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The CEO, interviewed

Before we start this ride on an emotional roller coaster, let’s provide some context. We’re celebrating the MPC website’s release after 13 years since the company was founded (which is a hell of a time for a software house to survive without an actual website). I think that a lot must have changed during this time, especially for our CEO, Kuba…

By Julia Blazej

Published: 3 November, 2020

Last update: 14 December, 2022

Massive Pixel Creation is unlike any other company I had the (dubious) pleasure to work for. You’ve created a place where we actually enjoy spending time in. How did you manage to do that? Do you think that there’s a recipe for a friendly work environment?

First of all, I actually wasn’t thinking about starting a company in the beginning. I wanted to build great products, but with time, I couldn’t handle the demand myself, so I had to start employing people.

I’m not sure if there’s a magical recipe for a great company (probably not), but I can share my experience, as I’ve built MPC from scratch, without external sources of capital or advisors.

My main goal was to create a place where I would like to work myself. I think having that objective in mind was the key to building a friendly, family-like culture.

Another vital ingredient is hiring great people with a passion for what they do every day. This can’t be overemphasized – without the right staff, your company won’t succeed. And it’s not like you start employing people and that’s it. You need to give them the room to grow and make them feel comfortable.

Building a friendly environment is not about Pizza Fridays or free coffee (of course, that helps, but is less critical). It’s about supporting your coworkers, focusing on common goals, understanding their needs and ambitions. Oh, and you should never forget to listen, I mean to REALLY listen.

When you have dozens of people in the same space every day, you need to remember that they come from different backgrounds and have different life experiences and skillsets. Respect everyone or don’t anticipate they’ll do the same just because you are the “boss.” It’s a two-edged sword.

Not only did you work on creating awesome products for our customers, but you also took care of the company’s culture – is MPC now as you imagined it when you decided to found it?

Like I said earlier, I didn’t imagine a lot. I’ve never thought that MPC would be a team of more than 70 people in five years from employing the first one. I’m actually glad that I didn’t think about that because then I’d probably have a massive wave of panic attacks. 70 people?! I’d freak out for sure.

I have a Masters in IT, and I didn’t attend any business school, so I had no practical knowledge of managing people or the proper structure of a company. I did what my gut and heart told me to do.

So, to answer your question, no, it’s nothing like I imagined – but in a good way! Since I founded MPC, I didn’t have much time to look back. We were continually growing more than 100% each year, so I needed to learn a lot. Seeing me work 14 hours a day wasn’t uncommon; it was the norm. Now, I have more people to help (until 2018, I did all the HR, finances, management, etc. myself, and running a business was more of a side job 😂), so I’m able to plan ahead and work less chaotically (don’t get me wrong, 14h a day is still a thing).

It’s pretty standard for CEOs to keep the distance from their employees. They often ignore their staff’s opinions or don’t even ask for it… You seem to have just the opposite mindset. Am I wrong?

No, you’re not. I have no respect for leaders that sit in a golden cage and only talk to people at “their” level. A CEO needs to stay on the battlefield with everyone else, work the same hours, etc. You’ll often find me fixing broken stuff around the office or mopping the floors. Sure, I could have said it’s not my responsibility, but if others are overwhelmed with their duties, we all help, no matter the position in the company. Everyone should be and is equal here. That’s why I listen to everyone’s opinion and consider it.

I have no problem with someone approaching me in the office or coming into my room unannounced.

On the other hand, I’ve heard that I intimidate people at first and that newbies are “scared” of me (don’t ask me why), probably because of the title…

Let’s talk about the benefits you give to your team. We have lots of possibilities to grow thanks to the yearly training budget and access to hundreds of online courses. Additionally, MPC covers a part of our expenses on private medical insurance and MultiSport cards (not to mention the cuddles with Sheba, your Siberian husky). Some people would consider all of these things a waste of money. What do you think?

They look good at the job ads 😂 On a serious note, I know that some people think that these are a waste of money; I’ve even heard people saying that I’m ‘too good’ to my employees, but it’s all well worth it. People deserve those benefits. Of course, if we couldn’t afford it, it would be a different story. Everyone works hard, and this is a way to motivate them, so they have the peace of mind to focus on work.

For example, I know that MultiSport motivated people to become more active (don’t look at me, I don’t use this benefit to this day because when I finally signed up, the lockdown started 😂). They’re now in better shape and have more energy, which shows in their work!

