Founder Stories: Moe Amaya On Scaling During A Pandemic
Like many of us, Moe Amaya found himself dealing with a whole new way of working in 2020. He and his team at Monograph, a firm management tool for architects, were suddenly forced to go fully remote when the pandemic took hold.
Over the past couple years, since Kimp launched, Moe’s shared insights he’s gained through his many different roles. From product designer to co-founder. Today we’re recapping some of the biggest lessons he’s learned. And how they’ve played a role in navigating the pandemic.
An intro to entrepreneurship
Moe’s experience with startups began while in school, and accelerated when he was at MIT completing his Master of Architecture. Seeing creativity getting applied to tech in new ways, he began tackling more product design challenges. And he and his friend, and first business partner, Alex launched Dixon and Moe – a design and software consultancy.
Like many entrepreneurs, Moe didn’t necessarily have a ton of experience in the areas he ended up taking on. He was a product designer first and foremost, until his side projects, and now the pandemic, required him to play other roles.
Add to that, he didn’t initially have a ton of exposure to the potential careers that involved architecture and tech. He grew up in a working-class Hispanic community in Arizona. And so it was in college that he ended up getting glimpses of careers in design and tech.
Going global before getting into tech
After completing his Bachelor’s in Architecture, Moe had the opportunity to work in China and Europe. And he saw the pace at which projects could be completed because of different regulations, and local best practices. This broadened his perspective and made him eager to continue exploring new opportunities.
Following his M.Arch. program, Moe started working in tech in San Francisco, and dabbling in different projects that piqued his curiosity. At that stage, he didn’t have formal mentors to provide guidance or sounding boards. So he was turning to the likes of Product Hunt, Twitter, and Dribbble to get feedback. And getting lots of it!
In the world of architecture, things can be more competitive because there are relatively few opportunities. But Moe found that with tech design everyone was really welcoming. And this is what led to Alex and Moe connecting with their business partner Robert, and their first engineer Mark. Both of whom joined them in running Dixon and Moe.
By 2018 Alex, Robert and Moe were building tools and websites for startups and architecture firms. And in the course of doing this they spotted a new opportunity. The architecture firms they worked with were incredibly frustrated with their project management tools – or lack of.
They needed a platform that could help them manage everything that came with project delivery and their firm’s back-office in more efficient and effective ways. Enter Monograph in 2019.
Monograph raised a seed round, started hiring for new roles, and were on track to continue growing and scaling. And then March 2020 rolled around.
The impact of the pandemic
Architecture projects ground to a halt, and the Monograph team decided to take some time to try to figure out next steps. For so long, as a lean team, they’d preferred and prioritized working together in San Francisco. But with the pandemic and all of its uncertainty came the decision to go fully remote.
The industry started to bounce back in May. Work picked up again. And Alex, Robert and Moe had to tackle responsibilities they hadn’t imagined before all this. The new norm was running a business, trying to manage a growing team, and their own sanity somehow.
It took about 6 months. But they were able to get into a new workflow through trial and error. And with feedback from mentors, founder peers, and investors. Some things are still a work in progress, but with the challenges came opportunities and new company milestones as well.
Expanding the Monograph team
For one thing, they were able to hire great candidates that they previously ruled out. In the past not being able to relocate to San Francisco was a dealbreaker. And for another, they created new roles like their Director of Customer Success. This role helps make using Monograph as valuable, and seamless, as possible for clients.
By the end of 2020, it was clear that managing a remote team was a full-time role. Team members jumped in to help coordinate team-building activities. But it just wasn’t enough to create the culture they wanted. And so Monograph decided to recruit for a new role once more (People Operations).
In this process, after nearly a year of juggling multiple roles, Moe had realized something. He was still only being able to devote a quarter of his time to developing the team. And this just wasn’t enough.
“First and foremost, people are the company. It’s not just about the business or the product. It took a lot of failing to realize how underdeveloped we were in some ways. And the roles we needed to invest in.”
Finding new ways to stay connected
With remote operations came the need to increase the ways in which they stay connected. Having grown through the pandemic, the Monograph team has had to adapt their mindsets to match. And this has meant leaning into things that they weren’t necessarily fans of previously.
More team meetings for one. In order to make them more efficient, Moe shared that they only discuss things that are immediate concerns (i.e. relevant to the next 2 weeks). And new ideas or suggestions are jotted down and kept aside for future discussion. Part of the benefit of this he says has been that new ideas get fleshed out before they’re discussed. And time isn’t lost in contemplating potential concepts when more immediate, pressing timelines are present.
