The unseen of spending three years at Pixelgrade

Today’s my professional birthday. I celebrate three years of Pixelgrade and the most extended timeframe as an employee. I’ve been a freelancer for six years, but the experiences are quite different, so there’s no need to find common bridges. I want to share with you a version of the story that’s hard to see both from the inside and the outside of the company.

February 5, 2019
Reading time 8 – 12 minutes

I landed at Pixelgrade mostly from curiosity and the desire to work with this organization as a marketer freelancer. At that time, I had a connection with Alex Sava, an ex-customer support fellow and the one who encouraged me to talk with the Co-founders, Vlad and George.

I remember writing an e-mail, scheduling a chat, and jumping into the cold water. The meeting was barely an interview per se. It was more of a friendly yet upbeating talk about how Pixelgrade should focus on marketing efforts to push products even further and reach new audiences.

Vlad and George were looking for someone who had a thing for numbers, and I was at the opposite side of the spectrum. I told the blunt truth from the beginning and let them know that I am more of a storyteller and I have no genuine interest in learning Google Analytics, Heap, Facebook Ads, data visualization, and anything that I labeled as cold and raw. They accepted the deal.

At that time I was living in Bucharest, just finishing my duties as a community glue for The Power of Storytelling conference (2016 edition). I kicked-off a remote collaboration with Pixelgrade and we worked this way for almost two months.

Things were quite okay, minus the Skype calls where nobody had the patience to ask Alin (another remote fellow) or me if we have something to add or anything to ask. Even the connection was poor, things which annoyed and astonished me every single time. I was like we’re in the IT industry, and we can’t have a proper Internet speed and some basic videoconference conditions? What the fuck?

Later on, I found out that nobody took the responsibility to make it work, almost everyone passed the hot potato from one to another while making billions of suggestions about how things should look like.

That episode makes total sense for how things got traction and what happened from there, so keep reading.

When I returned to Iași, I moved from a two-rooms apartment into a studio and started my routine at Pixelgrade’s office. When I say routine I totally mean it.

I was used to having a consistent schedule, to overlap with my teammate’s time, and work together as a team. Well, surprise! Things were not the same here.

Most of the people did not have a coherent office time, everyone came and went as they pleased, and when under the same roof they did not talk face-to-face too much. A lot of communication occurred via Slack, Basecamp and sometimes e-mail.

It was tough for me to accommodate this style since I was coming from a background where people were chatting, changing ideas, asking for help in an active and straightforward way.

The first year at Pixelgrade

I remember I was reading a lot of things about WordPress in general and the open-source community to have a better understanding of the environment. On top of that, I was analyzing the competition, how they market their products, what kind of tone-of-voice they have, which channels fit their work best or what do customers say about their WordPress themes and plugins.

On the soft side of things, I started to learn more about my teammates, most of them seemed to have other personality traits, so it was hard to approach them.

It was the first time in my life when I began to think that I did not know anything about communication. And hey, I was a graduate of the Communication and PR college, worked as a copywriter and storyteller, traveled the country to put projects on the go and even volunteered a couple of years. Ironic, ha?

Things were compelling in both sides of my world.

On the one hand, I was mesmerized about the WordPress world and how powerful this growing community is, and on the other hand, I was giving my best to get along with people from the team and make it work.

Lessons learned:

  • Nothing valuable happens overnight. I put a lot of effort to learn about WordPress’ world in general and create liaisons with my teammates to make sure we work together, not individually.
  • You need to prove what you can do. More than half of the team had a poor understanding of what marketing is and can do for them. They had a lot of biases. I worked really hard to dilute them one by one while achieving results which talked for themselves.
  • Immediate recognition is for amateurs. Looking back, I’m convinced that my need for recognition and validation were signs that I was not confident in my work’s impact. I learned that in a hard way by not obtaining it even when I reached big goals.

The second year at Pixelgrade

Spending so much time at the office cost me a lot in terms of personal life, but also gave me plenty of ideas about how I can evolve here in a way that’s suitable for my skills (people-person), but also for the team’s needs.

I started to work closely with the customer support department and act more like a team leader for them. I lended a hand to improve their communication skills with one another, but also with people reaching us with all kinds of struggles regarding our WordPress themes.

Once again, I noticed my limitations and I was wondering how to level up my skills and knowledge. I felt I hit the same wall millions of times and I still don’t have a solution.

I asked for help and a few weeks later I contacted Laura (therapist and psychologist) to work with us and facilitate communication within the team.

