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A common issue most companies face in moving to more asynchronous work is that everything seems like it has to be scheduled. Scheduling is great when it comes to staying in the Focus mode of work, but there’s one big thing it leaves out: serendipity.
Chinedu Eleanya is the CEO of Mulberry Technologies. He and his team have been trying to figure out how to build back serendipity.
What is serendipity in a digital workplace?
Chinedu says, “The way I think about serendipity is that serendipity is essentially those interactions that aren’t planned for but can lead to really interesting insights, both on a relationship standpoint, so an interpersonal standpoint, but also can serve as the basis for inspiration in a work context.”
What did serendipity solve for us in the office?
Chinedu reflected on two key things serendipity did.
First it allows for more natural cross-team interactions. People who aren’t on the same core team often don’t even know others exist. An office creates the conditions where those people will see each other and run into one another. But that doesn’t happen in digital spaces.
The second is learning through osmosis. We pick up on a lot just by watching other people and being near to them. When we are working hundreds of miles away from each other, that’s hard to replicate.
Solutions for serendipity
There are a lot of possibilities to build serendipity back in. One is using an app like Donut that will randomly link up people and find a time for them to have a virtual coffee together.
Chinedu said that his team is also trying to build the right blend of asynchronous and synchronous communication. If you rely too much on one or the other, you don’t get some of the unique benefits.
Chinedu also stressed how important it is to get everyone’s opinion and ideas. This isn’t an issue that you can solve on your own. Get everyone involved in finding the solution.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Chinedu Eleanya. He is the CEO at Mulberry Technology. Hey Chinedu, how are you today?
Hey Neil, I’m doing well. Thank you for having me.
Well, I’m super excited to have you on. This is going to be a fun topic to get into. You have a great story to get into as well with a background that we all want to hear about. But first, let’s check in to make sure you are a real, live, certified human with your captcha question. Your question is, what is on the background of your laptop right now?
It’s a really good question. So, on the background of my laptop right now is a picture of a hibiscus flower that I took on a trip to Barbados.
Nice. Are you a photographer yourself or is it this one picture that stood out?
I wish I had photography skills. Unfortunately, I don’t have many creative skills. I just really liked the hibiscus flower and it reminded me of some of my childhood growing up in Nigeria as well, so, I enjoyed taking the picture.
Good. Well, let’s get into a little bit of your background. You said you grew up in Nigeria, now you’re in the US. So, give us a little bit of your history here.
Yeah, definitely. So, in terms of this super quick background on myself, I’m originally Nigerian, moved with my parents and siblings to the US back in 2003, so almost 18 years ago now. We settled in New Jersey, went to high school in New Jersey, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and then ended up going to Cornell University for undergrad, which is in upstate New York. I was a biology major at Cornell, graduated actually with a biology degree, but decided to go into tech instead of becoming a doctor. So, I founded my first company right out of undergrad.
Were your parents upset that you did that?
They were. I mean, you can guess, right? Parents, especially immigrants’ parents, when they come to the US, there’s a certain track they want you to be on. So, it was super controversial in terms of going to them to have the discussion of, ‘Hey guys, actually I’m not going to be a doctor. I’m just going to go try and build a company.’ So, that was tough.
It’s like, ‘Fine, you can do that in a different family, not in ours.’
Yeah. There were definitely some interventions in the early years, but we were fortunate enough to do well in that first company and so, I think that parents have gotten over it and now I’m on to my second company, Mulberry.
Good. And so, what does Mulberry do? Give a little bit of background behind that.
Yeah. So, the way to think about Mulberry is that we help shoppers get protection on the things they are buying online. So, we started out by building technology that made it easy for e-commerce retailers to embed product protection onto their platform. So, similar to what you might see when you’re going to a Best Buy or when you’re on Amazon. You get the ability to add product protection. Historically, it’s been really challenging for small to mid-sized retailers to offer this just because the industry was really outdated from a technology standpoint.
