How a Magento Master Balances Employee Happiness and Success With Brent Peterson of Talk Commerce

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Brent PetersonBrent Peterson is an entrepreneur, commerce evangelist, and a Magento Master. His podcast, Talk Commerce, is designed to help entrepreneurs know how to start, grow, and scale their businesses through the lens of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and marketers.

Before he sold it, Brent was the President and Co-founder of Wagento, a full-service Magento ecommerce development agency specializing in SEO, web design, and the Magento platform. Speaking at Magento events worldwide, he’s given presentations, keynotes, and held workshops. In addition, he is an active member and the SAP Chairperson of the Minnesota Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Why employee happiness is essential in this business climate
  • What can small businesses do to attract and retain employees
  • Do employees value quality of life over bigger paychecks?
  • System modifications that can benefit companies and employees
  • How misconceptions can create lasting issues
  • The impact of unhappy employees on companies
  • The challenges that The Great Resignation created

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In this episode of the Ecommerce Wizards Podcast

Employee happiness is a nebulous concept; however, it’s evident that happier employees lead to stronger businesses, but many companies still fail to invest in their teams. When top talent leaves, it trickles down into all aspects of the organization. So what can you do to attract and retain valuable employees in this competitive environment?

From his experience mentoring Wagento’s project team on a customer and employee-centric approach to communications and project management, Brent Peterson has gained many insights into employee happiness. It takes more than offering a big paycheck for companies to attract and retain talent in today’s job market. Employees have the power of negotiation since the jobless rate is so low, which means businesses big and small have to compete with each other, keeping employee happiness at the forefront.

On this episode of the Ecommerce Wizards Podcast, Guillaume Le Tual speaks with Brent Peterson, the host of Talk Commerce, to discuss employee happiness and its direct influence on business success. They touch on the hiring process, keeping star talent, the challenge of having a remote team, and system modifications that benefit everyone. Brent also goes through the expectations of employees and businesses and how they relate to each other.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

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Episode Transcript

Guillaume: Hello everyone. Guillaume Le Tual here, host of the Ecommerce Wizards Podcast where I feature leaders in e-commerce and business. Today’s guest is Brent Peterson. I am very happy to have you here today, Brent. He was a Magento brand master for five years in a row and this was a very select club. I don’t think that award exists anymore. It was awarded by the Magento company and it was very hard to get. Getting it five years in a row is quite impressive. Great job there, Brent. Brent ran his Wagento Company, an Adobe partner company, for 12 years and he sold it. So it was a successful exit. He’s still running it a little bit until the full exit. Today we’re going to talk about all kinds of interesting things about the entrepreneurial journey but we will mostly focus on employee happiness and team building. Because this is a very hot topic since COVID. Everybody’s fighting over talent and everybody wants to be happier at work. Let’s dive into this.

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Brent, thanks for being here today.

Brent: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Guillaume: All right. Employee happiness, I know you care about the topic a lot. So what’s top of mind for you?

Brent: I think that times have changed and how you as an employer deal with employees have changed. As an employer you need to work with the times to try to keep employees employed in your organization. I think one thing we’ve seen is that the shift from what happened during COVID, people decided that they have different priorities and there’s different ways they can work. So you’re no longer bound to a place in a city. You can work remotely from anywhere thus making the job market extremely hard to hire and easy to get a job. I’m in Minneapolis and I think our unemployment rate is still under two and a half percent and especially in the tech industry our employment rate is like 1%, which means you can’t hire anybody locally. So the big companies that need people to come in are really getting those people and smaller companies like Wagento are really struggling to find local talent. But we have the ability to go wider and that’s one of the things that we need to recognize, the talent pool has suddenly gotten much bigger for everybody.

Guillaume: And to handle that we’ve relied a lot on immigration. So we will test remote for a while and then move on with immigrations where we can get more payroll employees as we sort of have no choice but to go through the immigration. And when unemployment is low, tech tends to drive salaries pretty high and then the other companies will offer 10K more or something like that. Eventually they reach a plateau and it becomes unsustainable and now everybody is needed to balance their expectations. For example, employees will say, I want even more salary because it is a hot market but employers will say but clients are not paying more. There’s a limit everywhere in this market. But that’s a boom. We’ll see if there’s a recession and if things cool off, we’ll see how things play out over the next two years. Do you think that this might change this hot market a little bit?

