and it changes the way your conversations work.
And not having offices or cubicles, like taking down as many walls as possible promotes loose, casual collaboration. We tried to adopt some of both of those values. Before we moved to Dropbox — although Dropbox is very similar, a lot of large, open tables, no unnecessary offices — we found over time that we needed to separate space for engineering, which tends to be very heads-down and focused and prefers quiet and lack of distraction, from space for design — particularly collaborative design — which tends to be energetic and conversational and social.
So we eventually built a little wall in our space and dedicated a third of it to the envisioning process. And the other two thirds to the kind of realizing-through-build. And the two thirds was quiet and somewhat dark, and the one third was bright and sunny and had music pumping; we all yelled at each other as we built stuff.
Do you find that works well for people with different work styles?
Before we did that, we tried to put everybody in the same space and just have it open, and what we found is that the guys who were trying to get stuff built were frustrated by the noise, and the people who were trying to be collaborative and generative and creative were finding the silence stifling. And so everyone was getting frustrated with one another. And we put the wall up and set up the poles, and actually we found in our weekly meetings that people were almost excited to get back together for that moment as opposed to having been on top of each other for the whole week. It really changed everything. It made a very different process.
What is your space at Dropbox like?
That’s a whole ‘nother thing, because that company’s about 300 plus, and it’s an all-in-one, gigantic space with lots of conference rooms. We’re building out project spaces, but lots of open area. We’re still figuring out the right ways to use the space there and to modify some of our processes to best work in those contexts.
If you could improve one part of your company culture, what would it be?
One of the things we’re trying to do more at Dropbox is to create these permanent spaces where the detritus of design can kind of build up on the walls over time. I’ve just come to believe that when a group is focused on a problem and it’s hairy, if you don’t have something like that — some common area where the learnings can accumulate — it can be very difficult to stay on a common ground. So having spaces — war rooms — that are dedicated to working out a particular problem or creating some new feature or new product, really understanding all the nuances of it, letting it evolve in plain sight of everyone who’s working on it collaboratively… a war room or project space just enables that in a really different way than anything else.
Riane Menardi is a writer, maker and community builder based in Des Moines, Iowa. When she's not helping her team at Goodsmiths serve handmade vendors, you'll find her writing and interviewing people about culture, space and startup life. Riane has recently taken to making her own cheese and refashioning clothes from thrift-store finds. She loves exploring her town (and its many microbreweries) from atop her blue bicycle, and has a yoga mat permanently stationed in her living room.