Hard as it may be to believe, Apple was the Scrooge McDuck of Silicon Valley when I got there in 2010. Having lived through a near-death experience in the mid-90s, the company was still operating as though every day was going to be its last.
This tight-fistedness affected everyone, but as an engineer, I was used to it. I had already spent years at other companies where, as at Apple, the sales teams got all the cool toys. So it wasn't exactly a shock, after being asked one day to build a lab to write productivity apps for the Apple sales team, to be told that "We don't have any money" for the hardware I requested; I just poked around in the office electronics graveyard and retrieved a bunch of old Apple Xserves, long-forgotten racks, and network equipment and started building. And I built that entire lab using VMware ESXi with virtual machines.
All of which is a long way of saying that, like Warren Buffet, frugality is in my blood. My dad taught me from a very young age to spend company money like you would your own. And I do, even more so now that I am CEO at a not-quite-startup. Because I believe firmly that if we learn the ropes right the first time -- now, while we're cash-starved -- we might just avoid the fate of so many young companies that hit the revenue jackpot only to start pissing it all away on things they don't need: snacks, entertainment, and chairs. (It's always the damn chairs that get you.)
Here are six more hard-won tips about cash management, from our old server closet to yours.
1. Lead (Cheaply) From the Front.
Spending money is nice, but it doesn't actually change your output. Yes, it can have an upside: I might decide, for example, to spend a little to make myself more productive by avoiding a layover on a cross-country flight. But I let my team see where I draw that line, even when it comes to something as simple as buying an employee lunch. Normally, a company would pay for that lunch, but in my case I use a different filter: What are we doing over that lunch? Did we solve a problem? If we solved a problem, I'll let the company pay. If we're just hanging out, then I will. It's a small thing, but it gets noticed.
2. Public Shaming Works.
In a similar spirit, we have a shared Google spreadsheet that we use with our corporate American Express account. Every employee in the company has a tab and all their expenses are visible--including mine. It reinforces my frugal nature to know that anything on my AmEx is going to be looked at closely once a week, and that my team members will model their spending on mine.
3. Radical Transparency Is Healthy.
I have instituted a weekly leadership team meeting to look at what's in our bank account and dissect what we're spending money on. The process of assessing each line item in a weekly forensic deep dive is extremely healthy and produces savings where you'd never expect.
4. Be Not Proud.
At a company like ours, the half-life for any particular piece of hardware isn't all that long. So we sell that shit. That's right: First, we offer it to the staff, but whatever is left gets sold on the open market; then we state how much money we made in our bi-weekly company meeting. Just the other day we sold some old laptops and made $11,000. Not only does the cash help, but that public announcement tells the staff you care about dollars. And it subliminally encourages them to take better care of their gear, too.
5. Reinvent Yourself (Often).
Calling out people for saving money is actually a really important thing. Even if it's only a couple of bucks, we'll call it out company-wide. Which may help explain why Joel, Scrollmotion's DevOps guy, took it upon himself to go through and re-architect the virtual machines we're using on Amazon Web Services, assessing how much capacity we were using, how much scale etc. He scaled everything down to exactly what we needed--and saved us $20,000 a month. Now we love Joel even more.
6. Points on Your License.
SaaS accounts can be a swamp of unnecessary spending. Our always frugal CFO Ron is constantly looking at our software agreements and assessing which ones are no longer needed. Just recently we realized that we had over a hundred ex-employee Google accounts that we were paying a few bucks apiece for every month. That's a few grand a year. Not a ton, granted--but you could get a nice chair for that.