I Came for the LEGOs

Why I Joined FounderCulture 

Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

I am wide-eyed about finding exactly who I didn’t know I was looking for: DROdio and Sue Odio of FounderCulture, a nascent community of startup founders. So far, I see it as a space for visionaries to connect with their peers in order to learn and grow personally and professionally as they bring new products into being. I like to think this will lead to better businesses and a better future for planet-kind. Maybe galaxy-kind. That’s what I’m shooting for. 

It’s easy to presume that everyone in Silicon Valley lives on profit motive alone. But what draws me to DROdio and Sue is that they’re the kindest, most enthusiastic people I’ve worked with and they’re ridiculously productive because of the systems they have put in place, they are solution-oriented, and they hire people they trust. 

I’m one of those people. 

One of Sue’s mantras is that people join a company for two reasons: because there’s a product they believe in and a place to belong. As a community-oriented person, this makes immediate sense to me. Yet how is it that as companies innovate, all the focus is on product and almost none of it on belonging? We want to help leaders build healthy, sustainable workplaces that honor individuality and get the job done. 

But let’s back up a bit. 

Friendship onboarding

In the summer before fifth grade, I signed up for “computer camp.” It was 1990. I was ten years old. And computer camp meant learning how to type. Unlike the sleep-away camp where I went with friends from my soccer team for a week each summer, I didn’t know anyone at computer camp. This might not have mattered much if I were in public school, interacting with hundreds of different kids, but I attended a hippie private school with the same ten classmates since kindergarten. 

After a lonely first day, I decided to take the plunge on day two and introduce myself to the girl sitting next to me. It went so well that it was the first thing I told my dad about when he picked me up, plywood from his latest carpentry job filling up the bed of his pickup truck. 

As I climbed into the cab, I announced, “Today, I learned how to make friends!” 

“Oh really? How do you do that?” he asked, curious to hear my take.  

“Well, first you go up to them and you say your name,” I said. “Then you ask their name.” 

“That’s a good start,” he said, nodding as he drove us home. 

“Then you ask what they like to do, and you tell them what you like to do,” I continued.  

Now my dad was smiling. 

“Anything else?” he asked. 

“No, that’s it. Because then you’re friends,” I said. 

Keeping friends would be another story. But you have to start somewhere. And that somewhere was my MVP. A lifetime of iterating lay ahead of me.

Let’s go astro

In terms of planets, I have a lot of Saturn (the power of limits) and a lot of Moon (the lovely mess of feelings), which has always made me confusing to myself and others. 

I want structure. I want to play! 

I want organization. I want to cry on everyone’s pillow because feelings are real, okay? 

My last kitchen had a giant pantry, which was packed with glass jars, each of which I labeled with individual vinyl letters. To keep things interesting, some were in grammatically incorrect French (cajous for cashews) or everyday Spanish (pepitas for pumpkin seeds). I labeled one jar brown shugs so I could feel like the sugar was fond of me. My friends were surprised to see row upon row of labeled jars — they only knew me for my feelings.

Failed experiments in systems engineering

Senior year of high school, I systematically went through the yearbook to fill out the “most likely to succeed,” “prettiest eyes,” “person I hate the least” form. On the day of the awards, I was shocked that no one else took it seriously. Come to find out this was called being nerdy. Nerdy was not on the form. 

One summer, a Real Housewife of the Hamptons took me on as her private chef. She and her lifelong housekeeper “onboarded me” by yelling everytime I forgot to do something they never told me about in the first place, so I wrote out an SOP, thinking this would be useful for the next chef. Because that’s what 76-year-old millionaires want: feedback on how they could improve. Next! 

When I worked at the United Nations, I created a deck and presented it to my agency on how we could improve our internal communications. Everyone clapped. Nothing changed. (Note to self: change takes more than a deck.)

At my first job — teaching life science to middle schoolers at an Orthodox Jewish school — interactions between the religious and secular staff seemed, well, a little prickly. So I suggested that we focus our teacher prep days on building connections. The principal laughed and said, “Oh, Dearie, I don’t think our Rabbis would be into name games.” I mean, she had a point. 

Movie break 

Have you ever watched the Swedish film Together, based on a communal house in Stockholm in 1975? My favorite scene is when a boy from outside the commune moves in and starts playing with all his real world toys, including LEGOs. 

A commune boy watches in awe. 

“My dad said he would build me LEGOs,” the commune boy says, “but he only made these.” He opens his hand to reveal two small, carved blocks of wood. 