Brent: I think in North America or at least in the United States, it is absolutely not going to change in the next two years if you are a developer. Are you a Magento developer? If you can’t get a job that means you’re not trying. I mean, I don’t want to say you’re not trying, but you’re not trying hard enough. Especially if you have an Adobe certification you are guaranteed to get a job. And chances are that you’re going to start at 80-100k in the US. If you are a US agency, you do have the advantage of if you’re selling into the US and being at the top of the food chain and having the ability to charge more than somebody in another market, even in Europe, your billable rate maybe 60-70 euros an hour. In the US you’re looking at a billable rate of at least $131 to $150, so you have the ability to get a stronger team and pay those salaries. The problem comes if you start selling in say Mexico and the client is demanding a $60, $50, or $40 billable rate. It becomes very difficult to staff those positions with high quality talent and meet those clients’ expectations. Because the talent pool is much smaller.

Guillaume: And it is international too, which levels the playing field a lot because it doesn’t matter that much where you’re in the world. I mean, if you can do the job and you’re willing to work in that particular time zone, it doesn’t matter much if you’re in the next city or actually in the next continent. If you have a good internet connection, you’re reliable, and you’re certified and you’re qualified, great. Everybody here knows what people are getting paid in the US and so they want to be paid the same. But that has its limit. The US gets the first pick in many cases because of the financial benefits of its currency and the market too. But then there’s the rest of the world that also needs Magento developers and then there’s the local market. So there are many countries that you were saying that will be paying $50 an hour or $60 an hour. So there’s not nearly as much purchasing power for those agencies in their recruitment abilities, which for sure has been impacted big time.

Brent: I think we got a little off track, we were talking about employee happiness.

Guillaume: But it’s part of it. Correct?

Brent: I think the topic was that, we’ve seen a shift in the way employees expect to be treated and that they are able to move around anywhere they want. So if you’re not on top of how you’re treating your employees, and it doesn’t matter where they’re located, if you’re not on top of that, your employees will leave and do something else.

Guillaume: But the pay is more important. It is on topic because to some degree it plays a part in them being happy and feeling that they’re properly compensated.

Brent: Absolutely. And I think that if you get trapped as a business owner thinking that this recession is right around the corner and I’m not going to hire anybody or I’m going to wait and hire somebody cheaper, it may never happen. I think what we’ve seen is that perhaps the larger companies like Amazon, Microsoft, BigCommerce, and Shopify, are laying people off. But those people are getting jobs quicker than anybody else could possibly go after them. And you’ll see a lot of agency owners posting after a big layoff saying, ‘Hey, if you’re looking for a job, we’re hiring’. So maybe it’s a shift from big tech to small business in terms of who can hire and when. The big companies of the world are probably going to get that first pick of those high talent employees because they can pay the most. But the smaller businesses also have an opportunity in that. And the whole point of this is to illustrate that as a small business owner you need to take care of that employee that you’ve just hired who was working for big commerce. Give them the same benefits, give them the same structure and make them feel comfortable that they’re also not going to get laid off at some point, or they’re not going to have some experience in which as a smaller company maybe you can’t give the same benefits as the larger company but certainly maybe give more time off or whatever that thing is that somebody wants. It’s not always just money. It is working conditions, it’s time off, it’s travel benefits, it’s whatever that thing is that helps to keep somebody in that seat for that job.

Guillaume: Do you see some new more universal requests other than that they all want to work from home?

Brent: I think that somebody wants the tools, they want a computer to use. So certainly, a lot of people will ask for a company computer whereas you would just get one if you went to the office. Some expectations around remote work are just using your own computer. Other than that, I don’t see anything that’s much different than how you work in a regular office. And we at Wagento traditionally always had a semi-remote culture where we had an office in certain countries but we were all connected via slack or something like that, to make sure we’re maintaining a constant culture.

Guillaume: Yeah, we always had the same so it’s not that big of a deal. We always had two or three days a week remote. We were just going to the office for team morale and team bonding. So it seems to have changed a little bit but not that much. Some people were bringing up ideas about previous generations that our grandparents fought so hard to survive. Then the next generation, our parents, just wanted to have a standard of living, a great career and earn a lot of money. And then the next generation coming in is looking for quality of life which needs some money, but it’s not that much about the money. And if you’re going to ask them to be stressed, and put in many work hours and all that, there must be a strong ‘why?’. It’s like, do you believe in the mission of going to Mars or SpaceX or something like that? I mean, not necessarily something that epic, why go through this? A lot of them are more about the quality of work than the quality of life as opposed to the pure standard of living of a career person at the age of our parents.