So, we built technologies to make it easy for retailers to offer this. And now most recently, we’ve also evolved and we recently launched a browser extension that actually gives any online shopper free product protection for 12 months on anything they are buying. So, now you can install our browser extension when you’re shopping on Amazon. For instance, you can get free product protection on anything you are buying on Amazon.
Nice. And what’s the history behind the name of the company, Mulberry?
That’s a lovely question. So, well, one, our office is based in New York and there’s a Mulberry Street here in New York which we always thought was interesting. In addition to that, when we were building the business, we wanted a name that appealed to our two audiences, right? So, we work with retailers but we also work with consumers. And we felt like the name Mulberry was complex enough to work on the retail side, but it was still appealing enough to work on the consumer side. So, that was how we chose it.
Very good. I’m like a tree enthusiast so I love anything that’s named after a tree, so that’s great. Well, we’re going to jump into a topic here about serendipity in the office, especially as people transitioned from in-office to more virtual distributed spaces. This is something you actually gave a video of for us for Digital Workplace Day back in 2021. It’s a big topic because people feel like, ‘Hey, we got to have the office because that’s where the serendipity happens.’ When they say serendipity, they mean it’s random interactions that were just like, ‘Oh, we had this fantastic idea just because I was sitting here, drinking coffee with somebody, and some lightning bolt happened’, like it happens in the movies. So, let’s back up a little bit. How do you define serendipity? And how have you experienced it in your working career?
Yeah, now that’s a really good question. The way I think about serendipity is that serendipity is essentially those interactions that aren’t planned for but can lead to really interesting insights, both on a relationship standpoint, so an interpersonal standpoint, but also can serve as the basis for inspiration in a work context.
So, we talked about it being not planned for which is really a little bit of the antithesis of what we say for digital workplaces. They have to be intentional. You have to plan for them, you have to work it out. So, that’s where this tension comes in. Tell us about the history behind your company. Were you guys totally in-office before or did you have some kind of hybrid system or have you been distributed? What’s your background there?
Yeah. So, we got started back in 2018, and we’ve always been in-person, at least until the pandemic in 2020. So, for the first two years of our life, we were completely in-person. We would only hire in New York City. We required everybody to be in office five days a week. And it was definitely a transition obviously at the start of the pandemic in March of 2020. We had to go remote. Every business went remote at that point. And that was definitely a challenge and a shift in how we work.
So, did you rely on the office? What did serendipity look like for you guys when you were in the office altogether? Can you point to a few events that happened throughout the course of the history of the company?
Yeah, certainly, there were several. The way we thought about being in-person, I think, for us was always like a beautiful thing just because you could have this sort of spontaneous interaction. Like you might be going to get water and you see some co-worker there, which you guys can catch up with. You’re talking about sports or whatever but then you can also talk about, hey, I’m having this particular issue that’s coming up and will be good to just pick your brain on it. So, a quite a few of our product discoveries and product innovations in the early days just came from those spontaneous conversations, whether the water cooler, so to speak, or at a happy hour somewhere, or grabbing lunch together or even during one of our weekly all-hands sections, just people feel a lot more comfortable chiming in with questions and with suggestions when it was in-person.
So, now that you’ve made a transition, are you hoping to continue? I guess, as the pandemic continues to linger on, but hopefully we get to a point where companies at least have the option to be in-person more often if they want to. What’s your plan going forward? Are you guys going to be ‘Hey, let’s all get back to the office. We’ve missed this.’ Are you going to be more of a hybrid system? Are you fully going to commit to staying distributed?
Yeah. So, in terms of where we landed, we spent a lot of time thinking about it, and we ultimately landed on a hybrid approach. So, we reopened our office in New York City, which we think of as HQ. And that’s actually where I am right now. However, we have decided to maintain a remote-first culture, and all of the implications that come with it. So, our teams are pretty distributed across the US at this point. So, we have people on the West Coast, people in the Midwest, East Coast, etc. and we also have people of course in the New York City area. So, from a culture standpoint on a go-forward basis, it’s geared towards, we’ll have an HQ in New York City. However, we will be essentially a hybrid business. If people want to come to New York, and want to come work out of the office a few days a week, that’s totally great. If they want to stay remote in perpetuity, that’s also totally fine.
