Founder-to-Founder: Greg Gunn, CEO of Commit, on Hiring, Culture & Remote Work

We recently sat down with Greg Gunn to have a candid conversation on hiring, culture, and remote work. The CEO and Co-Founder of Commit, the professional community for the world’s best startup engineers, shared many helpful insights on the people side of building a company.

Tell us about yourself and your journey to becoming an entrepreneur.

I’m the youngest of four kids and grew up in Victoria, BC, to parents who were teachers. I always felt a little bit like a black sheep; I was always wanting more, questioning things, and wanting to get to the truth of things. I remember my mom used to call me a Wheeler Dealer, and it wasn’t necessarily a positive thing. I was always trying to figure things out and I had difficulty understanding what she meant by the nickname until I discovered entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship was something I learned about in Mrs. Jacobs’ Grade Five class. We took a field trip to the local pizza parlour and met the founder. I thought to myself, “Here’s someone who’s created something out of nothing and gets to make the rules”, and it was such a momentous thing for me. In that moment, I realized I could have a job to imagine and build things. The acceptance of that path felt natural and impactful for me.

I think that many entrepreneurs are driven by financial success and status, which is cool and necessary, but the thing that’s more important to me is the creative side. I love building new things. I love creating high-performing teams, which has evolved into building high-performing cultures. I get to go and create things into existence! That’s always been a driving force for me and why I like building companies.

Another pivotal experience for me was when I joined the entrepreneurship semester at the University of Victoria in my undergrad. Here, I got in a room with people that also loved creating things. It was such an incredible experience to be surrounded by others who also wanted to make an imprint on the world; they didn’t want to follow other people’s rules, they wanted to make their own rules. Finding this group and receiving further validation was essential to see this path forward.

My entire career has revolved around startups. I built a startup created off of eBay data that we sold to eBay, and then I went to Hootsuite where I was one of the first employees. As an EiR at Inovia, which was a fantastic opportunity to connect with founders who had world-changing ideas, I ended up meeting with many founders who shared a similar problem — hiring technical talent. From those conversations, Commit was born.

Let’s talk about Hootsuite. You had a significant career there. What do you feel like you learned at HootSuite that you carried into your company, and then I’m also curious about what you had to unlearn as well?

At Hootsuite, I learned the three most important questions:

  1. How does this scale?
  2. How does this scale?
  3. How does this scale?

The team at Hootsuite was obsessed with answering that question and it’s really helped me as I’ve been building Commit with my team. We need to think about things from that perspective, especially when tackling the task of finding and recruiting talent, which people have historically seen as not very scalable.

In terms of the unlearning, I think these things aren’t specific to Hootsuite but rather a product of the times. More specifically, office-based employment and hustle culture.

I think that office-bound employment has historically led to dark culture patterns that exclude many people from having a positive employment experience. Being in a physical office introduces so many more things to the mix. You need to go to lunch with the right people, sit at a suitable desk, or be at work for the correct number of hours. These things have nothing to do with building great products and delighting customers.

One of my personal goals, that I’m very outward about, is to be the best distributed leader in the world. My coach and team are aligned to this and as a result we constantly evaluate and stop, start, and continue things that we’ve done in the past. I try to default to not doing things the same way all the time. Many of the things that we would have done in the past are not relevant today and are frankly entirely unproductive.

The last point I want to make here is on hustle culture. Many startups carry the mantra that you need to work hard, play hard, and it’s full-on 24/7. Everything is a fire. Everything is urgent. However, if everything is a fire, you’re likely dealing with poor planning. We forgive and call many things “startup culture,” but I think we can have well-managed companies at all stages now.

I was reading in an article that you said that hiring at an early-stage startup typically sucks. Tell me a little bit more about that — why do you think that’s the case?

Hiring at an early-stage startup does suck!

When I was an EiR at Inovia, I worked with many portfolio companies that were hiring. We would ask our engineer candidates why they hadn’t made their way over to a startup yet and were stuck in the recruitment processes at larger companies. There were typically three responses: financial stability, better opportunities, and they didn’t want to do any more terrible technical interviews.

