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Grant Hensel seems like the kind of guy who just stumbled into a successful digital business. He gives lots of praise to others, downplays his influence, and makes it look easy.
But when you look deeper, you see that he’s been making smart decisions all along that have created a great digital workplace.
Starting without an office is easier than leaving one
Nonprofit Megaphone started without an office because it had to. Grant and his colleague both had other jobs and could do all the work digitally. Once they finally grew to the size where they could afford an office, they never went through with it. “We loved it and were never turning back.”
For many of the people working at NPM, this is their first remote experience. Many come from the nonprofit world and have wished that they could work remotely. Working at NPM is a natural fit for them.
However, Grant and his team have had to find creative ways to prove to new employees that they are a real, legitimate company, including investing in stationary to mail official joining letters to people.
Creating a fresh digital culture
Grant is proud that his team has maintained closeness and camaraderie, even in the midst of growth. There are many ideas that have come from people on the team for ways to stay in touch.
“It’s so exciting to me that someone else came up with the idea for ‘Thankful Thursdays’. One, because it’s a good idea and two, because I didn’t come up with that. It’s someone else who just did. And so, that is what we want to, we want to steward and encourage cultural innovation that’s in line with who we are and where we’re going.”
Grant feels like creating a digital culture is like writing a new constitution for a nation. “Almost it’s like you’re founding a new country. You have to write the constitution for that country. So, our constitution would be our core values.”
Keeping the best tools in mind
Grant is naturally drawn to trying out the latest ideas for remote work. But he has to be careful how many of them actually make it out to his teams. “If I keep saying, “Here’s another tool”, there will be a revolt sooner, for sure.”
Today our guest is Grant Hensel. He is the CEO of Nonprofit Megaphone. Hey, Grant, how’s it going today?
Hey, Neil. How are you doing?
I’m doing excellent. I’m very excited to talk to you. You’re a guy who has a lot of things going on and specifically has a lot of digital nature and has a great story. So, I just want you to start off explaining what Nonprofit Megaphone is and then the nature of your company.
Absolutely. Everyone makes fun of me. So, my name is Grant and what we do is the Google Ad grants for nonprofits, which is just the first thing that’s always said in every conversation. And I do love it. We help nonprofits get the Google Ad grant which gives them $10,000 a month to spend on ads in Google search. Basically, any nonprofit can get it that’s not a hospital or a school. And we’re fully remote as a company and have been since the beginning.
So, how many employees do you have now?
We have about 35.
Okay. So, did that come in like stages that you can look back on and say, “Hey, we started off as just five people for the first few years and then it was a big growth” or what was it like for you?
Very geometric, but steady. So, at the beginning, really small team. At the very beginning, it was me and one sort of part-time salesperson. And we both had “real jobs” during the day. We eventually hired people, first part-time, and then we had our first full-time person. And then we hired in twos and threes, and now we’re hiring people in fives, sixes, and sevens.
So, you seem like the kind of story that you hear where the company starts off remote just by nature, like that’s just how, because you couldn’t just quit your jobs and do it. So, you just kind of eased into it and then you just never decided to open up an office type thing. Has that been true for you?
100%. We didn’t have the choice at the beginning. I had a day job that I had to be at. So, I couldn’t be in an office for Nonprofit Megaphone. And we realized maybe a year and a half in that this wasn’t just an accident, that it was actually an advantage and that we loved it and that we were never turning back.
Yeah. So, talk about some of those native advantages that you feel like being a digital workplace allows for you.
There’s so many. I think one of the big ones is that it just makes the whole notion of work life integration, work life balance, a little bit easier. A huge thing is there’s no commute, which is just such a small, you know we all know it now during COVID, but it’s fantastic not to have to commute. We work pretty normal business hours. But since we’re all remote, it gives people a little bit of flexibility. If you have a doctor’s appointment at 2 PM in the afternoon, just go to the doctor. It doesn’t matter. It’s not a big deal. We just think it’s a little bit of a more human way to work. And it lets us hire incredible people because we don’t have to hire just people in Chicago. We can hire people all across the country.
So, most people who come to work for you, do they come from a remote background? Or is this their first experience?
Many of them, it’s their first experience. We’ll see post-COVID what we gather on second experience. But for many people, it’s their first experience. And they have some reason that they’ve been wishing that they could work remotely. Maybe they had a long commute previously, maybe they moved frequently because of some family situation and they’re determined to find a remote.
So, some people have even sought you out because you’re a remote company?
Certainly, yeah. They’re searching job sites. They’re searching sites out there for remote work opportunities.
