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How Kona Helps Happy Money Live Their Values & Foster Psychological Safety

“Two of our company values are love (to care for) and trust (to believe in), and Kona has been a part of helping our Product team live into these values.”

Adam Zarlengo

Chief Strategy & Product Officer, Happy Money

A woman celebrates with her dog and coworker over Zoom. Culture is king for teams!
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Happy Money prioritizes human happiness above all else. The fintech company has helped people eliminate nearly $3 billion in credit card debt with their award-winning personal loan. They’re building a movement to help borrowers become savers, creating mindful consumerism that benefits generations. This mindfulness reaches every corner of Happy Money’s culture, from their values to team processes.

No one knows this better than Adam Zarlengo, Happy Money’s Chief Product Officer for the last three-and-a-half years and most recently, their Chief Strategy Officer. Adam most recently led a 20-person, fully-distributed Product team across the United States. His leaders are responsible for delivering amazing experiences so Happy Money members can achieve their financial dreams.

“The distributed nature of our work, combined with overall isolation due to the pandemic, has required us to get creative and experiment with new ways of connecting and building relationships,” Adam said. From remote training and leadership development courses to virtual escape rooms and bonsai trimming, Happy Money relies on both serious and fun team building strategies. However, they ran into an issue: teammates wanted more frequent social interaction and less meeting fatigue.

Adam wanted a lightweight solution for improving his team’s relationships and psychological safety. In March 2021, his team started using Kona.

"Traditional standups are so cold. Kona’s branding is fun, short, and sweet. What we do [for work] isn’t who we are so it’s great to understand how people are doing to best support them."
Sarineh “Sar” Issagholian, Product Designer

Part standup. Part team building. Part blocker-crusher.

Kona started by asking everyone how they were feeling. Every morning at 9AM PST, Kona asked the Product teams––that’s Happy Money’s Product Leaders, Product Managers, and UX Designers and Researchers––to mark a colored heart that matched their mood. With the option to select a custom emoji and add a line of context, updates quickly got creative. Teammates celebrated the completion of projects with birthday poppers or shared the link to their favorite TikTok. This created a fun way to bond without distracting from the rest of their day.

These updates helped the Product Design team flag and iterate on blockers in live time. Sarineh “Sar” Issagholian, a Product Designer, began to share some of her Zoom fatigue through yellow hearts. Stuck in hours of meetings, Sar marked herself as yellow to share how little heads-down time she had for her deliverables. The entire Product team could see this and adapt accordingly, opting for a more asynchronous method of communication for that week. Sar shared, “I’m fairly extroverted and I always try to help others on my team. It’s nice to let others know that I have bad days sometimes and that I need help, too.”

It didn’t take long for Kona to become a daily habit. Kona’s quick inputs and Slack-based design helped it blend in with the rest of Happy Money’s existing processes. Laura Zinssmeister, Director of Product Design, shared, “The team ditched our other check-in tool without me even saying so––and I'm so glad we did. When Kona tells me '60% of this meeting's attendees are yellow/red today,' I know not to take it personally if they sound a little off. Kona allows me to personalize how I manage each person on my team.”

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Kona was the first culture-focused tool that Happy Money's Product team used on a day-to-day basis.

Eliminating the loneliness and disconnect of remote work.

After two weeks, Happy Money noticed their team interactions changing. It started when Adam Zarlengo marked himself as Red and shared a personal stressor. David Friermor, a Product Manager at Happy Money, pointed out the shift this created, “Having a person of authority show vulnerability and open up made us all really comfortable to do the same. I could see a huge difference before and after, we’re a lot more empathetic for each other. I don’t know if we’d get there as quickly without Kona.”

Teammates began using Kona as a life update standup. One teammate felt anxious about buying a home. Another was trying to get her young son into preschool. One teammate grieved the loss of a family pet. By opening a thread at the bottom of each update, Kona inspired words of encouragement and sincere discussion among teammates. Teammates created a positive feedback loop of support, and grew closer as a result.

It may seem counterintuitive that a Slackbot led to more vulnerable conversations. However, Kona does not force these conversations, but rather makes space for them. David Friermor explained, “I’d open up more in 1-1s with close teammates. But there’s not an appropriate place to share that you’re struggling with something with the team. It can feel like fishing for worry and compliments. Kona creates an open forum for how we actually feel.” For Happy Money, Kona added a human element to remote work that had been missing from pandemic-era isolation and lockdowns.

“The biggest change we’ve seen is an increased sense of vulnerability, conversation, and support with the team. Whether we're feeling great, celebrating something, or in a challenging time and struggling, Kona has provided an outlet for us to share and meet each other where we’re at.”
Adam Zarlengo, Chief Strategy Officer, Happy Money

Research shows that psychological safety is the biggest factor between average and high performing teams. This willingness to fail in front of colleagues allows for more risk-taking, innovation, and progress. However, the risk of shame and rejection makes failure too high of a risk for most teammates. Only vulnerable and trust-based teams get close.

Happy Money’s efforts towards meaningful team building were not simply feel-good changes. For Adam Zarlengo, vulnerability and psychological safety were essential for bringing out the best in their team and their work. “In any environment, we can be our best selves when we feel understood, supported, and have a group of people around us who care about us as individuals. Happy Money is a team of amazing individuals, and people come first here. So, creating an environment that aligns with our values of love, trust, and hustle – with the tools to support it – strengthens us as individuals and our company as a whole.”

With built-in features for team health reporting and trends, Happy Money’s leadership got more from Kona with scale. After the success with the Product Leadership team, participating managers brought Kona into their Product Management, Product Design, and User Experience teams. Kona sets a precedent for vulnerability and deeper relationships on each team while also translating larger team health data for Adam Zarlengo and his Product leaders. With visibility on team culture trends, the Product department can iterate on processes to encourage more psychological safety and cohesion. Over the last three months, Kona has been adopted by other teams and departments. Culture begins and ends with every team, and it’s exciting to watch Happy Money live these values at scale.

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Empathy is a habit.

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