So, then let’s come back to this idea of serendipity. You said it’s been almost essential to your growth as a product to thinking about new things. How have you planned for the unplanned? How have you tried to create situations to make this happen?
Yeah. Obviously in a remote-first world, it’s so challenging to do this and we’ve spent a significant amount of time trying to find ways to do this. The core challenge of it comes in remote work. You generally need to plan or you need to schedule. So, if you’re going to schedule a meeting, it needs to have a specific agenda to read etc. And so that does not usually leave a lot of room to color outside the box, so to speak. And so, a lot of what we’ve been working on are, what are ways that we can manufacture some of those spontaneous connections, spontaneous discussions, right. And we’ve iterated on a variety of approaches, both at the company level, but also at the team level, and then also on an individual level, to try to work through this.
So, some of the things we do today is that every new hire essentially goes through a typical orientation process. But we’ve made modifications to reiterate, which is that we have something called a ‘buddy system’, right. So, every new hire is actually paired with a buddy, and the buddy is really there to work with them, to navigate the company. So, the buddy has set up this impromptu coffee chats with people across the business, just as a really nice way of still making sure you have at least a direct connection to one person in the business, and then having that one person serve as a guide to you to get to meet the rest of the organization.
Yeah. I think one of the things that is tough for companies to figure out is the cross-team interaction, right? Within a team, you’re probably meeting a few times a week, you’re having discussions, so there’s at least an opportunity for that kind of friction to happen. But oftentimes, if somebody is in a different department, you don’t see them for months at a time. Whereas if you’re in the office, you at least make eye contact, you say hello, those kinds of things. Have you found a solution for that?
Yeah, I mean, the cross-team is definitely something we’ve spent a significant amount of time on. That was why we actually implemented the buddy system. Because the way we’ve designed it, the buddy is generally someone that is on a different team from you, as a starting point. But beyond that, a lot of the coffee chats our buddies set up within the business are really geared towards cross-team, not necessarily people on your own team. Let’s say, you’re a new hire within engineering. You’ll do multiple coffee chats with people in marketing, sales, finance, etc. just to get to meet those people.
Beyond that, one of the things that we also focus on a lot is, we have a forum called ‘Osmosis’. And that’s really our version of the all-hands. And Osmosis, we started it actually pre-pandemic but it’s been really important to the business post-pandemic. So, once a week on Fridays, the whole company gets on Zoom. The agenda tends to vary. Sometimes we’re talking about some of our strategic initiatives, other times we’re having an Olympic athlete come in, so it runs sort of like a happy hour type event for us, and we can break out into these smaller groupings in order to really get to know each other on a bit more personal level.
Yeah. That’s a great use for the all-hands meeting that we really definitely advocate for and encourage. It’s like, if you’re going to get people together, don’t do like updates at here’s what we worked on this week. No one wants to hear that. Use that time for this kind of stuff.
Now, that is so true. Because you get very, very few windows of time when you have full engagement of the overall business and you want to make sure you’re being as impactful as possible with their time.
Yeah, definitely. I know in your video before you had mentioned using Donut, an app inside Slack, which I’ve experimented with and I enjoyed using it a lot. We’ve moved off Slack so I wish I had something like that now. Are you guys still using that?
Yeah. So, we’ve definitely played around with a few things. I actually used Donuts at one of my groups earlier. I was part of a sort of FinTech Founders group and we were using Donuts within there, and it was a really interesting concept just as a good way to schedule impromptu meetings. Within Mulberry, we’ve tried to replicate it a little bit, which is that we have an amazing people team here at Mulberry, and they do a ton of work just to make sure that the employee experience day-to-day is amazing. And so, the people team has been really instrumental in replicating the Donuts’ functionality and helping with some of the nuances of scheduling as well.
