I believe that any business needs to have a purposeful cultural platform they can build their business on.
It makes such a difference that I’d go so far as to say it’s a necessity in this day and age, particularly given the need to fight to attract good people. Good people go to companies that they believe they are going to feel comfortable in and where they can grow.
They’re also looking for somewhere they can make a difference, where a high degree of autonomy and freedom is built into the culture. Those are the kinds of companies I think people want to work for.
How I discovered the importance of company culture
When I look back, I’ll be honest, I haven’t always been a massive advocate of culture. It’s really only something that’s been talked about in the last decade or so. But I would say that we started to recognise the value and importance of culture about three years into the Cake project, which would have been about 15 years ago now.
As I’ve said before, like a lot of good ideas, sometimes you stumble across things. You observe something, think that it’s interesting or just a really good idea that worked for whatever reason. This was no different. At my previous company, Cake, it actually started with our CTO effectively beginning to build a personal brand for himself and in doing so put the company name out there.
As a company, we began to write books and our CTO took the lead. We used them as proof of expertise, but this really interested the team and they wanted to get involved. They were proud to be an author of a published book. One of our books, Pro Spring 2, was 1,200 pages. It was published in 17 different languages, including Mandarin and, around 2008, which I believe was the biggest selling book about that particular technology that year.
For a company that doesn’t sell books for a living and does it almost as a hobby, that’s an interesting statistic. What this book, and our others, did was elevate the company’s profile, all because of the authors, their expertise, and the people within our team.
From here, we moved into blogging and again it was our CTO who took the lead. But other members of the team also started getting involved, and not only with writing blogs. Our CTO and other team members began to speak, initially in front of the team at what we called ‘lunch and learns’. These were a great way for people to gain confidence speaking in front of people and in front of their peers.
From here, people moved onto user groups and once you’d done a few user groups and gained more confidence, you’d move onto conferences. Some of the bigger user groups can have 100 plus people in a room. Conferences we were involved in can be anything from 30 people to 700 people if you’re delivering a keynote. Before we knew it, the concept of building personal brands became a fundamental part of the culture of our organisation.
We began to realise the importance of the culture in terms of raising a company’s profile, but it all started with raising the individual’s profile. This generated sales and made potential employees interested in working for the company because they were hearing all about the very cool things we were doing.
They related to the technologies we were using and wanted to use them too, but didn’t have the opportunity to. That meant they’d apply for a job with us. This is how it all started.
This prompted us to look at the other elements that were integral to building a solid cultural platform within the business, and I’ll give you an overview of the main ones here.
Setting up the right environment
Your environment is very important. When we moved into a new office, we took the opportunity to really think about the office we had and what we needed. You hear about some places that have giant slides and bean bags everywhere and all of that kind of stuff. But your environment isn’t about any gimmicks. It’s about creating an office that people are comfortable and creative in.
We wanted everyone to be able to go to different areas of the office to get different experiences. That meant having places to relax in, a sofa to sit quietly on in a corner, somewhere to be social, standing desks, somewhere where people could go and do their own thing without interruptions, and meeting rooms. But most importantly, we wanted to foster great communication.
We had whiteboards all over the office, even on the table in our coffee shop, so that people could scrawl while having meetings. We also installed great communication tools in each of the main meeting rooms, so that people could have a high quality video conference.
This was important because 80% of our business, towards the latter end, was outside of the UK. We were building systems for big companies, particularly in the US and the Middle East.
Ultimately, we tried to make a comfortable, relaxing and creative ambience in the office and we thought really carefully about how we did that.
One of the main things was making sure there was plenty of space, so that people weren’t crammed in like they were in a chicken coop. That also meant making sure there were enough meeting rooms for our needs.
Equip your team for success
Another really important element of your company culture is providing good quality equipment. We supplied everybody with technology that was never more than three years old. Whenever something passed that age, we replaced it.
People could have two high-quality screens if that’s what they wanted. We made sure wrist rests were available for everyone who wanted them. These are all things to make sure people are comfortable in what they’re doing, and therefore that they could be very productive.