At that time I was so naive that I thought we need someone to make more of an audit and help us learn to be present, but the truth is that after a bunch of personality tests, 1:1s, collective sessions and so on, we discovered way much more.

Lessons learned:

  • If you think you know, reconsider it. I assumed that I met a bunch of different folks and I can adjust my style, but I had plenty of things to (re)learn. The reality is that we’re not as good as we think we are, so if we want to really evolve we need to put time, energy, and money into the process.
  • Letting people go is super painful. Even though Vlad, George, and I had plenty of discussions and I also made it clear during 1:1s that those fellows have concrete expectations to meet, nothing helps you be fully prepared to step into the arena. The emotional drain is huge and, moreover, the rest of the team will never understand how you felt, so move on.
  • Mirror yourself more than on a superficial level. Without therapy and/or coaching is super hard to know yourself on an in-depth level, to understand your roots, triggers, and automatically to become the best version of yourself. It’s not that you are not capable, none of us is without help.

The third year at Pixelgrade

Even though it was one of the most intense years it was also one of the best. I know that from some perspectives it could sound like an oxymoron since when I came, we were earning around $50K/month, and now we are about $30K, but this is how I feel. 2018 was, by far, one of the greatest years for me for so many reasons.

I became a Partner at Pixelgrade, which means a bunch of things, but the most relevant one is the acknowledgment that I have a significant impact and plenty of freedom to shape my path.

If you think about the financial benefit only, please think twice, do some math, and you’ll see that there’s no fortune. Of course, I am super grateful for the extra money I earn, but that’s not the primary driver for being here. And if you put a price on the sacrifices and compromises, you’ll see that no money in the world pays it off.

Another big win was the valuable collaboration with Adriana, who helped us define the mission, vision, and the values which guide all our decisions: big and small. From how we recruit, how we fire, how we eat at lunch until how we develop new digital products, how we run marketing campaigns, and so on. I still believe that we couldn’t have done it without her. Thank you!

I am beyond happy for the outcome of our leadership huddle and how we managed to surface our why and how to protect it in the long run.

Lessons learned:

  • From saying to doing is a long road. Everything seems logical, motivational and beautiful on paper, but things are far more complicated when you need to put values in practice and make it consistently. Do what you preach for sounds like a piece of cake, but observe actively and see how many people keep their promises.
  • Vulnerability at the center of the leadership crew. It’s hard as fuck to be open, transparent, kind, empathic, tolerant while sharing painful stuff. Entrepreneurship is a tough job that doesn’t end at 6, 7, 9 pm or 2 am in the morning, and most of the time you don’t have many serenity moments to fuel your energy pipeline.
  • No healthy career path implies skipping steps. There’s such a rush for most of the people to climb the social ladder that they have no idea what they want to achieve in the first place. I learned that you need to walk through every single step and have a first-hand experience. You can’t just choose what’s nice and sexy.

I failed a couple of times (and it was crushing)

I am proud to admit that I also made some painful mistakes. The reason why I’m proud is not that I am narcissistic and I live in illusion, is because there’s no way to become better if you don’t screw it up. I was super down while being in the middle of the tsunami and unfortunately I made a few people suffer, but not because I wanted to, but because I did not know how to handle some situations. Therefore, I want to say sorry publicly:

  • To Diana, who almost got hired and on the final lap I stopped everything and let her super confused. I did that because I noticed (a bit late) that she does not fit our culture and values, but I did not know that at the time being. I felt more than I could put in words. I am sorry.
  • To Andrei and Robert for how I let them go. Even though it was a collective exercise (with Vlad and George), I feel like we could have done better both during our collaboration, but also when we shared the ugly news. I hope one day you will get over it.
  • To Vlad and George for not being brave enough every single time when we needed most. As an initiator of our leadership huddle (Poiana lui Iocan) I wasn’t always centered to make the most out of our gatherings. I’m giving my best.

When Alex empowered me to come at Pixelgrade and have a talk with Vlad and George I had no clue that three years later I would be writing this story. I did not plan anything unless alignment with my values to let them help me navigate through all kinds of uncertainties. This is all I have.

Today, it seems like Jonah Sachs was right when he described the endeavor of building something meaningful: sometimes you are on the wave, and everything looks awesome, and suddenly you find yourself in the belly of the beast. What matters is if you dare to get out from there to shine again. I do.

Happy birthday and thank you, Pixelgrade! ❤️

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