An interview with Jess Butcher, co-founder and director of Blippar.
* This is one of a series of guest posts based on Upscale mentoring sessions by James Silver.
Gather a group of scale-up founders together around a table to discuss some of the knottiest issues they face and a few topics regularly dominate. One of them is recruiting talent (and how to quickly and humanely prise out a hire if they aren’t working out). Another is boards: what they’re for and how to navigate them. But perhaps most often of all, the conversation will turn to company culture, because it’s a theme which touches so many aspects of growing a business – in fact, arguably, all of them.
Yet beyond employee perks and management platitudes, the office pooches and group hugs, what does ‘culture’ actually mean to a fast-scaling company? And why does it matter?
“At its core, culture is how a company makes you feel, and especially how it makes your employees feel when they come to work,” says Jess Butcher, co-founder and director of Blippar, a company specializing in augmented reality, artificial intelligence and computer vision, in an interview after she chaired an Upscale discussion on the subject. “The sense of passion and commitment they have stems from the feeling they have working for you, for your vision, and your cause.
“But equally as important is how customers feel doing business with your company and the way in which the people within a business conduct themselves. And that is demonstrated in how they communicate and in customer service, and obviously the quality of the product in the first place.”
Yet company culture is also notoriously difficult for founders to get right, particularly as a business gathers scale velocity and goes through waves of recruitment.
This is because companies have to hire at a furious pace when they’re scaling and evaluating whether potential recruits possess particular values, over a compressed period of time, is a very tall order, says Butcher.
With hindsight, she says, all the times when she has seen mistakes made with hiring – both her own, and at other start-ups – were when insufficient attention was paid to culture.
“When hiring at speed, the tendency is always to go for a lot of experts who know what they’re doing and who can hit the ground running. The problem with that is that when you’re hiring 10-plus people-a-month, you inevitably don’t have the time required to really get to know them or to properly assess their cultural fit.
“I frequently witness a tendency towards hiring direct experts in their fields as opposed to good managers to train, develop and motivate those individuals – which of course is a much better strategy for scale.
“You can’t just have lots of experts running separately towards the ultimate vision, when only a slight variation in the interpretation of that vision, could cause chaos,” she says.
Butcher’s half-a-dozen tips for preserving company culture as you scale:
- Write your values down.
One way Butcher recommends for founders to embed their company’s culture within their teams, as they grow, is to write down and in effect codify the words they use to describe their values.
In the early days, company culture is much more easily communicated through the actions and behaviours of the founding team and early hires, where team-members may be aligned on issues such as transparency and mentorship, she says.
“But the larger you get, I think it’s important to remind people what you stand for and to have evidence of that either within individuals’ performance review process, or even on the walls themselves. That’s something the biggest scale-ups of this world, like Facebook, actively embrace – and it’s something I’ve been very impressed by.”
- Use gut instinct when interviewing.
Butcher says she’s “a great believer in gut feelings” about candidates in interviews: “I like getting them to talk about their past experiences, and getting them to be very honest about what has and hasn’t worked – and about the times in their career where they haven’t been happy or haven’t got on well with management or struggled with the decisions that have been made for them.
“The more honest the personality job interviews, the greater feel you can get for an individual’s values and sense of culture,” she says. “And you might like all of those [attributes], and what that individual is saying, but still identify that a particular aspect of that person’s character isn’t going to be something that would work that well in your company’s environment.
“It might be that they’re a bit too aggressively ambitious, for example, with the implication that they would be less of a team player, but very good at sales which would work very well in a numbers-orientated sales, financial or recruitment business. You know your company and your ethos, so you know what’s going to work.
She adds: “It’s harder when you’re hiring at scale, because there may be a dilution of ‘gut instinct’ amongst the other managers who are hiring on your behalf. That’s dangerous. It creates a domino effect, where you risk taking people on who don’t feel as you do about your company’s ethos, and about why it’s a great place to work, which in turn causes a dilution in the hires that they make.”
- Hold regular all-hands meetings across offices and time-zones..
Butcher advocates holding regular social events for staff, and even going to the length – and expense – of flying people in from regional and satellite offices around the world. “Culture is all about people, and the relationships between team-members and the relationships they then have with your customer base,” she says.
“It’s very hard to build those sorts of relationships over messenger systems and intranets and even over the phone sometimes, because so much is lost compared with looking someone in the eye.
“So getting people outside of the office environment to socialise with each other, and appreciate also the trials and tribulations that different teams and different geographies are going through, makes teams much more sensitive and aligned when it comes to the day-to-day running of the business. And it builds relationships outside of the person that they normally sit next to.”
For example, Butcher continues, it’s not uncommon in a business for there to be clashes between sales team members and designers. “Everyone thinks they’ve got an opinion on design, so can end up giving ridiculous feedback not appreciating that they’re not designers and there’s a reason why things are designed in certain ways.
“But when those individuals get to know each other – sometimes across borders and different territories, and sometimes just within the same office where people may have got to the stage where they just didn’t interact physically day to day – an appreciation can develop around what each of them are doing and why, and what they find challenging, which just makes for much more empathy in the working relationship.”
- Company newsletters cut through.
It’s always better wherever possible to communicate in person and cheerlead publicly all the great things that are happening in a business, highlighting individuals that are doing a great job and ensuring everyone is kept up to speed and feels confided in about the latest and most exciting developments, says Butcher.
“And regular all-hands meetings are a really important thing for small fast-growing businesses. But at Blippar, we support and supplement that with an internal newsletter which contains highlights, and a lot of additional reading with links to impressive PR or opportunities to play with new versions of the tech in trial mode that they can link through to. The newsletter rubber stamps and adds more depth to the company summary snapshot, where we sit and talk altogether.
“It gives people the opportunity to go away and discover things for themselves and it highlights a few more things which may not have been headline news at the all-hands meeting – but we still think is really important information to get across to the whole team. At the same time, the newsletter’s got to be succinct enough that it’s likely to be read end-to-end, with additional reading links as required.”
- A buddying system enables collaborative working.
Blippar hasn’t introduced a formal buddying system, says Butcher, but does operate an informal one, where mentors or senior figures within the business from different teams help with the on-boarding of new staff to the company.
“In that first week, they get taken out for coffee or for lunch, by someone outside their team, or we bring them together with peers they (probably) don’t know yet, who may have joined at a similar time in other offices. Or we invite them to join working groups outside of their specific job title.
“For example, we have brainstorms around new product initiatives, where we’ve taken people at lots of different levels of seniority from different teams and pulled them together for workshops, where they’re working together on something that is so far away from their normal day job that it builds rapport and connections elsewhere in the business.
“While that’s not a formal buddying system, it is a way of institutionalising cross-team collaboration across a scaling company.”
- Move cultural ambassadors around your business.
Cultural ambassadors are individuals who really live and breathe your company, says Butcher. “I would refer to them as adherents to the cause, people who are so passionate that they take their work home and talk about your business with their friends. And you know they are doing that because you see them on social media, banging the drum.
“Moving them around your company as frequently as possible is a great thing to do, because their enthusiasm and passion can be incredibly infectious,” she says.
“What we found when we started new offices around the world was that getting those individuals into those offices – either for short periods of time, or as far as visas would allow – to help to on-board the rapidly hired new teams in those geographies, was hugely beneficial to us.”