11/19/2012 05:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why You Need a "Plugboard" for Your Employees to March in Lock-step


What the @#%* is a Plugboard?

At One Block Off the Grid, we have this big fat plasma screen that lords overhead, smack dab in the middle of our office space. We call it "Plugboard," after our logo named "Plugfoot." Plugboard's job is to show everyone how the company is doing, how each team is doing, and how each employee is personally doing, at that very second, and at a glance. I'll save a functional breakdown of it for another post, but essentially, it reports on all the metrics of the company that matter. t also compares the current performance of those metrics to recent performance, and compares the individual performances of each salesperson. It is also my favorite thing in the entire galaxy, and I will never run a company that doesn't have a one for as long as I am living.

I remember when our (ludicrously talented) engineers suggested to me that they build it as a side project, laughing and thinking, "Really?! That's what you chose as a pet project?! Yes!" This was something I already wanted them to build anyway. It's so rare for an engineering team's "side project" to be so directly related to, and beneficial for, the bottom line. Yet, here they were, asking to building something that I already wanted them to build.

OK, sounds cool. So why do we have to build one again?

Think of your company as a ship, with the CEO as the captain and the employees as the crew. The CEO has the vision and knows where the company wants to sail. It's the CEO's job to keep the ship pointed in the right direction while the crew sails it forward. Unfortunately, often times that vision stays buried inside the CEO's head and everyone else is focused on what they personally think is best for the company -- which means everyone is doing something different. So you sail around in circles until you run out of food and eat each other. No bueno.

Think of Plugboard as a kick-ass navigation system for the crew with sexy-lady voice dictating turn-by-turn directions, which is pumped out over the PA for all the crew to hear. Plugboard allows you to sail safely from port to port until you arrive at your destination (go public or exit) or get eaten by the Kraken (market risk outside of your control).

I remember when NEA invested in our company; NEA asked me to visit the guys that were behind the scaling of Groupon, who also had two other very successful, public companies, in the same building. I remember asking them about a football-field-sized-area of empty desks, and in response they showed me what was behind the wall they were planning on knocking out: another two football fields worth of desks. I involuntarily blurted out a breathy "what the fu... "

The reason these guys can scale phone-sales-based companies like an 11-year-old kid playing the Zerg on StarCraft is... well, it's lots of things... but the big one seems to be that they can get every single sales person paying attention to, talking about, and competing for, a single and brilliantly-chosen metric. They do this with big, real-time, custom, overhead displays all over the damn place. Their sales people (I honestly couldn't tell one company from the next if it weren't for the logo) would blab to each other in the elevator about their gross margins! Do you know how many people in America can explain correctly what a gross margin is? Well me neither but I bet it's less than 1 percent. And here, 100 percent of the salespeople not only understood it, but were compensated for it, talked about it during lunch, and knew where they stood in comparison to their neighbors.

Let's say you're a salesperson at a company that has its own version of Plugboard -- and you know the guy sitting next to you just got a big sale. What does it make you want to do? Right -- get one yourself (a bigger one). What if you see that there are six people in your row and all of them have made over 100 calls today, and you have only made 90. What does that make you want to do? Right -- get out of last place. Knowing where you stand makes you want to achieve more personally, more as a group, and to push the company forward in the exact direction that it needs to be pushed (assuming management has picked the right metrics).

But I already have Salesforce dashboards and anyone can look at them -- isn't that good enough?

No. Salesforce dashboards are personal [insert short explanation of what you mean here by "personal" -- does this mean personal to the employee? Personal to the company? Personal in that it is only on one person's screen?]. Now don't get me wrong: Salesforce dashboards are extremely useful, customizable, and powerful, and unfortunately for these purposes -- personal. They are also not dynamic. They can't keep a leader-board going, and if you're a sales guy who just "took the lead," you can bet your ass that you will want to see it reflected on the big screen in real-time.

With a custom company board, you can also build the fun of your company's culture into it. For example, we are building a 21st century "sales bell" that plays your baseball "walk-up song" when you make a sale, so everyone knows who made the sale by the song itself. It's personal, and it's bad-ass. It lets you give credit where credit is due, in a way that motivates. If you Yammer a message with a special hash tag, it gets thrown up on the Plugboard. And sometimes you just need a sad trombone sound (it does that too).

If it's your job to point the ship in the right direction, and every member of your crew thinks you're headed to a different continent, then your company is going to go around in circles. You know where you're going, but now your employees have the navigation system -- a pleasant lady-robot-voice telling them to turn in two miles, and a system to recalculate the route when you get lost. After a few months of using the display, your whole company is cruising at the same speed and everyone can tell you how the company is doing at any given time - instead of being based on perception, it will be based on what's important to the company.

Do you sell them?

Nope, sorry, that's not our business. Gotta keep that ship pointed in the right direction! But I implore you to take the time to hack one out for yourself. Even if it feels like there are big, big things that engineering needs to do -- put a pin in it and hoist a big-ass plasma up over everyone's heads that says, "THIS IS HOW WE ARE DOING AS A COMPANY RIGHT NOW AND THIS IS WHAT WE NEED TO DO."