Talk to customers. You’ll be surprised how much more quickly you can uncover problems and solutions if you just talk to your customers.
Instead of thinking of human resources as a department for hiring and firing, Joseph Fung had a different vision. He believes in the power of social HR, which he sees as leveraging social media and social relations to help companies recruit, develop, and retain the best employees. To make his vision a reality Joseph co-founded TribeHR, the pioneering organization behind the industry’s first social HR platform, which ultimately saves companies time, money, and countless headaches. Joseph is currently the CEO of this fast growing company based in Boston and Waterloo, Ontario, and he’s loving every minute of it.
What are you working on right now?
At the moment, I have a preliminary analysis from our research efforts up on my screen— we’re currently analyzing peer recognition as a predictor of employee performance and raises. It’s interesting stuff—not only do we get to build software that’s a joy to use, but we can also float key insights up to our customers, helping them be better managers and business leaders.
Where did the idea for TribeHR come from?
TribeHR came from the realization that so much of “human resources” appears to be broken. Social technologies have the opportunity to break down the classical barriers between employees and management: timely communications, information transparency, and sense of control. The original concept for TribeHR emerged from the founding teams’ experiences; the business emerged from the realization that others shared our frustration with the status quo.
What does your typical day look like?
I typically start things off by getting things ready for our 1-year old, while catching up on my reading and email. My first meeting of the day is usually between 7:30am and 8:30am, and after that it’s various email-triggered work until our team’s stand-up at 10:00am.
Throughout the day I’m typically packed with back-to-back calls and meetings with employees, customers and partners. I spend as much time working from my laptop as I do my phone or my desktop—keeping the systems synced is critical for my workflow.
I generally aim to be home for dinner and to take care of our son’s evening feeds and bathing—a couple of hours of down-time with family is rejuvenating, giving enough of a break to fit in another couple hour of work before bed. It’s during this time that I’ll tackle projects that require more uninterrupted time, but I still try to keep my stop-time flexible.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’m a very visual thinker—I tend to whiteboard everything. Wireframes, flow charts, problem descriptions, personas, business models—it doesn’t matter what it is, it goes up on the whiteboard. This process forces not only the great habit of recording work in progress (it’s very easy to simply photograph a white-board session), but it also encourages systems thinking. Diagramming complex problems makes it easier to identify solutions and to articulate a path to the goal.
When it comes to execution, however, it comes down to surrounding myself with people that are energized by creating. Engineers, artists, makers—if you can fill your team with people that share this predilection to produce, you’ll quickly find yourself helping them deliver on their ideas and vice versa.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
I’m fascinated by people’s increased awareness of identity management. By this I don’t mean to say that people are being more cautious online, but rather that they’re being more deliberate.
The world used to be fairly binary: you shared your name or you didn’t. Today’s world requires a more sophisticated approach, so it’s interesting to see how new habits are being formed and how quickly they’re becoming social norms. Some keep it as simple as saving LinkedIn for “work-only” contacts, while others go as far as white-walling and deactivating instead of simply logging off of Facebook. The emerging assumption is that everything about your life and identify is documented electronically—this will lead to social and economic pressures that we’re only just starting to imagine.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
On a co-op term in University, I was working in a large manufacturing firm when a new President of the parent corporation took over. He visited once, and there was so much apprehension and skepticism among staff that it drove me nuts. I couldn’t understand why people would keep working at a place they clearly resented. The net result was that I was driven to build my own businesses primarily by surrounding myself with people that I’d enjoy working with and with whom I could hold open and honest conversations.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I’d spend more time overseas. I had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time in China (as an English teacher), and the impact on my perspective has been profound. I’m sure that spending additional time in other areas of the world would be similarly influential.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Talk to customers. You’ll be surprised how much more quickly you can uncover problems and solutions if you just talk to your customers. I see too many entrepreneurs lose touch with their customers (current or target) and then later wonder how they went so far off-track.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Really early on, I had a close friend working at one of my first companies. We were extremely inexperienced, and so when it came time for us to part ways, we handled it very badly. Being honest with myself that the problem that mostly on my end (as opposed to blaming someone else) was the first and biggest step to overcoming it. That experience shaped a lot of my thoughts around the importance of communications and human dynamics in the workplace.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
You can learn so much from simply observing life around you. There’s a lot of interesting work happening right now around small social networks and shared gifting. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen anything that properly tackles the network of family and friends that surround babies. The sheer volume of updates that come out of—and gifts that flow into—a house with a baby is astonishing. An ongoing/evolving registry, blended with the social experience of chat and media would be a compelling tool for new parents. (If you know of one, let me know. I’d be happy to sign up.)
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
I’d try to fix the often confrontational nature of employee/employee relationships. I’d do it by building social tools that change the workplace… wait, we’re already doing that!
Tell us a secret.
My standard drink at Starbucks is a Tall Raspberry Americano. Although I do like the raspberry flavor, I really love that it’s a great way to ensure my coffee is sweet enough without accidentally over-doing it. Those sugar dispensers have incredibly poor usability.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
TribeHR: Makes the workplace better. (Yes, I’m biased)
LastPass: Makes it easier for my team and I (and my wife and I) to securely share access credentials to shared resources.
Hipchat: It keeps our team connected despite being spread out geographically. Plus we share photos of puppies.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. It’s a classic book that challenges preconceived notions of what an executive is.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
@hackernewsbot – fascinating articles curated by smart people working in tech
@doctorow – smart ideas on the changing landscape of technology and intellectual
@kwartzlab – the local hackerspace that brings fun ideas to life
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
This morning—one of our developers hacked Hubot into our Hipchat room, so that it uses
http://mustachify.me/. One request to “mustache me Joseph Fung” generated my new company
Who is your hero?
I don’t have any one specific person in mind, but lately the people I find most inspiring are entrepreneurs who have achieved their successes while still maintaining healthy family lives. That balance can be a hard one to maintain, and I have immense respect for those that have accomplished it.
TribeHR is all about employee recognition. What’s the best kind of recognition?
For leaders in a company, it’s easy to make decisions on “the little things.” After all, managers and executives are incentivized to make decisions and take action. But when you take shortcuts like this, it’s easy to miss contributions from individual team members.
The best kind of recognition is letting your employees know that they have the freedom to make the call, whether it’s implementing a new development methodology, calling your office kitchen “The Shire”, or creating only tangentially relevant blog posts (all of which are things we’ve done recently at TribeHR).
How much coffee do you drink in a day?
Typically 3. First is my “get up and going” coffee, which I’ll buy to slow down the drive to work and give me time to think. Second is my “settle in a groove” coffee, which I typically brew at the office right before I dig into a meaty challenge (we have a french press and there’s a coffee shop with great roasts right down the street). Creature comforts help the focus.
A nice warm drink is a great way to unwind at the end of the day, and is best enjoyed with good company. So my last coffee is a “chilling with the fam” coffee, typically a light roast or decaf brewed at home on my Tassimo.