Brent: Yeah, I think that’s a big deal. They call it the Great Resignation where people are deciding that they want to sort of live their lives the way they would like to live it rather than the way the company dictates to them that they should live it. And I think we saw that in a lot of the way big companies were behaving early on, saying, as soon as the pandemic ends, you have to come back to work. Where I think it’s going to be more of a hybrid approach now where it’s been proven that people can be just as productive. I have a friend who was told he has to come back to work three days a week. But now he doesn’t punch a time clock but he does have to account for his hours. And so he has said, fine, then my commute time is part of my hours. So he starts his clock when he leaves home and goes to the office and then leaves to make sure that his eight hours includes his commute, which would have never worked before or we would have never thought that commute should be part of our day. I was in New York for NRF a couple of weeks ago, and I spoke with the person from Toronto who said that their pre-COVID commute was an hour and a half a day. Which if you think about it, that’s a lot of time that you’re spending.

Guillaume: You’ve wasted one work day by the end of the week just commuting. And it’s a question of negotiation power and past history because if you think of a consultant going to see a client at the client’s office, you may or you may not, depending on your negotiation, charge all your travel time or a part of it. So employees never ever got paid to go to the office and it was more of a cultural thing. Now the negotiation power is sort of changing and we’re like, maybe it can be part of it, but it’s all about negotiation or whatever they both agree on.

Brent: Absolutely true. Because the bottom line is that if you don’t have a happy team, if they’re not happy and satisfied with what they’re doing, they’re not going to treat your clients as well as they should treat your client. If you skimp on your employees, you’re going to skimp on your clients. If you treat your employees like transactions, and if all you’re trying to do is cut costs and everything gets cut, then your clients are the ones that are going to suffer. Your employees are going to leave and we know in the Magento/Adobe commerce world, that if you have that 12th person, people that are specialized or that have that certification to be specialized and suddenly you lose half of them, it’s going to be a lot of work to get back to the point in which you have all those certifications to be specialized. So if you’re not on top of that talent pool and making sure that you can perform for your client and that your people are happy, then you are going to end up with unhappy customers.

Guillaume: Yeah, it’s very important because when you’re a startup, you take care of your clients yourself as a founder. But as you grow, eventually it’s somebody else taking care of your clients. So that person must be, of course, first of all, the right person to the right seat that will take care of your clients. But it’s a chain that starts with you taking care of them and then they take care of your clients, that’s all part of it. Are there some new perks, or maybe perks isn’t the right thing, but let’s say some modification to have a global ecosystem of happy employees with this new market and with COVID, and everybody working remotely?

Brent: I think that in the case of developers we’ve always had remote teams. And so the challenge comes if you have a team in a country, how do you get that team to be all on the same page with you? And if they’re all dispersed in that country, is there some glue that helps to communicate that culture to all the team members? We had a team in India, they were all in the same office, they were all in the same city. It was easier to have a common culture because everybody was associated with each other in that office. But as soon as COVID happened and the office closed and then we dispersed across the entire country, it became more difficult to build a cohesive team, especially if there’s no leader in that region to help build that team.

Guillaume: Yeah. You can have significant cultural differences. I experienced that as well in some cases, I agree with you on that. Anything else that you’ve observed that changed in terms of perhaps how the ecosystem should work for employee happiness?

Brent: I think that employee happiness remains that you just keep employees happy. What has changed is that employers often have not changed their attitude towards employees. So employees have changed and we’ve already discussed that they would like to have different benefits as part of that. It’s not always money, it’s other things too. If you don’t adjust with that changing demographic of how your employees are changing, you as the employer will get left behind. There’s no doubt that you as the employer will lose the best talent that you’ve had because you were not keeping up with the times. And whoever that new employer is that is offering those new benefits they’re going to win because they’re kind of snapping up all that really great talent.

Guillaume: Right. But all those benefits have to align together into a core synergy to sort of reinforce something. It’s not just like random benefits like, ‘Oh, I heard that this other company is giving this benefit’ and you just throw it in the mix, but like, how does that work as a whole, for example, in our case there is time to study for certification and the certification tests are always covered by the company regardless of if you pass or you fail. We encourage people to develop themselves and so we want to hire people who care about that, because some people might not care about that benefit, but right away we will have a value fit problem with that candidate. It might be a temporary freelancer for some hands on help but that’s not somebody we want as part of the core team. We want people who are always in the personal development mode or the continuous improvement mode. It’s the same thing with developers since developers are worldwide, we do ask for a minimum English level with the Cambridge test, but there’s also English lessons every week that they can go to if they want. It’s like you’re investing in yourself to be a higher level professional who communicates better and works better and you’ll become more valuable because you add more value to whoever you’re working with.