Of course, there’s also the elephant in the room – some say it’d be better just to give more cash to the team. I don’t agree with that. People would want the benefits either way. Also, they probably wouldn’t spend their own money on those kinds of things.

I think it’s worth it to support people with all different kinds of benefits. As John Lydgate said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Let me add that you can try, though 😉

Without a doubt, Sheba is a huge part of our life in MPC. Why have you decided to bring her to the office with you in the first place? (Some of you may not know that, but Sheba is not the only furry visitor in the office! We can all bring our dogs if we want to – it’s actually the reason why I finally decided to adopt a dog myself!) Do you like to have the office destroyed by our four-legged friends? 😂

My idea of bringing Sheba to the office wasn’t a master plan to create a more welcoming environment. This happened out of necessity. I just got out of a relationship back then and I didn’t want her to sit alone all day, so I started to take Sheba to work with me. It wasn’t long before I found out that everyone loves her, so she became a part of the company.

I’m a huge fan of having the same rules for everyone. That’s why other animals are always welcome in the office! If someone has a similar situation to mine and their furry pal has to stay alone all day long, I see no reason for not welcoming them in the office.

Last year, we even had a little accident with our dogs. Sheba was playing with Fargo, our PM’s dog, and it got so wild that Fargo completely shuttered the doors to my room. Even that didn’t change my attitude, I’m just glad that nothing happened to our pets 🙂

Without any hesitation, I can say that you’ve created a great place to work. Are you motivated by some traumatic experiences with your previous employers? 😉

Haha, no! It’s funny, but I have never been anyone’s employee. Maybe that’s the key? Maybe I had no one to learn bad habits from? Although, for a month, I was an intern in an IT company in Katowice just because the University required it for my Masters.

I think that the only ‘traumatic’ experience I have is the common perception of a typical boss, the one that you often joke or create memes about. There’s a lot of negativity and stereotyping around the concept of founding and running a company, and I wanted to prove to people that it doesn’t have to be that way.  I think I am on the right track to becoming a contradiction to that belief 😉

If your professional life wasn’t that bad, can you tell me what inspires you to be a caring leader and protect us from unpleasant experiences in the workplace?

You cannot expect people to be great if you aren’t setting an example. It’s simple as that. That’s why, for example, I don’t bush developers for having stacks of dirty dishes on their desks because I know I have them myself and there is no force in the universe that would change my habits 😉

If I can’t do something myself, I can’t assume that others will. I’m not sure if I’m a “caring leader”, I won’t be a judge of that, but I’m human. And I always try to put myself in someone else’s shoes.

One of our colleague’s dream was to get from Poland to Japan by bike. I found out about this when he put a resignation letter on my desk. He expected me to get angry at him for leaving the company. Boy, was he wrong! MPC became his main sponsor and bought him the ultimate bike for the trip (btw, yes, he made it to Japan).

EVERYBODY in the MPC lived to hear the updates about the progress of the renovations in our new office… I think you know what I mean. When I joined the company last year, the first questions I heard during our weekly company meeting were:
– “How’s the renovation going, Kuba?”
– “When are we moving downstairs, Kuba?”
– “Is the office ready, Kuba???”
Really, the saints could be jealous of your patience… I need to ask – why have you decided to invest in your own office space in the first place and to make it a top-notch, state-of-the-art one?

I bought the space because it made sense financially. And why did I make it top-notch? Because I either do something 100% or don’t do it at all 🙂 I also love interior design. Being a designer myself, I have an eye for beautiful things, and on top of that, creating a state-of-the-art office is my dream. We are not there yet, but hopefully will be by the end of this year, once we finish the second-floor set up, the huge slide between two floors, a climbing wall, etc. This office has been the apple of my eye for the past 1.5 years.

Probably there’s also a bit of ambition in that. I can’t wait to say ‘this is mine, I build it’, but don’t tell anyone. Now everyone will think that I have an ego problem 😅

Moving the office aside, I think that releasing the Kraken (MPC’s child brand specializing in WordPress) was a huge milestone for everybody in the company. How has MPC changed since WP Kraken came into existence?

Since WP Kraken was established, we’ve employed over 60 people. That would be the first “small” change 😂. When we started out with the idea of WP Kraken, there were around 10 people working at MPC. After the launch, we had to scale quickly. Three years later there’re almost 80 people on board with new coming nearly every month.

