How To Keep Company Culture Alive During Growing Pains

Want to preserve the scrappy vibe and can-do vision that will continue to attract the best and brightest? Fast Company surveys the culture mavens tackling those very issues.

This week digital juggernaut IAC just got a little bigger with the acquisition of pay-per-call ad business Felix under its CityGrid portfolio. Based in New York City, the three-year-old Felix’s 85 employees are far from CityGrid’s HQ in West Hollywood, California. Rather than pull those New Yorkers over to the other side of the country (or worse, lay them all off and start with a fresh crew), Kara Nortman, SVP of consumer businesses, tells Fast Company that they’ll stay right where they are and continue to grow the company. “We look to bring in cultures and support them,” she says, not just buy up the tech and tell the founders to check their vision and values at the door. And that means more than just “not hiring assholes,” she says, when those companies do get bigger.

Startup cultures are often defined by personalities of their founders (hoodies and hackathons, anyone?). Growing beyond the original crew means that those initial quirks either become more defined or diluted, depending on how tightly leadership holds on to them. So how to preserve that scrappy vibe and the can-do vision that will continue to attract the best and brightest so your business can grow? Fast Company talked to culture mavens who are working at that right now to get their best advice.

Grow the Staff, Not the Teams
As part of its due diligence process, CityGrid hunts for startups with a strong sense of company culture, even if it’s only shared among three people--the size of Urbanspoon’s staff was when it was acquired. Still based in Seattle, Urbanspoon’s ranks have swelled to 70 people and counting, but true to its roots, the vibe is still casual. There are no corporate titles listed on the Web site and all headshots are candid photos of staff tucking into a favorite dish.

Nortman says that’s due to a CityGrid-wide practice of keeping the size of teams and meetings manageable. “Even if you become bigger, you should size your teams so they have a clear feeling of ownership,” she offers, “That’s instantly more important than a boss telling you what to do.” Likewise, Nortman advises hammering out how many meetings will be required to make any decision and then determine how many people should attend. “You want to make those decisions and fail quickly instead of waiting for 17 people to say yes,” she adds.

Keep the Lines Open
Teamwork was so important to cofounder of Foursquare Dennis Crowley that when the company added its first eight people, he hired friends he knew could foster the kind of open sharing that continues to be a core value, with 135 people now working in three separate offices.

Susan Loh, head of talent at the social check-in company says that to keep the lines of communication open, Crowley started holding office hours once a week. “Anyone can sign up for a 10-minute time slot,” she says, to bring their ideas and feedback straight to the boss. For those not based in New York, video technology such as iPads in the conference room are available for virtual face-to-face meetings.

Foursquare also has an internal email blast called Snippets that allows everyone, including senior management, share what they are working on. “It’s not about what meetings they have scheduled; it’s what’s keeping them up at night and calls to action,” Loh explains.

Pay People to Leave
Culture isn’t passed through osmosis at the water cooler. When Clate Mask, CEO of Infusionsoft, talks about the early days (in a garage) of the sales and marketing software company, he references family and fun as often as he cites innovation from within, faster execution, and fierce loyalty. He admits it’s been a challenge to keep that “one big happy” feeling as the company grew to 300 employees, but is on track to beef up to 1,000 in three years. “We believe we can keep this forever as long as we are intentional. We wanted to dispel the notion that you can’t scale culture.”

To do this as Infusionsoft adds about 10 to 15 people per month, each new hire must go through a two-week intensive orientation. When that’s complete, they are offered $5,000--to leave (a practice made famous by Zappos). “It’s expensive to have the wrong people,” Mask says, “This gives the individual an opportunity to assess if they are really committed.” So far he’s gotten no takers and says Infusionsoft’s retention rate is 90 percent.

Hire a “Culture Captain”
A veteran of the dotcom boom and bust, Brad Jannenga watched numerous startups become corporations without a heart. So when he cofounded WebPT, a software company serving the physical therapy industry, he stood firm on “making sure we remained employee-driven.”

Now with a staff of 94 (up from 17 in less than two years) and over 13,000 active users, Jannenga wants to keep the momentum --not to mention the 99 percent customer-retention rate--as the business grows.

A “culture committee” was formed to onboard new staff and keep the company involved in the greater Phoenix community through charity work. But when Chelsie Shadrach came to interview for an admin job just over a month ago, Jannenga says WebPT found its “culture captain.” According to Jannenga, “WebPT hires for culture first and skill set second. I can train someone to be a better product manager but your core values and how you approach your job is more important.”

Shadrach’s enthusiasm translates to her new role facilitating team events outside the office and keeping tabs on the suggestion box. But she’s also tasked with shepherding new staff through their first 40 hours, teaching them what the company is about through a department-by-department tour. “It’s about understanding and respecting everyone’s role in the company. Our members only see one product so we have to present as one entity.”

Be Completely Transparent
Founded just last March, SumAll, a New York City-based data analytics startup, has grown rapidly, adding more than 20 employees to serve a customer base nearing 7,000 merchants. CEO and cofounder Dane Atkinson is keeping an eagle eye on his culture. "In our hyper-competitive markets the only way to survive is with a culture that engages, grows, and defends its team,” says Atkinson.

To help guide the company as it grows, the team created a SumAll Constitution. "Openness and honesty is at the heart of everything we do and we want to attract like-minded individuals,” Atkinson explains. Transparency is then baked in from the business intelligence product it provides that lets customers view key data in real time, to every decision made in the office from what staffers are paid to what equity they hold.

SumAll’s shared drive keeps all this information just a click away. While that makes it trickier to negotiate raises, Atkinson maintains, “You have to face these conversations with a lot more honesty and directness than you typically find elsewhere.”

[Image: Flickr user Lee]

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