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How the CEO of Makers Academy built a culture based on trust, not fear [Podcast]

For this episode of Secrets for Scaling, we spoke with Evgeny Shadchnev Co-Founder and CEO of Makers Academy, Europe’s leading developer bootcamp.

Evgeny and his team believe in building the company on pure trust, not fear. They use unusual tactics to do so, such as self-setting salaries. They also believe that everyone should have a job they love and do everything they can to ensure that’s true for their employees and the developers who graduate their program.

Here’s a quick company snapshot:

  • Founder experience: 9 years
  • Team size: 24 team members
  • Traction: Graduated more than 1,000 developers over the last four years and worked with hundreds of companies
  • Company founded: December 2012 (4 years old)

Learn about how they’ve reached profitability by focusing on trust and autonomy in the full episode below!


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Episode highlights

Their team self-organizes on a project-by-project basis. Makers Academy has a loose structure. However, the team does self-organize around tasks. They work together to identify who’s best to make the decisions, who’s best to lead a certain effort, and who’s best to help. This hierarchy changes with each task. Evgeny says it’s a very natural and ad hoc process.

Nobody does anything unless they think it’s the right thing to do. Makers Academy prioritizes human happiness. Their purpose is to ensure everyone has a job they love, and that includes their team members and developer graduates. They never have the conversation of, “I know you don’t believe in this but we need you to do it anyway.”

They build their team based on trust, not on on fear. Evgeny saw that so many practices in modern companies are built on fear. Standard employment contracts focus on things that might go wrong. Expense policies focus on employees expensing the wrong things. Makers Academy wanted to start with the premise that every team member is trusted to do what’s best for the company. And they wanted to know how far they could push that. The result is a team who decides what they work on, how they work on it, and how much they’re compensated for it.

They accept a certain level of ambiguity. Evgeny thinks that there is such thing as too much alignment. Based on Daniel Pink’s research in his book Drive, Evgeny believes that we’re motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. With this premise, he gives each employee the maximum amount of autonomy. This level of autonomy sometimes leads to team members working on divergent paths, which may seem counterproductive. But because everyone is trying to do what’s best for the company, it self-corrects and works out for the best. They may not be aligned around the same task 100% of time, but are still aligned around the purpose.

They’ve found that being open and candid builds trust. Evgeny found that just being open, transparent, and willing to be vulnerable with a relatively small ego builds trust.

Self-setting salaries is a process, but an effective one. We suggest diving deep into how Makers Academy has managed the self-setting salary process here. Evgeny said that if you look at their payroll, you wouldn’t guess that employees set their own salaries. They’re relatively close to market rate and what they would be if he set them himself. The result has been a company is profitable and growing!

If you’re thinking about self-setting salaries, start as soon as possible. It’s much easier to build a company in a certain way when it’s still small than it is to change a culture after you’ve been operating for a while.

There is no silver bullet for founder anxiety. Evgeny said that he’s found it liberating to talk to his team about his anxiety and depression. He also sought out medical help and an executive coach. It’s critical to take care of your body, mind, and sanity. There is no silver bullet. It’s about knowing yourself - knowing what makes you anxious or depressed, and working on those things. If you ignore it, you’ll make poor decisions and your communication skills will suffer.

Your company is not life or death. Evgeny says to let it go a little. Relax and take a third person perspective. A lot of the stress and difficult emotions you’ll go through as a founder will be self-imposed. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

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