As you think back to the days of just building the company at the starting point, what are some of those hurdles that you had to get over, in terms of, “Oh, I didn’t really expect that this was going to be an issue since we are fully digital?”
One of the interesting things, which people told me eventually, years later, actually, at the beginning, was that there’s some question which is very legitimate, of “Is this a legitimate company?” You interview with us, we hire you. And then, a couple of weeks or a month later you start. And it sounds like a lot of people have in the back of their minds, like is this actually a real thing? And that’s gone away. Now that we have three dozen people, that goes away. But we write letters to people. So, if we hire someone and there’s time before they start, we write them a letter welcoming them to the team, try to send them info and we try and really make them feel like this is legit and it’s all happening. It’s great.
One of the things that we also had to figure out at the beginning was how do we stay in touch throughout the day. Because emails, in our experience, is a horrible way to do that. And so, we ended up adopting Slack which has been great. And we have hundreds of custom emojis in our Slack.
Nice. What are some of your favorite ones?
Yeah. Everyone’s face has an emoji. There are funny ones of me, which I won’t even get into. And people have just added all kinds of stuff based on like inside jokes that the team has developed over time. And so, it’s very fun. In terms of future roles, I’d say that one of the things we’re thinking a lot about is as we grow and if we imagine ourselves having a 100 people someday, how do we maintain that same sense of closeness and camaraderie that we have now? Because right now everyone can know everyone else and someday that might not be the case and how do we deal with that? I’m not sure. It’s something we’re trying to figure out.
Yeah, for sure. Back to your earlier point, I think even when you think about, is this a real company? Sometimes even the person becomes convinced. But now they’re working around their family and the people that they live with, are also wondering, are you really working right now? Are you really getting paid for this? But having that, did you find that people talk about that a lot? Like their family doesn’t believe that they were working. Obviously, this is all before everyone was doing it.
I think, for us, I don’t know how much of that there was. I think people were kind of like, “Oh, that’s cool.” And we’ve definitely, you know, people have sort of mentioned it to their friends that’s led to new clients. It’s led to lots of fun things. I’d say the thing that we have a harder time is explaining what it is that we do, to family. Yeah, we have lots of stories of people being like, “So, you guys work?” “You are Google?” “You work for Google?” It’s like no. We sort of help nonprofits with a program that Google has.
Yeah. Good. Well, let’s talk about that jump in culture. Because a lot of times you can talk to leaders. It’s almost like, yeah, I want to keep the culture that I have as it grows. But it’s like talking to a parent and saying, like, I always want to keep my kids in this toddler phase, or in this phase, because it’s so fun. And you’re like, I didn’t expect that they were going to grow up. Like, well, it was going to happen one way or the other. There are some companies that do decide, “Hey, we really like this size.” And we’ve talked with David Heinemeier Hansson with Basecamp. They said, “Hey, 50 employees is where we love it. Like that’s our sweet spot. We’re just going to stay there. You have, you know, some growth potential, a lot of opportunity for you, so you’re anticipating you’re going to get to grow. So, speaking as somebody who’s looking after that culture, like, how would you hope that your culture would transform it, maintain that, throughout the shift?
I would hope that most of the elements that we have now would stay or even get stronger. We’ve had a lot of elements of the culture develop organically, and not things that I initiated, but things that are awesome. So, we have like ‘Thankful Thursdays’. It’s a tradition that someone just started on Slack. So, today is Thursday as we record this, and everyone is putting on Slack, things that they’re thankful for, which is cool. In ‘Funny Fridays’, we have a success stories thread where people just give each other shout outs and talk about how awesome their colleagues are and cool things they’ve done for clients. So, I hope that we do those types of things.
We do an annual retreat, which was someone else’s idea, of course, not my idea. Someone who is smart had the idea. I hope we do those things forever. I think one of the things that I’m excited about as we grow is, I hope that people will continue to be able to find colleagues at NPM that they just really click with and they feel like really get them. And that’s been fun to see even now, with a couple dozen people, is that people sort of form relationships based on common interests and shared experiences that they’ve had, which is cool. And that is something that you can’t do when you’re six people. Because, you know, if you are really into, you know, whatever, some specific thing no one else is in but now maybe there’s a chance that there is. So, we hope to cultivate more of that.
Yeah, let’s talk about that issue of curation or cultivating a culture versus just letting happen. So, it seems like you have both going on. You have some things that are intentional, but you’re also, several times you mentioned, it just happened, and you weren’t in control. You weren’t the one that made it happen. Do you feel like that’s something that can always be true? You can just kind of be a little bit hands off and as long as you’re hiring the right people, they’re going to solve these problems on their own? Or how much intentionality, especially your leadership team, need to put into creating the culture?
