Want to be a unicorn? Stop obsessing about "preserving culture", blasts top CEO

“It's impossible that the culture that made a company successful at 100 people, will be the culture that makes it successful at 1,000 people,” says Dean Forbes, CEO of Forterro.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 09 Jun 2022

There are many articles on how to retain the soul of a startup while scaling. Even at MT, we are guilty of asking founders for their secret to keeping the entrepreneurial culture thriving at their growing business.

But really, a billion-dollar company (and its culture) is completely different from the scrappy start-up with a handful of workers it once was. “It has to be,” said Dean Forbes, CEO of Forterro at MT’s Going for Growth: Investment conference that took place this week.

He should know. Forbes has turned around several tech businesses that have reached impressive valuations. His current employer, software company Forterro, became a unicorn this March. When Forbes took the helm in 2021, he had talked to the owners about their exit aspirations, set out a two-year growth plan and reviewed how much of its start-up culture will survive Forterro 3.0.

Here's what he has to say about the journey.

“I've had that conversation about the need to preserve culture a lot. We almost always think about the culture of a business in its entirety. But why do we want to take all of this culture we have today into the next chapter? Because it's impossible that the culture that made this company successful at 100 people, will be the culture that makes it successful at 1,000 people.

The better question for me is, which elements need to be preserved and which proactively dropped?

When I joined Forterro, we branded the previous generation Forterro 2.0 and the next generation, Forterro 3.0. The reason we did that was to be able to talk clearly to our 1,400 employees about which things were important to 2.0, that we were grateful for but that we're no longer going to do, and which things we wanted to take to 3.0.

It's impossible to take culture through generations in its entirety. So be thoughtful about which elements of the culture are good and will survive in the new generation.

Eating pizza and drinking beer at four o'clock on a Friday afternoon in the office, is really easy to do at 150 people. It's hard to do at 2,000 people in locations across Europe with different legislation about beer in the office. Some things just die through generations.

Of course, there was resistance. We've got a very high percentage of employees with 10 years plus tenure. Change is quite difficult for them because they've known one environment for a long time. But like with all changes, over-communication is the place to begin.

As we all know, in management, we hit a period of time where if people aren't embracing the new way things will be done, then we have difficult conversations with those folks about how can we get them on the bus. And if we can't, then the bus has to keep on moving without them.

But over-communication is the only way I've been able to do that. Being really clear about the framework of “that generation's culture was these things, but this generation's cultural is now these things” has been helpful for me."

Watch the full interview with Forbes, below.

Image credit: SeventyFour via Getty Images


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