So, the way we function today is that we’ll still have the weekly coffee chats, and this is outside of the buddy system. So, once you’re a fully established employee, you will still have random pairings on a weekly basis where you get to meet people across the different parts of the organization on a 30-minute coffee chat. And for us, it’s really enjoyable. I’ve really enjoyed those and I think the team has enjoyed it as well. Because that’s like a really nice forum for you to take a step back, there doesn’t need to be structure or agenda. It’s a way to just say, let’s check in as a person, how are you doing? What’s going on in your life? What are some of the interesting plans you have coming up? Things like that, you know. So, really trying to replicate that feel of the water cooler conversation but doing it virtually.
What about serendipity as it goes through different stages as your company builds in size? We’d like to think in the early days, it was like, ‘Hey, there’s just five of us here in this room. We’re all together, we all see everything’, versus ‘Hey, now there’s 100 of us’, ‘Hey, there’s 250 of us.’ How do you see serendipity scaling?
Yeah. The big thing it comes down to is communication. It’s super critical. So, at the start of the pandemic, actually, we were a team of 13 people and today Mulberry is a team of 75 people. And so, we’ve had to grow pretty significantly during this period of time where everybody was remote. And so, the big thing we’ve learned is that you need to be super intentional in terms of how you communicate. So, for me on a weekly basis, I’m sending out a detailed rundown of the things on my mind, the things I’m focused on, sending that out to my entire management team just so they’re always on the same page about, hey, this is the direction we’re trying to go in.
And then beyond that, in terms of how we scale it to beyond written communication, it’s really investing heavily in a culture of one on one meetings. And so, for us, there’s still the challenge of, you still have to plan. You still need to schedule a one-on-one meeting. However, the thing we found that really helps is that within the first five or 10 minutes of that one-on-one, we generally spend it just connecting as a person, learning about what’s going on in each other’s lives. And we’ve tried to replicate it throughout the organization.
So, every employee within Mulberry generally has a recurring one-on-one set up, not just with their direct manager but sometimes skip levels as well, and it’s really just focused on making sure that we are all connecting, understanding where everyone is.
Yeah, I love that idea a lot, especially with just being able to connect with people. That’s one of the primary uses of that synchronous time. As we’re now two years into this grand experiment about not working only from the office that’s going through, how do you look at your own work between what we call synchronous work and asynchronous work? If you’re going to have time with people, what do you want to use that time for versus what are you putting in that asynchronous bucket? Is it just, ‘Hey, I’m just going to send out my updates, read them when you can, here’s written, here’s audio, here’s text, or here’s a video of me doing something’ versus ‘No, we actually need a meeting for this’ I’d be most interested to see what do you feel you need that meeting time for?
Yeah, now that’s a good question. Every startup founder will tell you that meeting culture is a big struggle. And I don’t know of any company that’s ever perfected it or found the right balance. In terms of how we think about it at Mulberry, definitely you want to push as much as possible into async, right? So, you want to be communicating with people asynchronously, whether that’s using Slack to send out messages, whether that’s using emails to send out messages, etc. We want to push as much as possible to async. However, there are still a couple of cases where meetings come into play.
The first place where meetings come into place is if it’s something that is like a rapid turnaround situation. So, ‘Hey, there’s a fire going on right now. We need to figure out how to stop this immediately.’ You can spend a lot of time trying to type it all out on Slack and things like that but in some cases it’s probably easier to say, ‘Hey guys, let us just take five minutes and get on a Zoom call and sort this out.’ And we found that to be really effective, just for basic firefighting.