I’m reading a book called ‘The Culture Code’, which actually I found really helpful. And it’s making me think a lot about this exact question. I think that the leadership team, at least in our experience, the leadership team has a responsibility to set a lot of the foundation documents. Almost it’s like you’re founding a new country. You have to write the constitution for that country. So, our constitution would be our core values. We have four of them – they are Honorable, Results, Go-getter, and Team player, and also sort of our mission. Our mission is equipping nonprofits to thrive and sort of our like, 10-year, 3-year, 5-year goals. So, who are we and where are we going? I think the leadership team acts absolutely as a, you know, has the responsibility to set that. I think it’s interesting because part of the culture, like go getters, one of our core values, we want people to be creating the culture themselves. So, it’s so exciting to me that someone else came up with the idea for ‘Thankful Thursdays’. One, because it’s a good idea and two, because I didn’t come up with that. It’s someone else who just did. And so, that is what we want to, we want to steward and encourage cultural innovation that’s in line with who we are and where we’re going. And have lots of symbols to say that like, this is accepted, and this is celebrated.
And do you anticipate like, let’s say, you’re triple the size you are right now. What kind of issues do you foresee coming up in order to continually encourage this go-getter spirit and let people have that freedom but also not let people step on each other’s toes? If you have five good ideas, you can only execute one of them, like, what are some of those challenges you think are going to come up?
Yeah, we’ve started to run into the problem. In the beginning, it’s like, every project is a good idea. Because nothing exists there. Now, it’s, we might have too many projects. And we might need to focus more. We’ve started and we’re definitely in the beginning stages of this. We’ve started putting together like RACI matrix’s – matrices, which stands for like, Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed and putting different areas of the company or different projects into that. So, to clarify like, this is the person driving it forward, these are the people you should keep in the loop, this is the person who’s head its ultimately on. And that’s been helpful, but it’s definitely an area that we’re, you know, very open to ideas on.
I think one thing that’s unique about your culture, and you can talk about the intentionality behind this as well, is that largely, women are in your team, right?
Absolutely, yeah. Definitely not proactive. We, I’d say, we’re an equal opportunity employer. We employ, you know, everyone on the basis of skills. We have historically, primarily, women have come to work at NPM and, you know, they’ve done a phenomenal job. I don’t know. And we thought a lot about like, why is that? It could be that the nonprofit world skews female, I think is statistically true. It could be that prior to COVID, the remote working world skews female. I believe that’s true. But yeah, I’m not sure why that is. But here we are.
Yeah. Do you feel like it has had a noticeable or a positive effect on your culture? And on that, do you feel like there’s any, I mean, without trying to make sweeping generalizations about women versus men, do you feel like it’s been a positive thing? Or that the company would have been different if it would have been half or half or mostly male?
Yeah. It’s hard to tell. I mean, I don’t have a clear use case scenario. I don’t have a clear alternate to compare it to. I’d say the culture is evolved to be very collaborative, and very supportive, and mutually encouraging. So, people are always like, today, someone was like, “Hey, I’m really running ahead on my work. So, if anyone else needs help, like, I’d love to jump in and help.” That’s a very common occurrence. I don’t know if that’s a female thing or just like, “I love nonprofits and I want to make the world a better place thing.” But we’re thrilled by it.
Yeah, that’s great. Let’s shift a little bit and talk about technology. As a company that’s fully remote, you always kind of expect remote teams to be like on edge of all the technology. They have all the apps that they’re using. What’s your approach? Are you pretty minimalistic in terms of the stack that you use to stay together and to stay in touch with each other? Or do you like to try new things?
I definitely like to try new things. And I’d say that there would definitely be members on the team that would say we have too many tools. But we use Slack for intrateam communication. We use Asana for project management. We use HubSpot for CRM. We use Google Docs, Google Drive for sort of our productivity and documents, capabilities. And we have a variety of other tools. I think we’re now trying to figure out, are there ways that we can do more with the existing tools? Or integrate the existing tools? Because if I keep saying, “Here’s another tool”, there will be a revolt sooner, for sure.
So, what are some of those things that as you’re looking at new tools, like, because for those of us who just love technology, but we are also realizing that ‘Yeah, there’s a burden to signing up for yet one more app.’ And ‘Okay, can we use more of the side of these things?’ Is there a way you can kind of like create a, like you’re testing out things on your own or with a small group of people as well and then seeing how that works? Or how does it work for you?
Absolutely. I sign up for free trials and mess around with things all the time. And I will probably do that until the day I die. But I think as we think about evolving our technology ecosystem, we are starting to think about, you know, what are the more enterprise grade early sort of medium business grade tools that we can be using, and with a real focus on tools that integrate and play nicely with other tools.
