In 2011, my company, Wistia, ditched a flat organizational hierarchy for a structured one. When we sat down to tell everyone individually about the switch, a lot of people were thankful. But some of them pushed back.
I remember a conversation where somebody told me the reason they joined Wistia was that it was flat. They wanted the chance to work with everyone. “That’s why I’m here,” they said.
I told them that they were still going to work with everybody, get to be creative, and hone their craft — because we’ll always value autonomy. But autonomy shouldn’t be conflated with flat org structures.
If I could give my past self one nugget of advice, it’d be that being flat is not a value. A small flat company can have lots of autonomy and creativity if there is enough trust, but those values don’t scale through flatness; they scale through an organizational structure. Because what we’ve discovered is that top startups don’t thrive because they’re flat. It’s because they have a clear org structure.
Why We Started with a Flat Structure
When my co-founder and I first started Wistia, we didn’t want to start a company where people needed 15 different signatures from higher-ups to start working on something.
We wanted to build a company that let people run wild and free with their ideas — a place where you could come up with a marketing campaign at nine and set it in place by five.
But after Wistia grew to 30 people, we soon realized that our flat organizational structure had mutated into the very thing we had been trying so hard to avoid — a hidden hierarchy.
The Problems with a Hidden Hierarchy
When your organization doesn’t have a clear decision-making structure to rely on, there’s always a hidden hierarchy. Typically, it’s one where the more tenured people end up making all the decisions by default.
For instance, back then, we didn’t really have a product team. It was essentially my co-founder and me running the show. So, if someone wanted to build or market something, their first instinct was to ask us for the green light. As a result, we had to make tons of decisions on an ad-hoc basis.
At first, this process was working. And it produced great results — until it didn’t. Eventually, we were making too many decisions, many of which lacked coordination or even basic communication. It became unclear who should do what.
Ditching a flat organizational hierarchy for a structured one paid dividends for us.
However, once we gave clear ownership of different parts of the business to specific people and asked their teams to own solving these problems, we started to right the ship. Ownership became clear and we moved faster. We also made our values clear, which gave everyone a framework to make decisions through and allowed them to work with autonomy.
Ditching a flat organizational hierarchy for a structured one paid even more in dividends for us. Namely, it improved our speed of execution, creativity, and diversity and inclusion.
The Perks of Having a Clear Org Structure
Here are three key ways implementing a clear org structure unlocked our growth over the years at Wistia.
Speed of Execution
Once we established an org structure, we noticed that we moved faster when people had clear ownership over specific parts of the business. Since the top of the org chart delegated decision-making downward and cascaded all communication throughout the organization, we were able to accomplish three big feats:
- People knew exactly who to seek out for decisions.
- People knew exactly when they were supposed to get those things done.
- People knew exactly what everyone else in the company was trying to accomplish.
For instance, you would never catch me introducing a brand new initiative at an all-hands meeting without going to our managers first to ensure we all had alignment. Only then would I finally share the details with the whole company.
This system of communication allows any individual contributor who hears something new, scary, or different to go to their manager directly, after the meeting. Managers have already heard the info and asked questions on their colleagues’ behalf, so they can swiftly answer their team’s questions and get the ball rolling as soon as possible.
Another area that our structured hierarchy enhanced was our creativity.
Initially, we were actually afraid that our new hierarchical structure would stifle our creativity, which was (and still is) our most important value. In the early days of Wistia, we would come up with absolutely wild ideas, and then marshal everyone to go execute on them. Ideas would spark organically from people bumping into each other in the hallway.
We’ve discovered that our most inventive ideas happen when we think inside the box.
But after we adopted a structured organizational hierarchy, we soon realized that setting clear roles and goals made people even more insanely creative. They knew exactly what they needed to accomplish and what resources were at their disposal to do so.
Conventional wisdom has always told us that we need to think outside the box to unleash our creativity. But, at Wistia, we’ve discovered that our most inventive ideas actually happen when we think inside the box.
After all, constraints breed creativity.
For instance, when we launched our enterprise plan, our clear org structure was the main reason why we could pull off one of the most ambitiously creative projects in company history — a one-shot video of a parade that we organized.
Since our marketing and creative team at the time could decide on the parameters of the launch video — create buzz, stay relevant for months on end, and attract attention to our new enterprise plan — our creative team had a clear set of constraints to brainstorm under. Once they decided on organizing a parade and filming a video of it, our video producer at the time could lead the charge and delegate tasks to the appropriate people.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Implementing rigid and clear policies for our org chart also helped diversify our company.
For instance, having a clear org structure gave us a baseline from which to define and audit salaries across the company and build levels across the business. As a result, we can make sure that we’re paying people equitably across racial and gender lines.
Structure creates a baseline for inclusivity and equity as it becomes possible to audit differences in how teams hire, promote, and reward their focus. Making the system transparent allows it to be inclusive. Now we’re able to see why people at the company are successful and replicate this success without falling back on the “would I have a beer with this person” or “culture fit” criteria, which is usually code for “are you like me” or “do you share my background.”
What Wistia’s Structure Looks Like Today
At Wistia, we’ve been operating under a structured organizational hierarchy for eight years. And even though it’ll keep evolving for years to come, we’re happy with how far it’s come since its inception.
At the top of our hierarchy, we have a senior management team that’s responsible for running the business. They represent all aspects of the business and think the furthest in terms of timeline. So, for instance, in February, they’re thinking about how they’re going to end the year as well as what they’re going to focus on during the following year. The goal is that the more senior you are, the more you are able to focus on problems and opportunities that have long time horizons.
To help each of these layers of our org chart set clear roles and goals, we lean on an operating system that sets the cadence of our big decision-making meetings, which everyone knows about.
Annual planning begins at the end of the summer and culminates in November at Wistia. During this time, the senior team revisits our long-term goals, comes up with new goals for the next year, and discusses why we want to prioritize those specific goals instead of others.
After that, we communicate this information to the rest of the company at the beginning of December. That way, by New Year’s Day, each team can set goals for Q1 that align with the company’s goals. They also know exactly when to make budgeting decisions. And if anyone wants to hire for different roles or try out a new program, they know exactly when (and how) to bring it up.
Flat Is Not a Value
At first glance, our structured hierarchy appears quite rigid, which doesn’t seem like it could ever be compatible with a creative company. But what we’ve discovered is that it has the complete opposite effect.
By setting clear roles and goals, people know exactly what they’re supposed to do, how they’re supposed to do it, and when they need to get it done by. And that’s why we can accomplish what everyone imagines flat organizations can accomplish — and even more.
Chris Savage is the co-founder and CEO of Wistia, a web-based software solution designed to help marketers use Brand Affinity Marketing to grow their businesses. As CEO, he focuses on developing innovative and creative strategies to help guide the company.
Recently, Chris and Co-Founder Brendan Schwartz turned down an offer to sell Wistia and took on $17.3M in debt instead, which allowed them to buy out their investors, gain full control of the business, and take the path less traveled in the tech industry. This decision has resulted in more profitability and creativity for the company, and led to not only the creation of a new category, but the creation of a new arm of the business—Wistia Studios.
Today, more than 500,000 businesses across 50 countries depend on Wistia’s products to build their brands and grow their businesses, including HubSpot, Mailchimp, Sephora, Starbucks, and Tiffany & Co.