In a basement on Adelaide Street a man takes careful aim at a target across the room. His target, a young woman typing feverishly into a Macintosh on a bean chair, is oblivious to her impending doom. With a quick pull of the trigger, and an air soaked pop, a nerf bullet connects with her head. She quickly looks up and grabs a gun from her own hidden stash while the room erupts in laughter.
It’s a portrait of an average workday at the award-winning Toronto tech-startup responsible for 1Password, an app that stores and randomly generates unique passwords for their customer’s online accounts and profiles.
“I don’t like to use the term culture because if you have to explain your culture you don’t have one” says AgileBits “CEO” Jeff Shiner—CEO being Chief Eliminator of Obstacles as opposed to the more Bay Street variety. “We don’t want to take ourselves that seriously we just want to have fun, we do work hard though.”
While most of their employees are mobile, the Toronto office, an open concept basement-suite complete with hard wood floors, a leather couch, toys and a massive white board with code scrawled across it in faded sharpie, houses a small team of employees a few days a week.
Among them is typically Shiner who was hired to help grow the small company around a year and a half ago as it struggled to keep up with its own success.
Shiner’s business chops come from his time at IBM and Cleveland-based Rosetta where he worked as an e-commerce architect, before being brought to Toronto by friend, former colleague and AgileBits cofounder Dave Teare.
Two years ago, when the team had just completed their latest update, 1Password 4 for iOS 6, they immediately launched into the development of a Mac client, a process that was disrupted halfway through by the release of iOS 7.
“IOS 7, if you remember, had this big user interface redesign that came out with it,” recalls Shiner, “So of course we wanted to adopt to the new UI, but we were right in the middle of trying to finish 1Password 4 for Mac. It wasn’t until months and months later that we got our 1Password 4.5 version out with the iOS 7 redesign.
“That was unacceptable, and something we needed to do better but part of it was that we did not have the team.”
Shiner oversaw the hiring process that would double the company’s staff, effectively setting up separate development teams to work on separate platforms in parallel.
This had to be done while also ensuring the customer support team grew in tandem with AgileBits’ customers. A problem the company remedied by strategically hiring from their very own customer base.
“It’s so much better to have people who are passionate about the product,” Shiner explains.
Today the app, with a reported user count in the millions, has received multiple awards, including being selected for the MacWorld Editor’s Choice awards in 2013 while also being selected as a MacGadka and MyApple product of the year.
The growth philosophy resonates with a lot of the structure—or lack there of—in AgileBits operations, everything from a satirical list of job titles—such as Defender Against the Dark Arts Jeffery Goldberg—to a rotating team leader system for AgileBits customer support groups, serve to keep the company as open and innovative as the smallest of startups despite its growth and success.
Shiner keeps the company’s small vibe by sticking to the basics: communication.
“When you go from a really small company to a less small company it’s harder to keep in touch with everyone, It’s harder to know each person individually especially as they are coming on,” says Shiner.
At the end of each day Shiner along with AgileBits’ Minister of Magic—real job title—Sara Teare, who heads the customer support team, compile two slightly different versions of The Daily Prophet, an internal newsletter updating the company on the happenings of the day while also inviting feedback from all employees.
Shiner’s version is sent out to the design and development teams while Teare’s goes to the company’s customer support teams.
It’s all part of the strategy of keeping communication, and ideas, flowing so that 1Password keeps the innovative edge that has driven its success despite future growth.
“We want as much as we can to continue to be that startup company, that small company, that family,” Shiner explains, “that’s important to us.
“Especially in a startup company it can get to where you’re just forcing the wrong ideas, or suppressing ideas, or people are afraid to bring up ideas and that’s not who we are.”
Photos by Blair Tate.
Dylan Freeman-Grist is a staff writer for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.