Mathis is founder and CEO of Taxfix, a digital tax accountant that employs a team of 250+ from its Berlin and Madrid offices. Previously, he bootstrapped Smallpdf, a document management solution among the world's most visited websites (#203 Alexa Rank as of writing). His very first company was organizing academic tours to North Korea.
On defining his role as CEO.
Every quarter, my role changes. I prepare ahead with an exercise where I write my own job description six months into the future. When you start, it’s all about finding your own solutions to every problem. At our stage, my job is setting the vision and finding the best people to implement it. As a problem solver, it’s always tempting to continue fixing things directly, but that would be destructive. You must refrain from it and focus on empowering others instead.
On how recruiting.
My dad was running the family business he took over from his dad. How much people matter in any business equation was always present for him. Who do you have in your management? How do you go along with them? At Taxfix, we hire around 0.5% of those that apply: for a very long time, I was still doing every interview, to avoid hiring mistakes at all costs. First lesson: start by taking the time to reflect on what you truly want, define how success looks like in 12 and 18 months for that position. Knowing this changes the whole process: you might realize how you won’t find this person through a public job posting. Second: it’s really easy to get distracted during an interview. Have different stages. Focus on having a thorough evaluation form: it will lead you to ask the very specific questions that matter. Third: cultural fit cannot be a feeling. It’s no “I like that person and would have beers with them”. Too biased: It might work for your first three hires but does not scale.
On culture’s role in hiring.
At Taxfix, we have culture ambassadors that evaluate candidates on the specific values in our company culture. They do so cross-department: a developer might talk with a customer service agent. If they don’t see a fit, we don’t hire them.. When we started, only founders and C-level were culture ambassadors. Now everyone in the company can apply to be trained and participate in the interview process.
On implementing company culture.
Culture is all about implementation. 90% of the work starts after you defined the values. Our first time, we spent an afternoon searching for them before putting them on the office walls. This was useless. At Taxfix, it took us nine months to define the values we need to succeed in the long run. They are deeply ingrained in everything we do, be it recruiting or performance evaluations. We are always scored against them, and we score the company this way in the employee engagement surveys. It’s through these values that we look back at each quarter and base the majority of our people operations decisions. We even have Slack channels to praise the team members that live a value well! Of course, ours are very active values, certain ways of working and thinking. It’s all living and changing a bit over time, but I believe their core is timeless.
We have a people and culture department and four distinct roles that bring each of our four values to life. One is Deliver. It’s about efficiency and living up to our words, about caring for impact and results. The person responsible for Deliver is essentially an agile coach. Their task is coaching the entire company in being the absolute best version of themselves in terms of delivery. But this role is not responsible for any team. The team’s own managers always are. We don’t outsource problem-solving: their function is helping the managers get the best out of themselves and their teams.
On the hardest company stage.
Smallpdf was the first digital product I started. We learned a lot, but it was entirely bootstrapped. Three months before Taxfix’s seed round, I didn’t know a single VC in Europe. Fundraising, 50 of them told me how nobody was going to file their taxes from mobile. It’s emotionally draining: you are having 5 or 6 meetings a day to be told why this is not going to work. But we learned, also to manage it emotionally. It took us seven weeks to raise our seed round. The series A took five. The series B was an internal round and required less. With the Series C, we arrived at the terms sheet in two weeks.
On his routing for balance.
I wake up around 6.30 AM. I drink a glass of water and work out for 15 or 30 minutes. A mix of weight- of high-intensity training, right now with the Nike Training app. I spend 15 minutes meditating and try to read a book, something non-business related. I like to start the workday at 8 AM. From 8 to 9 AM, I like to look around and plan my day. Usually, I work until 7 or 8 PM. It takes me time to wind down before bed. Reading helps me a lot: fiction or historical books. I turn off my phone and go to sleep by 10 or 11 PM.
On his productivity framework.
I use Notion for everything I can. Mine is an advanced setup that connects the whole company. All my notes and ToDos are there. My calendar defines everything, including my private life. All tasks taking more than five minutes are there. If it’s not in the calendar, it doesn’t exist for me. I use Airmail as a client for the shortcut possibilities. Arrow left for archiving, right for ToDos. My assistant receives notifications this way. We keep a lot of things on Slack and have integrated to the point where signatures and approvals are the press of a button.
On things he’s actively trying to improve.
Right now my focus is on executive hiring and in learning how to work from remote, especially how to keep people engaged in this setup. There’s not so much written about it and we have to be creative. One initiative we are working on is implementing rituals in our meetings. Moments where everyone is doing something together as a team, like saying hello in their first language at the start of an all-hands. We try to implement time for banter and small talk. Even in management meetings, we take 5 minutes to answer a silly question like what’s our favorite vegetable, or what we did the weekend prior. Bits of conversation to connect on a human level before we getting things done.
On employee stock options.
Everyone who is employed full time at Taxfix gets shares. Our last round was oversubscribed and we were asked if we wanted to do a secondary. We thought employees could be interested instead. We had this conversation with every team member, not just the C-levels. In the end, over 50 people received an offer. We took the time to explain it in detail. It wasn’t a yes or no decision: they could decide whether to sell just a percentage of the shares already vested at that point in time. Making everyone an owner of the company takes effort, but it’s powerful. When we get together and discuss how we increased the evaluation of the company, everyone can celebrate. It helps us explain the tough decisions that any company needs to take and it aligns a lot of interests required to create shareholder value.
On books everyone should read.
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, from Neal Gabler. It’s a biography of Walt, a startup book, and a damn good story. It has a lot of the things I like: entrepreneurship, crazy imagination, building unique experiences. It was a powerful read for me.
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