The first one was financial stability. Most startup engineers are totally fine with taking a lower salary to go somewhere else. They’re connected, passionate, and love solving problems. They don’t want to have to change jobs every 1.5 years. This is one of the first things we solved for at Commit — we pay engineers to fi
nd their next job, and we’re there whenever they want to come back to find their next job after that.

The second one was better opportunities. It’s pretty painful to assess every startup out there, and if you’re a startup engineer, you’re caring about front-end and back-end application layer stuff. You’re not a VC looking at hundreds of different startups. What they want to know is who the high potential startups are. Which companies have great fundamentals? What should I be looking for when choosing a startup for my career? We take care of that.

The third one is more in control of the startups. Let’s say you’re a startup engineer, and you have three to five startups interested in you joining their company. You now have three to five hiring funnels to participate in, and each of these companies, depending on their stage, will have a different team makeup. This is important because if you’re a senior full-stack tech lead, for example, which is what most founders want, you likely have more experience than the people interviewing you for the position. As a result, there will be considerable asymmetry between the talent and the hiring manager. Most startups are not fundamentally set up to assess people’s technical skills.

A related issue here is speed. Most hiring funnels put engineers through technical interviews that are absolute garbage for the most part. They are side quests for all of the people who want to work for the company they are applying to, and they force those individuals to learn these unique code sets and algorithms instead of being interviewed for their craft. Technical interviews are only good at assessing one thing: whether or not somebody is good at technical interviews. At Commit, we are obsessed with making the hiring process better and faster.

Finally, lead with your salaries. Many companies are doing that now, which is excellent, but in the past, people would hold back that information until the end of the process. Frankly, this is why there is such a tremendous drop-off rate — about 60% of people that make it to the final interview take themselves out of the process or don’t close out. A big reason for this is salary. Be as transparent and open as possible about this so that folks can decide if they want to invest time in your company.

What advice would you give to founders trying to build a strong culture in this new(ish) remote environment we find ourselves in?

The most tactical thing is to be in “default mute”. This is specifically directed at founders, who are decision-making machines and problem-solvers, right? Founders also tend to be a bit more aggressive, and we lean into things we care about. As a result, it’s really easy to drown people out and talk over them. We need to make sure that we’re giving everyone in the room a chance to speak and default to being on mute and speaking last.

Another thing to aim for is creating an environment where extroverts, introverts, and ambiverts can thrive equally. I think office-based employment benefits extroverts a bit more as they derive their energy from other people. You need to ask yourself: am I fighting against remote because of my habits and conditioning, or can I still choose a remote model and optimize it so everyone can come and contribute?

It’s inquiries like these that helped frame things up for me initially. If you want to de-risk an organization for the long term, you need to have a variety of opinions and decision-makers helping to form the entity and build up the culture. If you take this approach from the onset, you can build an organization where more people participate, and create an impact. I also think more mature leadership is needed more than ever at the earliest stages of an organization.

Building companies and culture is an evolution. You try something out, and then you are willing to change when you realize that it might not be serving you or the team or the company as a whole. That desire to be flexible and critically look at decisions is huge. Many founders could learn that lesson and be more introspective, flexible, and willing to change.

What tech stack do you have in place to create a solid remote culture at Commit?

We use tools like Asana, Slack, and Zoom from a tooling perspective.

Culture is less about the tools and more about two things: collaboration and what happens when the CEO is out of the room. I want to build a culture where synchronous time at work is spent connecting, and asynchronous time is when work happens. Connecting, even about non-work-related things, is culture.

This can happen if you prioritize hiring for culture fit and when people resonate with one another. When we hire someone new at Commit, I’ll make sure we have 15 minutes a day together for the first 45 days. This allows me to get to know them personally and understand their motivations, and desires.

When we had offices, we had language and dress codes and events where people tried to conform to the office. They showed up sometimes as a different person at work than at home. Now, in this distributed environment, when I jump on a call with a team member, it’s like we are inviting each other into our homes and into spaces where we are incredibly comfortable. You get to the core thing much quicker as the interaction is more focused with less noise.

When you strip out all of the BS, you get to have a genuine relationship with people with whom you’d love to build stuff. It’s a more purposeful way to run a company, build teams, and create culture.