Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the early days of our company. Back then, there were only a dozen or so of us. We shared a small floor with another company in a rundown office building in Manhattan. On Fridays, we’d buy a few six-packs of cheap beer and work from oversized beanbag chairs crammed into a corner. The struggle was real.
I don’t miss our old office, nor do I miss trying to find “the click” (our term for product-market fit). But I do miss the tight-knit camaraderie of our small group.
There’s a certain kind of magic that comes from running hard after your vision with a few respected colleagues. In this kind of environment, it’s simple to make decisions. It’s effortless to live and breathe your culture and values, and it’s a straightforward process to address conflicts as they arise.
Of course, many things become easier with scale: raising money, growing brand awareness, signing new clients. Keeping that magic alive from the early days, however, isn’t easy at all. In fact, it’s been pretty difficult.
Keeping the culture alive
As a team, we’ve put a lot of measures in place to sustain that magic over time. We’ve set extremely high standards for hiring new employees, been very thoughtful about who we take money from (and how much we take), and done our best to avoid the pitfalls that plagued the previous company I ran (startup burnout, outsourcing core business functions, etc.) Even so, I feel the magic starting to fade.
When you exceed a certain size, people are prone to fall in line with their specific teams instead of getting to know everyone. Making decisions as a group becomes difficult, if not impossible in some circumstances. Things like professional development and performance monitoring start to require actual systems and structure. The trajectory of the company and the rationale behind individual decisions becomes harder to communicate. Most notably, the culture that once came as natural as breathing starts to get lost in translation.
The organization recognizes these issues, and I certainly feel them as CEO. We’re aware that now is the time to fight tooth and nail to keep the magic alive, while coming to terms with the fact that it won’t ever be quite what it was before. I certainly don’t have all the answers figured out (and am not sure I ever will), but here are a few of the measures I’ve put in place with my team to help magic thrive in our rapidly-growing organization:
Every new hire spends an hour with me (or their manager) reviewing our company culture, values and strategic anchors. We walk through a relatively informal presentation peppered with anecdotes that illustrate our values in action. The hope is that each employee comes to strongly believe in and embody these values and anchors in their daily work.
The majority of the team wasn’t here in the early days of our company, but those of us who were make it a point to share stories with newer employees to ensure those memories live on in the spirit of the organization. After all, the stories we tell make us who we are.
As part of our eight-week company sprints, we field an employee survey to hear everyone’s take on what’s working, not working, missing or unclear. We then develop plans to address the common concerns over the course of the following sprint. For example, when the team complained that there was a misalignment between our business development and sales reps, we made a plan to seat the two teams together at the same group of tables. At the end of the seven-week sprint, the teams were collaborating much more effectively, and their working relationship improved.
While many employees spend time together in the pub on Fridays or at events outside of work, we’ve devoted time and money on quarterly team-building activities where people are encouraged to get to know each other outside of their immediate teams. On our most recent outing, we went hiking and wine tasting in upstate New York.
Slow, careful growth
We’ve been careful, from both a fundraising and a hiring perspective, to grow at a pace that allows us to remain in touch with our cultural roots. Some may say that these measures are at odds with rapid scale. And in some cases, they may be right. But to me, it’s more important that the organization grow at a steady, sustainable pace where magic can continue to thrive than it is to triple the team size in the course of a few months.
I’m still in the process of deconstructing my company’s original “secret sauce;” I haven’t yet figured out all of its components and how to replicate them in a larger team setting. But I know it matters, and I’m confident our team will find a way to sustain the magic for years to come.
If you’re in a similar position, don’t give up on your culture. Don’t lose sight of your origins, and whatever you do, don’t forget that we’re all in this together, trying to live out the vision we had (and still hold onto) from our early days in business.
Simon Berg leads Ceros, the interactive content marketing platform, with an innate curiosity about the world and how everything works.
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