The company changed a lot, we’re no more a micro company where everyone works side by side and pitches in to the same thing. Right now there are different clients, projects, teams, etc. We have matured a lot in the past 3 years, bringing a lot of talent that we couldn’t afford earlier.

Where do you see MPC in the future? Do you have any special world domination plans you can reveal?

Since we’ve launched WP Kraken, we focus mainly on providing our clients with services. In the near future, I want to get back to building our own products. This is what I love and what keeps me motivated. We drifted away from that and I miss it, but working directly with clients gave us the room to grow and taught a lot.

In a nutshell, our plan is to drive two main branches of the business towards a software house and in-house product development. I can’t give you any more details. I don’t want to jinx it.

Let’s talk more about you. The CEO, a developer, a designer, a blogger, a plumber – is there anything you HAVEN’T done at MPC? Tell us who Kuba Gaj really is (and if the answer is not a Star-Wars-Lego-loving geek then I’ll be disappointed 😛)? 

Ok, that’s a hard one. First of all, I am not a Star Wars lover, I just love their lego models as they are huge and fun to build 😂. As any geek in their thirties would say, the Star Wars franchise ended with Episode 6 to me.

I’ve done every single job inside MPC, every new position we wanted to hire for was filled by me at first. I started merely as a developer, but after that, the ball started rolling and I pretty much did everything. I think this gives me a lot of experience needed to drive the company in the right direction.

I don’t think of myself as the know-it-all type but I like to do different things, from physical and manual labor in spare time to anything I have to do professionally.

Yes, I’m a lego-loving geek and I love gadgets. Kuba is a kid stuck in a 33-year-old body. I have different hobbies that don’t stick with me for long, but when the drive is there, I don’t think about anything else. This also shows in my work: when I focus on a new project, I’m motivated to push for 16 hours straight, but if I don’t feel like it, there’s nothing that could change my mind.

Who is Kuba Gaj personally, after work? Pretty much the same person as the one working at the office. My close ones say that I work too much and that I care too much about my work, but I love what I do professionally. If you have that, you don’t perceive it as work. Besides, some say I’d make a great stand-up guy as I love making people laugh to tears… Well, I won’t be the judge of that 😄.

What’s the most difficult obstacle you had to overcome during your life as an entrepreneur? Do you consider anything your biggest failure?

Where do I start? This is a hard question to answer without going deeply into personal stuff. To say something about the obstacles I had personally, let me just say that at times, life wasn’t so kind to me. I hit a rough patch around 2013 but it is all good now!

Professionally, we had one situation at the very beginning when we almost went bankrupt because I put my bet on one product and the development took longer then I anticipated. Overall, the product was a huge success so we came back swinging, but it was a very hard time.

I think that my biggest failure, and at the same time my strength, is that I sometimes bet everything on one card because my gut tells me this is the right decision. So far, I wasn’t mistaken, but I think that good fortune will abandon me eventually.

Currently, I’m much more careful, as I have 70 people that count on me. I’m no longer responsible for myself and no one else. I need to bear in mind that my team depends on my decisions as well.

Of course, I had a lot of failures in my career, but it would be extremely difficult to explain them without the full context. In a nutshell, I promoted or hired the wrong people, abandoned some projects, had control issues… I tried to control everything, and with the company this large, it’s impossible.

After the failures, it’s time to talk about your successes! I know you’re a humble guy, but MPC’s way was pretty momentous. A new office, releasing WP Kraken, Envato distinctions, working with one of the biggest real estate companies in the US … The answer “I focus on failures more than on successes” is not acceptable 😃  

But that’s true, I do focus more on failures 🙁 You can learn a heck of a lot more from your failures than successes.

I can say that all the successes that MPC achieved are not my doing. They are there because of the people that stood by me and helped me one day after another, and I couldn’t have done it without them all. And their commitment means more than anything else in the world – it’s easy for me to sacrifice other things for the sake of my own company, but when someone else does the same thing, I’m genuinely moved. They care about the company, so how I could not care about them?

I think this is not “my” company anymore, and not “my” successes. They belong to all MPCs! 🙂

Thank you so much for your answers, Kuba. I appreciate the time you spent on our fun ride 🙂 

Thanks for doing this, this was fun!

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