5 top tips to keep that small company culture as your startup grows?

Not so long ago Learning Pool was 4 people congregating around Paul’s kitchen table in Donegal.  6 years later we employ 50 people, support over 700,000 learners & 350 public sector organisations & Deloitte’s have deemed us to be the 26th fastest growing technology business in the UK over the past 5 years (6th fastest growing on the island of Ireland) with 1100% growth in our revenues in that period.  At the same time, our customers tell us that our business feels more like a family to them than a company.  This week’s blog is about how I think we’ve managed to combine aggressive growth with retention of the desirable qualities of a small business and keeping hold of our personal values along the way.  I appreciate this is a topic that many of you will know far more about than me so I’m looking forward to reading & answering your comments and questions.

Learning Pool team having cake – which happens pretty much weekly

Before I start I should say that one of the greatest pleasures of owning your own business is having the opportunity to shape the culture of your organisation because we all know too well what bad company culture looks and feels like.

These are my top tips:

Aine and Emma – two of our original Learning Pool team members snapped last week at LP Learning Live South

  1. Invest in your own people and help them grow with the business.  Today our team extends to more than 50 people, but 15 of those 50 have been with Learning Pool more than or very close to 5 of our 6 years and not one of them is in the job they started at – they’ve all moved up or sideways and up.  Many of our team did not have years of experience when they joined Learning Pool, but what they lacked in experience they made up for with great personalities, enthusiasm and energy, a hunger to learn and desire for success.  Our original company culture is carried in each of their hearts and delivered via their daily actions.
  2. Linked to point 1 above is take care with your recruitment.  Recruitment is the most important job of a fast growing company’s founders so make proper time for it & don’t delegate it to someone else.  The worst mistakes we’ve made in our 6 years so far have all been linked to poor recruitment decisions.  You know what they say – better a hole than an asshole – and it’s true.  Avoid prima donnas and mavericks, whatever they seem to bring – they just aren’t worth it.  Recruit for potential and personality and work hard to develop your talent.  When you make a recruitment mistake, reverse the person out as quickly & as painlessly as you can for their own sake and for everyone else’s.

    At the end of last week’s LP Learning Live South

  3. It’s easy to be customer focused when you’re small.  As a startup you have to over deliver anyway and when you’re starting out you don’t have many customers and you’re eagerly learning from them.  As you grow, you have to find a way of continuing to deliver that level of excellent customer service.  We’ve done this by constantly automating as much as we can as we’ve grown so that our customer facing people get to spend as much of their working week as they can interacting with customers – as that’s where the value add lies for our customers and for us.  We’re about to go through another (painful) round of this between now & Christmas but we recognise it’s worth it.
  4. Encourage everyone to have their say.  We’ve tried hard to do this at Learning Pool from the very start.  We have a culture where everyone’s ideas are heard and debated (even Tony’s) and everyone is expected to innovate.  We’ve used Yammer for years to facilitate ad hoc brainstorming across our dispersed team and it’s also used for extensive banter and leg pulling.  I used to worry about this but it’s only made me nearly faint once & that was when a local authority HR director asked me if they could see Yammer working in situ.

    Night out in Dublin 2011

  5. As founders and senior managers you have to love your team and all of you have to love your customers and enjoy interacting with them.  None of that can be faked.  It has to be real.  What do I mean by love your team?  You have to care about them in & out of work and sometimes even take care of them, you have to appreciate the contribution they make and reward them as best you can – financially and in other ways, you have to trust them and give them space to develop and progress.  You have to make time to have some fun together as that’s important too.  The Learning Pool team works hard but we play hard too and we find time to do some voluntary & pro bono work together when we can.

Team in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Day

That’s my thoughts.  Look forward to reading yours.

12 comments

  1. Hi Mary
    Great blog. I definitely recognise these qualities in you and the other LP folks I’ve met.

    I suppose this works if you can scale out your essential personal qualities. My question is, how big can you grow before this gets unacceptably diluted? Or is the sky the limit?

    Martin

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    1. Thanks for commenting Martin. I see it as a cascade effect. The people who came into Learning Pool early doors & are still here are still here because their values are closely aligned with Paul’s & mine – so now there are more of us promoting our culture to our bigger organisation. Other companies have managed to do this & I can’t think of any reason why we can’t as well. It’s ambitious & often a challenge but at the end of the day, co-founding a company was to Paul & me so much more than just making money. There are others out there too – I’m thinking especially of Dominic & Carrie & the guys at Futuregov but I’m sure there will be many more.

