\Startup Life Interview/

“When you focus on the right thing, you free up a lot of useless time”: Q&A with Alan’s Jean-Charles Samuelian

In a new interview series, we quiz leading European startup operators on how they work.

By Amy Lewin

Credit: Jean-Charles Samuelian, cofounder and CEO of Alan

Jean-Charles Samuelian is cofounder of Alan, the French healthtech startup — and a fan of building businesses differently. Alan’s 280 employees have no meetings, work asynchronously and yet still churn out new features and products. How? 

It’s less about speed, it’s about tempo. It’s about what rhythm you put in the company to ensure that you’re learning, iterating, taking risk — but that risk is controlled, because you have short feedback loops. We’re not Nostradamus, we don’t predict the future very well as human beings. As a result, we have to be bold and take risks, but learn very quickly from those risks. 

How do you assess risk? We optimise on the potential of upside; if things work well, what value is it going to generate for us? Yes, we might fail, but if we overcome all the details, could it be huge for us? Is it a hard problem that people don’t try to solve because it’s hard, because everyone is telling them it doesn’t work like that?

And how do you create those short feedback loops? Each week, people share their ‘HPFO’ [Highlight, Progress, Fire, Objectives]. They share their learnings — what worked, what didn’t — and for next week, what problem they want to solve. We do that at an individual level and at a crew level. [Crews are small multidisciplinary teams.]

How do make people feel like it’s safe for them to move at speed? At the end of the day, if you feel that when you take a risk you will get rewarded and not punished, that creates psychological safety. 

How do you prevent people burning out? We push people to switch off notifications but, if, for example, I’m reading something during the weekend and I’m passionate about it, I’m not going to stop myself sharing it. But I will put a big disclaimer saying ‘I really don’t expect an answer this weekend’. We work a lot and it’s intense. There’s no magic bullet. If people have worked at the weekend, don’t show that as an example, say this is not a pattern we want to have regularly. But say, sometimes we need to work very hard for a short amount of time

“When you focus on the right thing, you free up a lot of useless time.”

Does asynchronous communication help with this? It gives a lot of power to people to self organise. You can decide when to interact. In France there is a lockdown at 6pm, so if you have kids, you might really need to go out and play with them at 2pm, and work one more hour more in the evening. For flexibility, asynchronous is really powerful. What we don’t want people to be is overworked or burnt out. We give training on where to contribute and how to focus on the right thing. When you focus on the right thing, you free up a lot of useless time. You increase your impact, and work less. 

What is asynchronous work?

In short, working asynchronously means that not everyone on Alan’s team works at the same time. It means that people can organise their workdays as they like, and can’t expect their colleagues to answer messages immediately. 

Instead, a whole lot more information is written down. “All decisions should be made in writing,” says Juliette Raimbault from Alan’s people team. On top of that, company processes and shared knowledge (so often stuck in the heads of a few key team members in most organisations) is written down so everybody can access that information, whenever they need to. 

Alan relies on three tools for internal communication: “Slack for daily exchanges; GitHub as a support for our decision making; and finally Notion as an internal wiki — this is our common knowledge base.”

When hiring, Alan’s team evaluates a candidate’s ability (and willingness) to work asynchronously during the recruitment process. As part of onboarding, newcomers are guided through “personalised programme” to teach them how it all works, says Raimbault. They’re also given a ‘buddy’ who can talk them through the finer details of the company’s culture. 

How do you decide what to focus on? Each week in my next week’s objectives, I share the things I won’t do. It forces me to spend time on deciding what they are. If it is not a bit painful, you didn’t remove enough.

 When someone feels like they have too much on their plate, how do you help? By asking them the question: what would happen if you drop that? And that? And that? What is the thing that is going to impact Alan the most?

Do you have any processes in place to help Alaners know what to focus on? We share a lot of context about what is most important for the company. I talk about it weekly. Each crew defines its top objective for the week. We ask every Alaner to define their A+ problem for the week to come. 

Has Alan always worked asynchronously? Not for the first eight months. Then thanks to a friend we discovered the magic of GitHub issues to make decisions, and we fell in love. We then iterated on making them better and better and better. 

“I’d like to follow Daniel Ek for three days.”

If you could spend a day, invisible, inside any other European startup to see how it really works, which one would you pick? I’d like to follow [Spotify founder] Daniel Ek for three days, because I already did it with one other entrepreneur and learned a lot. 

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s deputy editor. She covers VC, mobility and diversity in tech, and tweets from @amyrlewin

This is a new series for our soon-to-launch Startup Life newsletter, where we go behind-the-scenes at Europe’s leading startups to find out how they work . Sign up to become one of our beta testers here.

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