Is there anything that you’ve tried recently you’re excited about or want to give us a hot tip on something?
Yeah. I’ve been testing on, so, we use Traction, like the Entrepreneurial Operating System, EOS model, which has been really helpful. And so, I’ve been looking at Traction Tools, is one of them. There’s Ninety.io is another one, that are sort of tools designed to help you implement traction and run it. So, exploring that. In our perfect world, we do it all within Asana. But Asana is limited in that area. So yeah, ongoing discussion.
And then when you combine technology and culture together, it sounds like Slack is giving you guys a lot of resources because of the collaborative nature, because of things like custom emojis that are there. Is there anything that you feel like you’re missing because it’s, you know, this kind of synchronous/asynchronous texts platform that you can use. Is there anything else that you would say, yeah, we do rely, or we need something else in order to build culture, in order to scale up for that?
Yeah. I don’t know if it’s culture but workflow management, which I know is something you and I have talked about in the past, is something we’re trying to figure out, for sure. And, and I think broader, more broadly than that, like it processes documentation and training materials. Right now, we have them in Google Drive, which is great. And we have lots of videos through Loom, which is great. But it would be nice, I don’t know, I feel like it would be nice to have them in a more standardized format and a more sort of centralized place. But without, without losing the flexibility that we have right now.
You talked about the remote working world being just a more human way to interact with other people and a more human way to work. Describe a little bit more. Go into more detail about why you feel like this way is more human? And where do you feel like you’re headed towards in order to continue to get more human?
I think that one of the interesting things about working in an office is you are kind of onstage. Because there are lots of people around you, and you always kind of like need to like, just really look like you’re killing it, or whatever. And so, there’s a body language requirement. There’s sort of a constant eight hours of uninterrupted on-ness. And I just, I’m not convinced that all humans are designed to work or exist that way. And I think that having the flexibility to you know, you know, like, our Director of Operations, you know, takes a walk in the middle of the day, like she eats lunch and takes a walk. And that’s great. That’s probably incredibly helpful for health, for thinking, you know, for well-being in general, and that, that plus 100 other examples I could give, are more easily facilitated through a remote work environment.
Yeah, I totally agree. That ability to just kind of work, but also have that agency to decide when things are going to happen, when you need to take a little break, when you need to get out. The one difficult part, I feel like of remote work is that sometimes when you’re at the office, you also have the agency just to hang out, get a coffee with people, you’re there together, you’re talking together. So, have you found a digital equivalent to that?
The closest thing we have, I’d have to go back to Slack. We have all team meetings once a week, but they’re more sort of receiving of information or individual people sharing. Slack is definitely the closest equivalent we have to like a cafeteria/coffee shop, which has been really helpful. But yeah, I agree. You can’t. That’s why we do an annual retreat because there is something to being in person. And, you know, in a normal workplace, you’d work in person 99% of the time and be remote 1%, you know, and we’re sort of the opposite. For many people, it seems like that is more enjoyable, but certainly not for everyone.
Yeah, I think this whole worldwide experiment at least is allowing us to, to find the people that really thrive in these remote environments and equip them and give them those opportunities to work there. But then also there are some people that just don’t like remote work, or their homes are not set up for it. It’s not conducive for them. And they do would rather be in the office. And that helps them to say, ‘Okay yeah, maybe like one day a week or every once in a while, it’d be nice to work like this.’ But they do thrive more off those collaborative spaces where they can be together. And hopefully this whole experiment helps us to be more aware of that and to allow for that. Absolutely. Yeah. Well, Grant, it’s been great to chat with you, to learn your story about where things are going. Where can people go if they want to learn more about your company?
Yeah, just nonprofitmegaphone.com. We’d love to, you know, hear your feedback, hear about anything that you’re doing if you’re in the nonprofit world. We’re always excited to hear those stories.
Yeah, it’s awesome. And hats off to you for the work you’re doing, creating this culture. I got a chance to talk to some of the people from your team and that they’re all happy people, like happy humans, which is I think what any CEO would love to hear, is that the people just enjoy the culture and you got that going on. So, all the best to you. We look forward to hearing more from you and hearing how you progress and make that jump especially from you know, 30 people to 100 or whatever that comes from and the things you learn from that.
Absolutely. Thanks so much.
Grant Hensel is the CEO of Nonprofit Megaphone. He’s from Chicago, Illinois, and enjoys reading, krav maga, and sports of all types. He once wrote letters to all of the Fortune 500 CEOs asking for book recommendations…and 150 of them wrote back!