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