      Have you seen this showreel that our own team made without any involvement from Paul or me – they showed it at Learning Live South on Wednesday & tears came to my eyes…

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  2. As someone who’s just coming to the end of year one in a start-up and about to launch another new venture, this is fantastic advice. I’ve worked on organisations that have failed to hold onto the customer commitment and small company atmosphere as they’ve grown and it’s such a shame. The recruitment part in particular resonated with me. We don’t have staff yet but do intend to and I’d certainly rather ‘a hole than an asshole’ any day.

    Thanks for the pearls of wisdom and showing that it *can*done!

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    1. Thanks for commenting on my blog Kate. Recruitment is hard when you’re a new startup, especially in a recession because no-one want to leave a secure job to take a punt on a venture that may not go anywhere. If you guys have your first year under your belt you’re doing better than most. Believe me, the first year really is the hardest. It can be done. We give ourselves a hard time for not achieving more in 6 years but hey – that’s one of the great reasons to have a business partner – they stop you from resting on your laurels for too long!

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  3. Great post, Mary.

    Some thoughts off the top of my head:

    1. I think it helps if you try to articulate the company culture so that you understand it yourself and can explain it to others and have them buy into it.
    2. Make sure that your business model and what you measure, value and reward gels with what you claim your culture to be otherwise it’s just so much hot air. Ryanair’s culture may seem unpleasant, but at least it’s consistent.
    3. Don’t mistake HR procedures and forms for company culture. Procedures required for HR compliance are rooted in legislation designed to protect low-paid manufacturing and call-centre workers, which may not be the kind of culture you want in your organisation.
    4. One thing we have found invaluable has been our implementation of Scrum and our internalisation of the Agile Manifesto. We have a flat structure of self-organising teams and servant-leader roles such as Scrum Master rather than Project Manager. We make team commitments, talk to each other all the time and inspect and improve our processes continuously.
    5. Don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself and be willing to do any job yourself 😉

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    1. Thanks Paraic – our Tech Lead Mark Lynch is an agile coach. He’s been with Learning Pool for 2 years & has transformed our tech (team & everything else). He’s been a wonderful addition to our team & he was the last piece in our senior management jigsaw. The last 2 years have seen us really come on as a company & gel as a team and much of that has been down to Mark & just others in the team gaining experience & confidence.

      I’d die if Learning Pool was like Ryanair although I appreciate what you mean.

      Couldn’t agree more with your point 5 – without that you have no credibility with your team. I meant to write something about your senior people setting an example for everyone else but I forgot to include it. Good point & thanks for including it.

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      1. Just to be clear – those points weren’t aimed at Learning Pool – just my advice to others, inspired by yours. I was going to add a point about the relationship between culture and personal ethics but I was losing my point so I might address this another time 🙂

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  4. Nice list Mary. For what it’s worth I’ve never worked in a small organisation but find there’s 2 things that have worked well to bring people together…and they’re both food related.

    Firstly, I’ve always tried to have a team lunch once a month. Try and get as many team members as possible to meet for an hour to get together to chat over food. I saw the positive effect of this when I worked for the FRS – the team that eats together meets together. It works really well with remote team workers too; they get a chance to meet to their other remote team members together for non work conversations. It helps people to understand the cadence of the wider team.

    My other contribution is soup Monday; my youngest plays football through the winter and we tend to have fresh soup for lunch afterwards. It’s simple making another litre of so and bringing it into work on the Monday for the team to share. A small contribution that seems to be appreciated.

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    1. Thanks Andrew – many moons ago when I was a dotcommer the company used to eat together every Friday – no absences, no excuses. There was also a rule that you had to sit with someone that you didn’t usually talk to in the week. Worked well for communications & teambuilding. Also we were grateful to be fed every Friday. Got a bit cynical as the company grew but that was all to do with our CEO being an asshole & more interested in self-promotion & self-preservation than anything else. At Learning Pool we do cake & tea on birthdays – so that’s usually a weekly occurrence & works for general chat too. Good of you to do the soup Mondays – nice idea.

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  5. Great post Mary – I find this subject fascinating.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your point about recruitment; its such a vital part of retaining the culture and definitely better a hole than an asshole whilst you’re still growing and cultivating that culture.

    I also think that an acceptance that the culture will dilute as you get bigger. Its really hard to retain the original culture as you grow either because you need to in order to respond appropriately to customer situations, to continue to offer personal and professional development to employees or mainly because it becomes tougher to get the message out to more people.

    I also think that teams in many large organisations should buck the trend and develop their own culture and can learn a lot from start ups

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    1. Thanks Pauline – you’d be amazed at how many people from our customer base ask to come & spend a week working at Learning Pool – so that they can experience “small company culture” but as soon as I agree & start talking to them about dates they run a mile. You’re right – large organisations should create an environment where their people are empowered to behave as if they’re a startup team. They’d learn loads & nothing bad would truthfully happen that often…

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