Brent: Yeah, that’s definitely true, all of those points. I think for developers especially, that is a contention point with many employers. Do you give space for those developers to study at work time if they’re trying to get that certification? My belief is yes, you should give them whatever, 10 or 20% of their week to study, then hold them accountable that they have three months to study and take that test. I think the other thing that employers often miss is, if that team member is finished with his tasks or her tasks, or perhaps there’s not enough business in that sprint or those couple of months that are there, get them involved and get them hyper-focused on passing that test. It’s different for an agency versus a big tech company, where the big tech company is going to lay people off because they’re doing it for their shareholders. They also have a larger pool of knowledge that they can move forward with. If you’re a smaller team and you lose that knowledge pool it’s harder to get going and it’s harder to regain that. And going back to the Adobe specialization, if you have all that talent to become specialized but you lose even one person it’s going to be harder to get recertified because you not only have to have your team but you have to have your three customer case studies that sign off on your specialization. Or if you’re renewing you have to have two of them. But if you don’t have the team you have to wait for the team to even get that customer sign off. You can see how it can really spiral into a place where it’s difficult to recover. You’re basically starting over.

Guillaume: Correct, and as a small business do you have redundancy of knowledge and skill in every single area? You know, from design to front-end, to integration, to back-end and DevOps and so on. So sometimes two persons can make a big difference, they can set you back for quite some time before you get back on track.

Brent: Absolutely.

Guillaume: Are there any kind of misconceptions like perhaps on the employee side where they arrive at a job interview and maybe you’re hiring so many people and they’re like, maybe we need to modify those expectations and just have a dialogue here?

Brent: Misconceptions from the employees?

Guillaume: Yes.

Brent: Yeah. There’s always going to be misconceptions from your employees just like there’s always misconceptions from your clients. In project management the missed expectations from clients is a huge thing that drives negative client satisfaction in your business and in your project. If your project manager isn’t on top of that communication point and making sure that the client understands what is being delivered, what can and can’t be delivered and all those things around that project, a person that’s focused entirely on delivering a project, then you might have a customer service person who’s focused entirely on making that client happy. There’s nobody that really does that for the employee except the HR. And if the HR is overwhelmed or doesn’t have enough time to make sure that every employee has set those same expectations, then eventually you’re going to have unhappy employees and they’re going to leave.

Guillaume: And are there good general concepts and specific things that you might have observed since that change, like, now everybody works from home and these are the new benefits? For example one that I’ve seen is like, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that some guy in the US is getting $175,000 for this kind of position’, and then like, ‘Okay, we’re going to have to work a little bit on those expectations’. That’s on the easy side of salaries. Cost of life even though it’s international, there’s some averaging happening. They are still like, which country is the company hiring you from? It impacts how much a company can pay. That’s one example of mass globalization happening. Is there anything else or sort of specific things that perhaps you had to readjust employees’ expectations maybe in the interview process or as the transition was happening?

Brent: No, I think that we at Wagento had a great culture prior to the purchase and melting those two teams together was the most difficult part. You had one team that was used to one way and another team that was used to the other way, getting both teams on board was saying we are a team rather than we are this team and this team. It is really the hardest part about a purchase or a merger.

Guillaume: So you had a merger before the US company, the Lathem company?

Brent: No, we were purchased by another US company.

Guillaume: Okay, in that sense. I was wondering if you had lived this before your exit. So you’re talking about the current sale merger with the other company, their culture and your culture. Anything that can be said about this more specifically or any kind of adjustments that you can talk about?

Brent: Yeah. I mean, we talked about communications and how you just need to communicate a lot with your employees to make sure that they know what’s happening, you’re transparent about things, all the same things that a client would want from you. Everything that you would want to deliver to a client to make sure your client is happy, you’d want to deliver it to your employee.

Guillaume: I think it’s a good mindset. I like that. Anything else on this topic in general?

Brent: No, good.

Guillaume: Okay. I think we’ve covered pretty much. Perhaps one more thing comes to mind. The Great Resignation that everybody was talking about, did you live it?

