In 2012, Airbnb received $150m of growth funding from PayPal investor Peter Thiel. His only suggestion to the company’s leadership? 'Don’t f*** up the culture.'
Like all the best advice, it’s both very sensible, yet easier said than done. When you’re dealing with teams of 5-20 people, fostering an atmosphere of intimate collaboration is simple. When you employ more staff and open more offices, it becomes harder to maintain that connection.
That said, it’s not impossible. In the past year, my company has experienced a period of unprecedented growth, expanding from 20 employees to 70 and increasing its turnover from £6.8m to £65m.
Maintaining two offices in London and Cardiff hasn’t been easy, but we’ve made it work. A £6m company and a £65m company will always be different entities, but if you make the right efforts in the right areas, you can keep your unique culture alive regardless of how much you grow.
Present and correct
Companies are inevitably shaped by the personalities of their founders. Whether the environment is loose or micromanaged, tense or carefree, competitive or relaxed, depends largely on the leadership.
But scaling start-up culture to a growing business isn’t necessarily simple. You need to reassure your existing staff that the plan they signed up for is still in progress, you need to sell new hires on your original vision, and more than anything, you need to be there – even when a hectic schedule threatens to drag you away.
Despite heading up our Cardiff office, I try to maintain a regular presence in the company’s London location – and Richard, my business partner who leads the London office, spends as much time here in Wales as he can. Absentee leaders can be poisonous for company culture, so both of us rotate between regions wherever possible. New hires deserve a chance to know the people they’re working for – they won’t trust us if they don’t know us. We have also retained the majority of our original, day one team, which has helped to create a sense of continuity, and preserve our original vision.
Lines of communication
How do you make an employee in London care about their counterpart in Cardiff? They’re separated by 150 miles, they’ll have different priorities, and it’s simply much easier to form strong bonds and tight partnerships with a co-worker who sits a few desks away.
When your company expands, it’s easy to think of each office as a little island that can be left to its own devices. But each location is part of a broader whole, and internal communication is vital: every employee, wherever they’re working, needs to feel like part of the same entity.
We make sure that all managers in our regional teams are incentivised to collaborate with staff from the other office. This encompasses monthly newsletters, interoffice stand-up sessions, and occasional ‘foreign exchanges’ – where two employees trade places for a day – as well as regular weekly update calls. We’ve invested in video conferencing technology to ensure meetings run as smoothly as possible and, wherever possible, we encourage people to communicate over IM platforms like Slack: the rapid response format acts as an informal, efficient vehicle for productive dialogue.
Of course, there’s no guaranteed, reproducible way to preserve your business’ culture: with growth, inevitably, comes change, and every organisation adapts to shifting circumstances differently. You may expand into uncharted territory, you may create entirely new departments, you may pivot entirely from your original idea (we did). You will need to make adjustments, but if you can do so while remaining commitment to your original values, your employees will remain invested and committed.
Damon Chapple is co-founder and co-CEO of Sonovate