It’s the nightmare that every business owner dreads. One day, out of the blue, a talented and hardworking employee hands you his two weeks’ notice. Still reeling from the shock, you go through stages of panicky self-reflection—How come I didn’t see this coming? Can I still convince him to stay? How am I going to fill this position?
The emotional toll this scenario has on a leader, regardless of his or her business’s size, industry or location, is the biggest problem described by entrepreneurs worldwide in conversations with Seattle-based serial entrepreneur David Niu.
At the time, Niu was on a six-month “careercation.” Feeling exhausted from running several startups, he bought one-way tickets for himself, his wife and his 11-month-old daughter to travel the world and recharge.
“I had a couple of goals. First, we wanted to create some amazing memories as a young family. Second, I was stumped by how I could love—yet feel so burned out—running my own company. So I wanted to take some time to really think, journal and meditate, but also interview entrepreneurs wherever we went and ask them about their biggest problems and best practices,” Niu explains.
“I talked to a wide range of entrepreneurs, like the winemaker in New Zealand, the fruit trader in China and the financial services consultant in Seoul, and asked them all these questions on culture, leadership and management,” Niu says. Over and over, he heard about unexpected employee loss at every interview when he asked, “What’s one pain point you’d pay someone to eliminate?”
Even during his hiatus from work, Niu couldn’t escape the calling of another startup idea. The concept persisted throughout his journeys, as he pondered how business owners could prevent the shock of unexpectedly losing talented employees.
“I found that many leaders truly care about their people but didn’t have really good tools, and I want to give them a way to get the pulse on an ongoing basis of how happy, frustrated or burned out their people are before retention sinks or issues fester and become cancerous,” Niu says.
After returning to the States and writing a book based on his journey of self-discovery, Careercation: Trading Briefcase for Suitcase to Find Entrepreneurial Happiness, Niu founded TINYhr in 2012 with a goal of building workplace happiness: “Our mission is to make employees happier, and since we spend over 70 percent of our time at work, why not be happier?”
TINYhr’s product, TINYpulse, is a weekly one-question survey that’s emailed to a client’s employees. Questions are designed to measure employee engagement. They can be fun—“If you had to describe your company as an animal, what animal would it be and why?”—or straightforward—“On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you at work?” All the feedback sent via TINYpulse is anonymous, and employees can also submit suggestions or give cheers for peers—open or anonymous praises for co-workers who do great things.
TINYhr has 500-plus clients worldwide, including big-name companies such as HubSpot and AAA.
“We use TINYpulse ourselves religiously. TINYpulse comes out weekly, and then we review two of them at a time. We meet at the company every two weeks, and we put it on a big screen. I don’t hide anything; it’s all transparent. So if you say, David is a dirtbag, it all shows up,” the founder chuckles.
One particular complaint Niu faced pertained to onboarding new hires.
“I was focused so much on trying to find the right candidates that when they came onboard, I wasn’t as present, and I didn’t give them a great experience,” Niu says. “I got in front of the company and said, ‘You’re right. I didn’t do a great job, but my commitment to you is that we’re going to go from zero to hero when it comes to onboarding, and people are going to visit our company to write key studies about how well we onboard.’ ”
Niu credits his humble leadership style to the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He’s an active member in the Seattle chapter.
“The Entrepreneurs’ Organization has been such an influential part of my life, and when I first joined the organization, I was really young and focused on making more money,” he says. “Now there’s so much more that it offers me—on how I can be a better person, how I can be a better father, husband, friend, business leader. And that business part is subordinate to the personal stuff that I get out of EO.”
Perhaps the greatest gift from EO was its network of international members who served as Niu’s interview subjects during his careercation.
“I’d never met them before; I just reached out and told them I was in town. And they were so selfless, so giving. It’s been an amazing organization,” Niu says. “So at TINYhr, we donate 1 percent of our time to the community, 1 percent of our product to nonprofits, and this year, we’ll be donating 1 percent of our profits to EO.”
For now, Niu keeps himself busy with TINYhr and serving on the board at BuddyTV, a startup he previously founded. But don’t rule out another careercation. “My wife and I are thinking we should do this every five to 10 years,” Niu says with a laugh.