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The challenges of embedding your CulturalDNA in a global multi-office start-up

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An interview with Misha Gopaul, co-founder and CEO of FATMAP

Highlights include:

  • How to embed culture across multiple offices and countries
  • The difference between the engineer as artist and the sales Picasso
  • The need for culture and values police
  • How the FATMAP team live the customer journey while building camaraderie 


 Most start-up companies prefer, in the early stages, to hire and build their teams in one location, but not all companies are, for various reasons, able to do this. It’s no surprise, considering the cost and availability of technical talent and global distribution of technical skills, that companies are often formed in a distributed nature from the get go.  The need to scale, “go global” and dominate your market will also eventually come into play, for a company that’s achieving success or has aggressive investors and has raised bucket loads of cash.

 The challenges with distributed teams are firstly, ensuring that the company’s CulturalDNA is embedded across the company, into the different offices and secondly, ensuring that the CEO and leadership team understand the implications of the macro context of the countries that their offices are in (a lot of the behavior in international offices reflects the national culture) and the subcultures that are inevitably evolving in the different offices.

 Subcultures develop naturally in larger companies that have existed for some time. They often start to form around the functional units of the company; your US SaaS sales team is going to develop a different subculture from your Romanian AI team and your London marketing team. Subcultures can also develop from shared educational backgrounds, shared past organizational experience, isolation through geography, the local hierarchy or dominant occupation in an office.

 Trekkies, an example of a subculture not found at FATMAP!

 Getting cross-functional teams to work well together is not easy, mainly because each team brings their business goals and functional subcultures to the project, which more often than not results in issues around communication, reaching agreement as well as (if you manage to get that far) implementation. Apart from the different goals, each team can also often have different meanings for the words the other team uses. Think for a moment about how differently an AI engineer, customer services rep or sales manager could potentially interpret the word ‘marketing’.  

 Understanding the implications of engineering subcultures is especially relevant to leaders of tech start-ups

 Understanding the implications of engineering subcultures is specifically relevant to leaders of tech start-up companies who are hiring engineers who will be based in different locations or offshore. An engineer’s underlying values, motivations and behaviours are based on the commonality of their education, work experience and job requirements. Engineers often see themselves as artists, who create efficient and elegant technology solutions that are ideally free from human interference and error. Sales people on the other hand have no illusions about being the next sales Picasso, they talk to people every day and build relationships with them in order to sell the company’s technology to them. In comparison to engineers sales people do not have a common education, or work experience, are not able to code and definitely do not understand the complexities of what it means to search for days or even weeks for a critical software bug. Looking at the potential differences between subcultures, it is easy to see how frustrations and conflicts can arise between them. It is therefor essential to realise that a subculture will develop in each office and if you grow big enough in the HQ itself. The solution for CEOs and other leaders is to create opportunities for the teams to build human (versus machine) communication, sharing and interaction bridges, thereby allowing the teams to get to know and understand one another on a deeper level.

 Misha Gopaul is the CEO of FATMAP, a 3D mapping start-up headquartered in London, whose team is spread between the UK, Germany, Lithuania and the US. Misha and I spoke about how he had developed FATMAP’s CulturalDNA, what he had learnt about values and culture from his previous company Fabric Technologies and what he is doing to ensure that the dominant occupation and geographic location subcultures developing in his company are understood and managed effectively.


Where in your experience does culture come from and when does it start in a company?


As soon as a small team comes together to start a company you start to develop a culture – whether or not you define it consciously. Every start-up has a culture; and at an early stage I believe that the culture of a company is often simply an extension of the co-founders’ or CEO’s values and personality. I think it’s very important to consciously and passionately reinforce your core values at an early stage – and actively reject those which conflict – to ensure they become baked in as a strong foundation.  If you are not passionate and deliberate about your values your culture may not end up being what you want it to be. 


When did you start thinking about culture at FATMAP?


In my previous company Fabric Technologies, we did a lot of thinking and work on our culture, but only a few years in to the company.  So with FATMAP we decided to define what we wanted it to be at the start of the journey. We were explicit about what we felt we wanted our culture to be. Our culture is an extension of the values we hold as people and a representation of our product; the outdoors, adventure and exploration – something we all love.


How did you ensure that your team lived the values at Fabric, your previous company?