We were also very early adopters of Software as a Service (SaaS). I’m talking about starting to consume software services 15+ years ago, such as using digital source code repositories. We ended up using GitHub as our tool of choice there, for example. We went through various iterations of these different tools, and as new options came out and were slightly better, we could quite easily transition.
We would always try to use the best-of-breed Software as a Service tools, which really helped productivity as well. This also meant that we could quite happily allow people to work from home a couple of days a week if that’s what they wanted to do.
I’m a big believer in face-to-face contact. It’s important for the company. Also, more importantly, it’s important for the people because you cannot beat face-to-face contact for collaboration and learning from others. You can try and replicate it online, but it’s not quite the same.
We used to encourage people to work from the office, collaborate with their team members, bounce ideas off each other, code together, do whatever they needed to do like go into a little bit of a huddle to try and solve a problem with a dry whiteboard and a few really bright people.
We also recognised that if people needed the flexibility of working from home because they were going to visit the dentist or the doctor or they were waiting for a parcel or sofa to be delivered or whatever, then that was perfectly fine as well. We had a flexible working environment but it was controlled.
We still needed people to be online when our customers were online and when the rest of their team members were online, so while there was a degree of flexibility, it was controlled. I like to think that we got the best of both worlds where productivity remained really high, but people had a decent work-life balance in the way that we operated.
What perks can you offer?
We also worked hard to provide perks that would be of value to people. We had an idea box. One day, someone said we should have fresh fruit available for everybody, every day, so we did. It didn’t cost us too much money, people appreciated it and it made people more healthy. Everybody’s a winner with that kind of idea.
We also had an online perk system that people could log on to and get 20% off this or 10% off that. And, of course, we offered some of the more standard benefits.
Cultivate a culture of improvement
I believe it’s really important to have a culture where you encourage people to improve all the time. But it’s not only about encouraging personal improvement, it’s also about sharing their experiences. At Cake that meant they were encouraged to write about it or talk about it. And I get that this isn’t for everybody, but somewhere between a third and half the company, in one form or another, did some expert content sharing to their peers. What that meant was that, as they improved, gained knowledge, tried things and were successful, they shared that with the community.
One of the really useful things that came out of this approach was the benefit to the community. But the other was the benefit to individuals and this actively encouraged people to continually want to improve.
As a business, that meant if people wanted to go on a course we would try and facilitate that. If people wanted books all they had to do was submit the link to the book on Amazon, it would go to our administrator and that book could get ordered, no authorisation needed.
The only proviso was that once it was finished, it was put into the library. This was a bookcase in the office, and anyone could help themselves to the books. If there were particularly relevant and popular books, then we would order several copies.
This all fed into continual technical improvement, which was built into the company. That philosophy actually manifested in other ways too.
For example, we would always encourage people to look at new components and new code libraries, new ideas, techniques, even occasionally new languages where we thought there would be a potential benefit and if it was relevant to what we were doing as a company.
We actively encouraged people to try stuff and follow that up with a lunch and learn. If that got traction from some of the other engineers then it could potentially become a thing within the company.
This element of the cultural platform, the sense of continual technical improvement, also manifested brilliantly to our clients because people had a breadth of skills in the company, and an expert opinion on things, which always translated really well.
Communication is key
We worked hard to ensure there was always good communication. Of course, the bigger you get the harder that gets, so the bigger we got the harder we tried. This meant we had to make communication a little bit more formal.
For instance, we’d have a quarterly update. In these meetings the senior team talked about the good things that were happening, but I’d also talk about some of the things that were causing us an issue, and what we were doing about it, so that everyone had a realistic appreciation of where the company was and how it was doing.
There are certain things that, clearly, you want to shelter people from but I think we were a pretty transparent company. People knew exactly how we were doing. There was exciting stuff to share the bigger we got, the more experience we got and the more embedded in the Scala world (which is a technology we specialised in) we became.
We began to work with bigger and bigger organisations and they were exciting and working on really exciting projects. All of this really helped with the momentum and growth of the company.