I, too, was born on a commune. That’s what made it so funny. 

LEGO time 

When I moved to the real world, I fell in love with LEGOs. My best friend had an entire basement full of them, and he would let me play with them while we called each other names.

I also fell for metaphorical LEGOs. Everywhere I go — this job, that freelance gig — I’ve brought my LEGOs with me, thinking maybe they’ll want these. I can always see the need: what’s not working, what could use a more efficient protocol, or just any protocol. But I usually find myself in LEGO-free zones, where things are fine just the way they are! 

Yet the status quo is never enough, not for me. It could always use something. A fresh coat of paint. A couple of daisies. If I’m honest, a total rebuild.

Often, while waiting in airports, I plan out how they should be restructured for efficiency and multilingual audiences. Who should I talk to about my plan, I half wonder before laughing at myself and discarding the idea entirely. 

Without meaning to, I’ve ended up at a different kind of airport, and I’m talking to the people in charge: Sue and DROdio. Except that they know exactly what they’re doing. 

“I feel like I have been walking around with a couple of LEGOs, trying to build systems where they’re not wanted,” I told Sue and DROdio, “but meanwhile y’all have an entire LEGO set!” 

Sue and DROdio are basically the LEGOLAND of systems and processes. And they want to build the beauty of belonging into that structure so that more workplaces are LEGO and human-friendly. 

Future work 

I keep telling my new colleagues that I feel like I’m coming out of the dark ages. Part of that is all the work tools and apps they use; DROdio is teaching me to “play my computer like an instrument.” Currently I’m at the level of “do-re-mi on a recorder á la third grade, but maybe one day it will be … an electric recorder? A piano? Something that resembles a guitar? 

The other sign of the modern era is that I’m working with people who welcome every idea and meet my enthusiasm with their own. I honestly don’t recall ever experiencing that before. It’s almost disorienting. 

Because I have been conditioned to environments built on fear, I’m having to relearn what is natural and true. This is what trust feels like, I say to myself. This is what it’s like to exist in a system without failure.

I may be pro-community but I’m never first in line for the kool aid. 

“But there is failure, right? It’s real, it exists,” I ask, making sure we had some shared reality.

“The only failure is the one from which we never learn,” DROdio says.

It’s easy to shake our heads and go yeah, right. But he means it, and it’s built into the FC ethos of work. These are not empty words. 

Sometimes what’s good is so simple.

By the power of Grayskull

As a kid, I was a Saturday morning cartoon devotee. Whenever He-Man came on, I would mimic his iconic pose: rising to my feet, holding my arms in the air, grasping an imaginary sword, I would join his cry, saying, “I have the power.” 

Thirty-five years later, my wish has come true. All the work I’ve done in community —training in Marshall B. Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication, running writing workshops, becoming a certified facilitator in a women’s community dedicated to personal development, learning the method of positive deviance in public health projects, perceiving the invisible in a metaphysical meditation school, writing a manuscript about the commune where I was born — is welcome here. As is my logical, rational mind. 

For the first time, I feel like I can be my whole self at work. So what will I do with that? 

I hope to strengthen the connections in this fledgling community, to bring their hard-won insights to the world, and to build emotional intelligence and care into the framework of how we all work. 

But how?

Strengthening connections may be second nature to me, but we’ll have to see how my skill set applies to this community, as solutions for one setting don’t always apply to another. In fact, that’s the basis of positive deviance, which I’ve used in the context of development projects. Essentially, all solutions are local, and instead of looking for problems, you look for solutions: who, under the same circumstances, is doing exceptionally well? What are they doing that no one else is? What aren’t they doing that everyone else is? This came to mind when I looked at Discord’s leaderboard. I will start by reaching out to all the top users in FounderCulture to find out what’s working so we can have more of it. 

But I also know that founders are “time-poor,” so I’m not here to vacuum away whatever’s left. In fact, that brings us to my next point: serving as the bridge between later-stage founders who have plenty of wisdom and no time to write it down and early-stage founders who don’t even know what they don’t know. I’ll also make those insights known to the world at large, without attribution (Chatham House Rule is what makes these communities possible).   

Just as FounderCulture is creating a playbook of how to approach every obstacle founders are likely to come across on the nuts and bolts of building a business, I propose we also create a playbook on how to be a person-first environment. Not only should this be baked into the foundation, but it also needs to be nurtured as a company grows. Because no successful startup is a solo act. 

Conclusion 

It’s LEGO o’clock. 

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