Lately we have added a lot of awesome people to the Unbabel team, and as anyone who’s been at a fast growing startup knows, bringing in new employees will often highlight changes we can make to improve our business. We also have a distributed team, so making sure we are all on the same page is even more important. We felt the need to align everyone on the same goals, and OKRs felt like the best option to do this.
In case you didn’t know, OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. It’s a framework that Google (among other companies) uses to align the company with their mission, so that every employee knows what to do and how it helps the company achieve its overall goals. Check out the Google Ventures video and this First Round Review article for a lot more awesome information on why OKRs are important and how you should go about it.
There is plenty of information out there on OKRs, but not much on the process of how a small startup should determine them — plus, it’s all boring! We took a different approach to make determining the future of Unbabel a team activity that would be fun for everyone.
Two weeks ago we started having internal conversations about OKRs. We watched the GV video together and started to discuss using OKRs to focus on continuing to grow Unbabel and improving our product for both customers and editors.
Side note: Google Ventures is an investor in Unbabel and has great resources for their portfolio companies—but they also provide a ton of great stuff for the public as well! Make sure to check out their YouTube account after watching the above video.
Step 1: Brainstorming
We started out by brainstorming within teams. Each team drafted an objective or area that they wanted to measure in addition to goals and projects they wanted to work on. The leadership (the founders, Hugo and Paulo) then took the input and spent a day talking about where we’re going, how we’ll get there and what should be our company-wide OKRs.
Once we had a general idea, we took the next step.
Step 2: Surfing
We rounded up the team for a surf session (and to talk about our three company objectives). It was the perfect way to decide the direction of Unbabel moving forward, and for our three most recent team members, Paulo, Raquel, and Ricardo, to bond with us.
Being based in Lisbon, Portugal, we often go on office surf expeditions. What better way to let go of the day-to-day grind and stress than getting beat up by the ocean?
Afterwards, we gathered on the beach to take a company picture, have some sangria and petiscos (similar to the Spanish tapas), and talk about the next 6 months.
Going surfing is a key step in this process and we highly recommend it. If you are not able to go surfing, participating in another fun activity is key. It helps to open up everyone’s minds, release their creativity, and create a more casual environment where everyone feels free to speak their minds.
Part of this is just getting out of the office and doing something fun as a team, but doing a physical activity really jumpstarts this process. Get the endorphins flowing and your juices pumping, and soon you’ll have an exhilarated crew excited to accomplish everything you set out to do.
Step 3: Focusing
The first thing we learned at Y Combinator was that startups are all about the relentless pursuit of growth. Partners at YC say to pick a metric and obsess about growing it.
Initially we had picked our metric: number of translated words. For Unbabel that number equated with revenue — a translated word is a word a customer paid us to translate.
Since then Unbabel has grown, often very, very fast, in number of translated words. We have evolved as a team and as a business, and it’s time our focus evolved too.
Two weeks ago we launched subscription plans for translation. When a customer signs up, their translation costs become more predictable, and with predictability we can also provide a better service. It’s time to change the growth metric to monthly recurring revenue (MRR).
So for our first objective, we decided on:
We will increase Unbabel’s MRR by x%.
When determining the quantifiable amount, it’s important to set a very high bar and be and a little dramatic for emphasis and urgency. After all, that’s what OKRs are all about.
This is the metric we will obsess about. The one we will pursue every day, the one that will guide all of our decisions from now on, the one that we will talk about every time we go surfing.
We know nobody wants crappy translations (duh!), so focusing on a metric for translation quality made sense to us. It derives from the first OKR: if we don’t deliver high quality translations, we can’t grow. So our second objective is:
We will increase Unbabel’s translation quality by x% for our main language pairs.
This is fairly self-explanatory. For our technical employees, this is the guiding OKR that directly relates to our most important OKR, increasing revenue. While OKR #1 applies to every team, OKR #2 makes that a bit less vague for the product team and creates a specific goal for them to focus on.
And finally, we realized that there is no point in creating value if you don’t make money from it.
Much has been said about companies scaling when their unit economics don’t really work, and they are actually money-losing, not money-making machines. Having a profit on every single translated word we deliver to our customers is the key to continue to grow as a healthy, sustainable company that generates enough money to deliver on its vision. So our third objective is:
Increase Unbabel’s performance by x% for English to Spanish translations.
This is the OKR most closely related to our end goal, which is to create an unfair technical advantage in the translation world—an advantage that makes us the best and least-expensive translation service out there. As we increase our technological advantage, we increase our revenue.
Science needs focus, hence the focus on a single language pair. We have to hone in on one language for the technical improvements, and we chose Spanish because we have native Spanish speakers in the office.
Once we defined our company objectives, each team worked backwards to decide what to focus on, day-to-day.
Step 4: The future
Now, refreshed after our surf session and motivated by our OKRs, it’s time for our teams to focus on their individual goals, goals directly aligned with our objectives.
Startups always have growing pains, and making sure everyone is on the same page, knows what’s expected of them, and knows how their work contributes to the company goals, gives us everything we need to make Unbabel bigger and better than ever.
But there’s one more thing — our OKR process will be truly complete when we put our OKRs on the wall.