We used to send out a monthly newsletter to the team, which had details of what was happening between the quarterly reviews. At this point, there was so much going on in the company, leaving it three months before you talked about it felt too long.
If something really interesting was happening we’d have an ad hoc meeting and get everyone together with maybe an hour’s notice. At these meetings, I might stand up and talk but it wouldn’t be all about me. I’d get the team involved too – sometimes there would be eight or nine people speaking at these meetings because it was important to make sure all the different parts of the company were represented.
All of this comes back to the culture within the company. It’s about communication and continual technical improvement. It’s about building personal brands and encouraging people to talk about their expertise. It’s about providing people with the right tools and giving them reasonable benefits that are relevant and not just offered for the sake of it.
Don’t neglect research and development
We wanted to be at the forefront of technology, using the latest tools, toys and processes. Ultimately, this manifested in research and development. That could be research and development on internal tooling, or it could be research and development on behalf of clients.
Sometimes we’d be working on something that was so cutting edge we needed to do a proof of concept – POC – first and that involved some research before we could even start, just to make sure that what you’re discussing is theoretically possible. Then we’d try to build whatever it was in a very, very basic format where you’d get the technology running and doing what it was meant to do but it wasn’t pretty.
From here, we’d develop a minimum viable product – MVP. And then you’d move into a 1.0 and beyond for your clients. This meant research and development was always a major part of what we did as an organisation.
People should always come first
Finally, and actually most importantly, are people. I’ve left this element to last on purpose because, for all of this to work, you have to find the right people that fit this kind of profile. When you have a small team and you are beginning to develop your own culture, you need to understand that the people in your team are the seeds of that culture. They will do things naturally that you make you think ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Okay, we should do more of that?’
Picking up on those things is how you, slowly but surely, begin to build your culture. Eventually you get to a point where it becomes more and more apparent what your culture is. It happens fairly organically, but needs steering.
At the point where you have something fairly substantial, your culture in itself becomes an entity. You can talk to new employees about your culture, what your ethos is as a company, how the company operates and all that kind of good stuff because people want to understand these things. If you find a really good job candidate, then it’s incumbent for you to sell the company as much as it is for the interviewee to sell themselves. It really works both ways.
Having a great story to tell about the ethos and culture shows that you not only have a solid culture in place, but that you understand its importance. It’s also important for people to understand that it’s continually evolving and improving the more people join your team. It’s very attractive to potential new employees.
Don’t underestimate your culture’s effect on clients
The last thing I’m going to talk about is the effect that it has on clients. At Cake we talked about our ethos, our values and our culture in proposals. When you talk to clients about this at an early stage, it becomes a sales tool. It’s a little bit like when you’re talking to people at interviews – it’s the same thing with clients in that they’re effectively interviewing you when you do your sales pitch.
We weren’t salespeople, we just talked to clients honestly about what we believed in. We didn’t have a sales team, which meant all our clients had already heard about us and they contacted us, we didn’t go looking for them. Usually they’d heard about the books that we’d written, read the blogs, seen our content on LinkedIn or Twitter, or they’d seen us speak at a conference or user group.
All these elements that had developed to comprise our culture became our sales tools. Ultimately, clients came to us because of that.
What I found particularly interesting was that when we were dealing with them, they were often so impressed with the knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm of the team that they wanted to emulate it. Clients often used to talk to us about our culture and ask, ‘How do we implement this in our team?’
We were only too happy to explain how our culture started and how we fostered it by encouraging the behaviours I’ve talked about above. When someone copies you, it’s a huge compliment.
Reap the benefits of a strong cultural platform
When you look at a company with a strong culture, you can see all the benefits it brings: great staff retention, higher sales, more motivated teams, higher productivity and happier people. All of that ultimately leads to a better bottom line which helps sustain high growth, if reinvested. But it all stems from building the right kind of culture within the team.
For more information on building a unique culture within your company, feel free to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org and look out for my upcoming book, The Cultural Operating System, available soon on Amazon.co.uk.
Guy is an experienced individual with over 20 years in the tech, software & consulting/advisory industries, as a founder, director, investor and advisor in a number of companies.