A Q&A with Kirk Fernandes, founder of Merit, on must-have productivity tools, habits and workflows as a startup CEO

Each week we talk to people we admire to learn about how they work: their processes, tools they use, and what drives them. It's an opportunity to get a sneak peek into how other builders and makers do their jobs. So you might get inspired and learn something new, or, at the very least, get a song recommendation.

This week we talked to Kirk Fernandes, founder of Merit, a platform providing tech mentorship for the under-networked.

p.s. – Kirk's current song on repeat is Burn Dem Bridges, so feel free to listen while you read to put you in the mindset 🙃.

What is the story of Merit?

Merit is tech mentorship for the under-networked. We enable folks breaking into tech to debug their career with the help of 1:1 mentorship with senior tech leads. Mentors use Merit to give back and diversify their own networks.

Our mission is to democratize the professional network. Mentorship is the most effective way to build your network and career. Not everyone has that network, so we built Merit for the under-networked tech worker to grow their craft, career, and confidence.

We built Merit for our past and future selves.

So, what’s it like being the founder of a fast-growing startup? What do you do?

It’s a lot of fun. Challenging. Highs and lows. Between Randy (my co-founder) and myself, we divide the company into Product and People (Randy) and Money and Marketing (Kirk). I sell the dream, but Randy makes it real. So you end up doing a bit of everything: bookkeeping, fundraising, sales, product marketing, content, copywriting, event planning, partnerships, etc.

Day-to-day, this means mostly messages and meetings. A good day is mostly when I message or meet with folks who don’t know about Merit yet. New customers, partners, or investors. Every day is different, but as long as we are helping more people grow their careers and networks than yesterday, it was a good day.

What's one thing you swear by in your work as a founder?

Asking “How will this increase the odds of the success of my company?” You deal in probabilities for the most part. If you have enough context and hire talented people, most ideas generated will be “good,” so it’s about picking the best ideas and executing them really well given limited time and money.

What's one tool you discovered recently that you now can't imagine your life without?

Grain has been very useful. We use it to record most external meetings and some internal meetings as well. Recording frees you up from note-taking. We also share every meeting within our company. It enables every team member to listen to any meeting that happened this week without actually having to be there. We use it for user research, sales calls, content marketing, etc.

I used Journey in our last fundraising round, and we use it now for sales and partnerships. It simplified the sales process for us. You stitch a bunch of links together and share it with folks versus a deck.

What other tools do you use that people may not have heard of?

This is less a tool and more a method itself. Google Calendar lets you put reminders and tasks on your calendar. Realizing that your to-do list and calendar are the same apps has been a big win. I always schedule my day before the next day. If it’s not on the calendar, it will not get done.

Everything gets scheduled: lunch, working out, reminders, meetings, travel time, etc.

Screenshot of Kirk's calendar

What’s one habit that has changed your productivity and work life for the better?

By default turning off all notifications (yes) and making each device have a very specific use case.

  • I do all my long-form writing, reading, and video calls on my laptop. A laptop screen size is perfect for writing and reading. I can connect it to an external monitor when I need more space to do data analysis or designing, but in general, it’s all you need.
  • I watch longer videos, read magazines, or use social media on my iPad or my iPad connected to a projector.
  • I use my phone to message people and give feedback. And then I use it to listen to music/podcasts and move around the city. I don’t have any video or social apps on my phone.
Screenshot of Kirk's iPhone home screen

What's one thing you've learned recently about how to be more productive and happy at work?

Being present is the highest form of self-actualization. The more I lose track of time, the more fun I’m having. Anxiety is the fear of the future, depression is the fear of the past, and happiness is just being present, no matter what it is. Good or bad, work or personal.

As a founder, you have endless messages to respond to and tasks to do. What’s your system for managing your inboxes and to-dos?

At Merit, we try to keep everything transparent by default. All projects, designs, docs, and backlogs are available in Notion. I share my calendar with my team. We record every external meeting and it can be viewed by everyone. We use Front to share support emails, customer feedback, and inbound. So a big part of managing my tasks is sharing them 🙂

For e-mail, I aggressively use e-mail templates and snooze messages for later. I’m a big believer in time-boxing looking at your messages (i.e email, DMs, texts, etc.) and doing that once or twice a day. Very few things actually really need your attention right now, so you must triage quickly to know what that is for today. With messaging, the goal is to get people to do something, not to write messages, so just be efficient with it.

I struggle to respond and track all my DMs, so if you have any ideas there, please share. I always push everyone to e-mail, but SMS becomes faster sometimes. Personal and work end up blending together as well, so it’s hard to track everything across all systems.

What’s a favorite feature of your desk setup?

I work between my apartment and a co-working space in Lower Manhattan. Honestly, the best feature of a good office is lots of light and space to think.

Pic of Kirk's co-working space office setup
Pic of Kirk's home office setup

What’s one book you think every founder or anyone planning to ever start a company should read?

Hard one to answer! I actually find reading too many books on this reduces your performance as a founder. I think in terms of practical advice, there are lots of essays and blog posts that end up being more useful than books. But two books that were motivating for me: Masters of Doom and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

Narratives and stories after the fact are the most inspiring and innovative and honestly a little romantic.

That's it! Hope you discovered a new tool or workflow you love. Follow Kirk's work at get-merit.com or at @k3fernan on Twitter, and at @kirkfernandes on LinkedIn.

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