Documentation has also been something that has become more important. In part, because the team is working remotely, and in part because the team is growing. Gone are the days when they could quickly shoot each other messages and then action off next steps. These days it’s become an actual roadblock to progress if notes aren’t taken and shared. Monograph’s tool stack includes GitHub, Notion on the product side to document release notes, QA, and QC, and Loom to record and share for bug reports.
The art of building the right team
Looking back at how they’ve grown, and what they are growing through, Moe shared a few insights about building the right team. Chemistry and fit are important but there are a few other things that can be pivotal:
- The ability to be able to have disagreements and still be okay to move forward together.
- The willingness to do grunt work when required – whatever it might be. Back when they were working out of a coworking space, this literally meant cleaning up messes left in their entryway to keep things presentable.
- Of recruiting team members in general, Moe mentioned that the first email and cover letter can really say a lot. It can be the remote equivalent of a first interview or presentation.
- And hiring on a project or freelance basis can be a great way to do a test-run to see how effective someone is.
Filling in the gaps while growing
Moe mentioned that they’ve made some great hires. But it’s still an ongoing process to find the right people for the roles they need filled. And figuring out how to juggle all that they need to.
To help keep things going, he and his co-founders meet for 15 minutes each day (Rolling Thunder). They talk about the hardest questions or challenges they faced that particular day. He noted that some teams avoid sharing challenges because they might feel like they’re burdening each other. But at Monograph they’re not looking for solutions in that moment, or from each other necessarily. Instead they try to look at where they might find the answers they need in their network.
“We’re all struggling with things we never expected to deal with – we never planned to deal with. But we can look to those in our network who have experiences with these types of challenges with other companies for suggestions.”
Managing differences in opinion
While it’s important to have team members who have strong opinions and unique ideas, navigating them all can get tricky. As architects, the Monograph team has a tendency to debate. So they’ve come up with a system to keep things productive. When a conversation is going back and forth quite a bit, they’ll ask each other this question: On a scale of 1-10 how invested are you in the perspective you’re fighting for? Sometimes this helps to figure out the way forward.
But in other cases, they’ve found action to be the great equalizer. And they’ve solidified that mentality as a core value. Meaning that if a team member really believes in something, they’ll find a way to move it forward. Even if others aren’t convinced. And by doing so they’ll come up with some actual data or proof that their idea is one worth investing more time in. This is actually how they ended up raising funds for their company. After about a year of hesitating, Robert decided to lead the effort and give it a try. At this point they had enough customers. And Robert believed it was time to stop the side projects and bet on themselves and Monograph. They did and it paid off.
The lesson here: You won’t always have everyone onboard when you’re trying to build up momentum. But if you dig in your heels and get it going, your team will be right there with you to make the most of it.
Finding ways to stay energized
Burnout, and all types of fatigue are common challenges during the pandemic. Moe shared that a digital detox can be an effective way to tackle this. He once went a week without his laptop or phone. And by the end of it he was itching to act on the ideas he’d been thinking about. Since this isn’t always practical, or necessary, on a regular basis he sticks to going offline one day a week to give himself a break.
When it comes to finding inspiration and keeping himself going in the day-to-day, he’s not one to listen to music or look to pieces of art. Instead, he seeks out visual inspiration by taking in as much content online as he can. Or taking part in online communities, like the Slack channel for architects getting into tech (Architechie). And then he distills ideas from there.
Another source of new ideas for Moe comes from being a mentor and a mentee. In sharing his design process with others, and discussing theirs, he’s had the opportunity to explore new concepts. And often, in ways he wouldn’t have otherwise. And there’s also the fulfilling component of getting to help others who are underrepresented in design and tech. Since the days he was one of only a few Mexican designers in San Francisco, this has been important to Moe.
Embracing the new normal
Now the Monograph team has gotten into a groove of operating completely remotely. And a sense of confidence has set in about their way forward. They’ve had to painstakingly restructure in a way that allowed them to operate through the pandemic, yes. But it’s led to some encouraging results. And as Moe said, there’s still so much they want to do and plan to push for.
“If someone just came in and bought us would I be okay with it? Would I be okay with the fact that they might not execute everything I want, in the way that I want? Throughout all of this, the answer has always been no. We might not have been able to do everything as we expected to. But knowing how much we’re invested in moving things forward makes it easier to keep looking for new solutions”