The other place where meetings come into focus is when you’re doing strategic planning. And generally, with strategic planning, now we run an all-care system, we’ve been running on an all-care system for a while and so, in terms of a typical playbook here, it leads off with a memo. So, async communication to set the table so everyone really understands the surrounding context. But then we definitely spend a lot of time meeting synchronously to dive into the details of it, which is like, ‘Hey, where are we going?’ ‘What are we trying to solve?’ ‘How do we plan to get there?’ And I think, in our experience, it’s had to do with that strategic planning in an async fashion. You can get the context in an async fashion but in order to actually make a lot of those key decisions that will impact the organization for the next quarter, or the next year, you generally still need to get some synchronous time together in a meeting.
Yeah. And I liked how you’ve put it. It’s a blend of both, right? You can send things ahead of time to say, ‘Hey, here’s what we need to work on. Here’s some thoughts I had.’ And then we know that that time together, that synchronous time, can be very fruitful. I think that’s what I’ve learned over the last two years. I’ve been working remotely a little bit longer but that time is so valuable and I don’t want to waste that. If I get 30 minutes with you on a call, I want to get the most out of it. If we get to the end and I realize, I could have sent you all that ahead of time and that’s a failure on my part for sure.
Yeah, I totally agree with that.
Chinedu, as we come to close down this discussion, what do you feel you are moving forward as a company? What are you going to be experimenting with over the next six months that you’re excited to share about?
Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I find really interesting about this current phase is we recently reopened our HQ in New York City, right before this next Omicron wave. And so, for us, everybody had grand plans about how we start to get back to office and I kind of need to take a step back and rethink. So, for us, we’re spending a lot of time going through that rethink now and figuring out, okay, hey, it looks like this pandemic is here to stay. There’ll be new waves coming up over time. So, how do we find the right balance of things, right? So, how do we create great programming for those folks that want to come into the office but how do we also ensure that the folks working remotely are not excluded. And that’s one of the things we’re really digging into.
And in terms of our approach, I think for us within Mulberry, we have a culture that’s really focused on inclusion and involvement. We want everyone’s opinions in terms of how to shape the culture. So, we’re spending a lot of time just having informal discussions with our different teams to figure out what are some of the approaches we can take. And there are definitely interesting solutions in our mind. We have solutions focused around like an in-person component. So, twice a year, we’re still going to regroup and bring people down to New York, for what we call ‘Mulberry Palooza’.
And then in between those, we’re also looking to see if we can do more local group events. So, have clusters in different parts of the country, bringing them together. And then of course, looking to pair that with virtual events as well. So, it’s not really like a one-size-fits-all solution. A lot of it is just continuing to iterate but really focus on, how do you create a great experience for the employees within the company.
Yeah. And like you said, I think the stakes have risen for what’s expected and what we need to get out of that in-person time. Like you said, it used to be like, ‘Everyone shows up to the office five days a week’, and you just build culture as it goes. It just happens in fun. You do a few fun things, it goes through. But if you’re saying, hey, just twice a year we’re going to be together, then that puts a lot of pressure on that time. You really want to do it right. You got to have a plan. You have got to have that experience worked out. It’s great.
Excellent. Well, this has been fascinating to talk to you. We’ve really learned a lot. I’m feeling very encouraged about what you guys are doing and what you can share with other people. If people want to learn more about you and the company, where should they go?
Yeah, the best place to learn about us is simply our website, getmulberry.com. And we also have social media available. We’re on Twitter. We have really awesome memes on Instagram, both of those handles are simply ‘getmulberry’. So, check us out on all those platforms as well.
Definitely. We’ll put those links in the show notes. Chinedu, thanks so much for being on the show. We look forward to talking with you again soon.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Neil. Great to be here.
Chinedu Eleanya immigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. with his parents when he was 11. In 2018, he cofounded his second startup, Mulberry; a tech platform retailers use to offer extended warranties to e-commerce customers. Key clients include fitness device Mirror, coffee machine maker Breville, and mattress company Nectar. Mulberry has more than 50 customers and has over $1 million in net revenue this year.