Brent: Did I live it? What do you mean?

Guillaume: Did you have an increase in turnover from the COVID period?

Brent: Yeah. During COVID it was definitely a hard period in which a lot of people left but for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they can get a job somewhere else. Like I said, it’s a competitive job market and maybe Minneapolis doesn’t pay as much as New York. But if you can get a New York job and get paid New York wages and live in Minneapolis then it’s better, right?

Guillaume: Go for it, yeah. But eventually New York is full and then the other states get the rest of the market. We had it as well. We lost no one from all the hires prior to COVID. We still have all that staff and we’re going to celebrate our 10 year anniversary at the end of this week with one of our employees there. That’s pretty cool. But those hired during COVID, we had a hard time with them. For us in that case the lesson learned was, of course, there was very rapid growth. But we were hiring qualified people if you got your certification and you seemed like a nice guy, and we check our own values versus their values. If you get three checks out of seven and you seem like a nice guy and you’re certified then come over here, we have a lot of work. But then what I’ve learned from another CEO is that, value is not something you can compromise on. Get three checks out of seven. Maybe you need to clean up your list of seven if you have to. There’s no compromise on this, you’ve got to check on every one of those. If you’re not compatible with that specific company then it’s going to be a clash. So that was the main thing that happened. I feel that the Great Resignation thing is over. I don’t know what you feel or what you’re living on your side?

Brent: I think that we’ve gone back to normality now. It is what it is nowadays. So I don’t know if it’s over or not.

Guillaume: Yeah, it has stabilized for sure.

Brent: Yeah. I hear you using a lot of EOS words, the Entrepreneurial Operating System.

Guillaume: Yes.

Brent: All right, I get it. So People Analyzer is a great tool, get one that has the capacity. I mean, there’s so many great tools in the EOS toolbox that you can utilize to make sure that you have a great running company. That’s a whole other topic that we could go into.

Guillaume: I totally agree with you. Awesome.

Brent: Well, Minneapolis has 30 EOS implementers out of the 400 in the whole world.

Guillaume: Wow. Okay, very popular there.

Brent: Yeah. So every street corner has an EOS person.

Guillaume: It’s very useful because when you start a business you go with your intuition and so on. But they have an operating system to follow. It does a structured thing and then you start to reap benefits pretty quickly, like in a year and a half of implementation, that’s quite a change. Pretty great for a new entrepreneur. All right, any last thought that you’d like to share to wrap this up?

Brent: Sure. I sit on the board in Minnesota for EO, Entrepreneurs Organization, Minnesota. Are you in Toronto or what city are you in?

Guillaume: Montreal.

Brent: Montreal. So there’s an EO, Montreal. I would encourage you to reach out to EO Montreal and see about their community, it’s a great organization to join. You will get involved and you can talk to other entrepreneurs that are sometimes going through similar journeys as you. I’m in a nine person forum where there’s nobody that’s in my same industry where we can talk about problems without worrying about having some kind of confidential thing going out. But it’s the only place that I know of that you have the opportunity to share entrepreneurial struggles with people who understand what you’re going through.

Guillaume: I agree with you that to have such a group is very important, because there’s just one CEO per company so that’s kind of a lonely job. But then when you go and meet with CEOs of other companies out there you will realize that we all live the exact same thing. So it’s not lonely at all, we’re all living the same thing, it’s just there’s only one company. I have such a group also, a CEO group from the AQT, Association of Technology of Quebec. So it is incredibly invaluable to have a peer to peer CEO group, whichever it is that you’re joining. So for sure I’d encourage every intrapreneur to have a CEO group.

Brent: Yeah. And read the book Traction by Gino Wickman.

Guillaume: Agreed. And then reread it and then after you can implement.

Brent: Absolutely. Yeah, excellent.

Guillaume: All right, Brent, if people want to be in touch with you, what’s the best way?

Brent: I have a podcast, it’s called, that’s [email protected]. I would ask you to reach out to me there and I’m on Twitter, @brentwpeterson. I’m on LinkedIn, @brentwpeterson. So you can find me at all sorts of places. I do have a weekly podcast and now I have a daily blog post that comes out every day on Talk Commerce on anything to do with the commerce and marketing industry, especially, to talk about the journeys of startups and founders and how they’ve started and maybe some of those struggles that they have and going through that.

Guillaume: Awesome. Well, thank you for being here today. Brent.

Brent: Thank you.

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