We had a well-defined CulturalDNA at Fabric. In the early days, when it was evolving, I felt like I was the culture and values police. We were a services company and I would fly off the handle if we didn’t live the values, for example if no one had responded to an inbound call and called a customer back promptly. It was never personal, and I didn’t get angry with anyone in particular, rather at the fact that our company didn’t react as would be expected, if we were actually living our values.  It was not about blaming anyone but about calling out the wrong behaviour. I suppose I was demonstrating that I was embarrassed that our company didn’t respond with urgency. Emotions are a valuable tool to demonstrate what respecting the culture and living the values means to you and by definition should mean to the team.

 But there needs to be a balance; if someone does something in breach of the values then it’s important to call them out on it – by the same token it’s just as important to celebrate great things so that people know and understand that a behaviour or action or decision was the right one.

 We realised that if you accept things at odds to your values, you’re investing only in short-term gains. By compromising on values and letting the little things slide, you will eventually dilute your culture and lose your way as a company. The great thing is that by working hard on it at the start, the team learnt what was acceptable and not acceptable and the culture at Fabric eventually policed itself as the company grew .

 Fabric was formed out of the merger of two companies (Psychosis & OBS) in 2007. During that process we went through a number of workshops discussing the two company’s values with the teams. We invested the time to define, understand and nurture our culture and this put us in a great position to do the merger.  Creating a strong cultural foundation was one of the reasons that the merger was such a success.

 Mapping the two company’s values workshop:



How effective have you been at living the values you defined at the start of the FATMAP journey?


We originally went through an exercise to create a brand blue print that included carefully defining our values. Back then, as a small team of a few people our values were quickly and organically embedded – so much so that oddly enough we took it for granted. As we started to bring on more people we were so focused on execution and key milestones that we kind of let the ball slip and didn’t focus explicitly enough on communicating our values. We have now grown quickly from 5 to 25 people and although we know that our team’s values are broadly aligned, we realise we should have been more focused and explicit in communicating and embedding our values.  One of the major challenges we face is that our team is spread across the world, so you need to work 10 times harder to ensure that the culture is embedded into the different teams. We are going back and doing that better now and are currently going through a process to refine the values, behavior and motivations of our CulturalDNA.


How do you represent the values at FATMAP?


At FATMAP we believe in representing what we value by taking or effecting some sort of action that is synonymous with our values, rather than just describing them.  We value outcomes over effort so we don’t watch the clock and give people flexibility to work from home or wherever they like as long as they do what they need to do to for the company to achieve success. We believe in autonomy and responsibility and we hire people who thrive on that.


Where and how are the FATMAP values embedded into the company’s processes?


During onboarding we use story-telling to describe where the company has come from, where we are now and where we are going. On the first day it’s all about understanding the why – why we are here and doing what we are doing. It’s about story telling from a personal and company perspective. We explain what the co-founder’s values are, who we are, what the journey has been to get here and what’s required for our continued success.

 Everybody will send a personal email or message to welcome the new joiner. We didn’t prescribe this, it just happened. It has the effect of pulling the new joiner into our tribe and the personal messages allow them to feel part of the team and accepted, which is important. Rituals like this have developed naturally and are super important to communicating and embedding our values. I believe that organic rituals develop when the team has genuine values that they believe in and can live up to.

 We hire, promote, reward and fire against values. As a team we need to show that we are acting on the values, which result in a positive outcome for the team. If we find that an individual’s values don’t match and are in conflict with ours, we have made the wrong hire.  Getting hiring right is really important, by accepting a candidate who is at odds with our values we would be projecting that we are ok with compromise and don’t really subscribe to our values.

 But as a leadership team we also understand that culture evolves and grows richer by allowing others, who have been brought into the company to have an impact on the culture. Some of our values have been introduced over time by our team. It’s a symbiotic relationship.


How do you embed the culture in a disparate team?


We work very hard at this. We use online tools like Slack and Skype a lot to keep communication flowing. But we also regularly bring people from different teams together in a place to work and get to know one another. We will have the US team come over to London, or some of the UK team will go to Lithuania or Chamonix.

 A Line in the Snow – Official trailer

A Line in the Snow – Directed by Ben Tibbetts. Official selection – Kendal Mountain Film Festival

 Twice a year we bring the whole team together in one place. In the outdoors, it’s the teamwork and real life experiences you share with people that you really come to value. So for us it’s an important part of our culture to make sure we spend time together as human beings.  Spending time together builds stronger bonds between team members and creates the alignment of values and embeds them within the team. Spending time together creates a deep-shared understanding of who we are, what we want to achieve and how we are achieving it. When we are away together we make sure that we create an environment where the team is truly engaged with one another. At these away sessions you can definitely see the caring develop for one another as individuals and the team as a whole.  The bonds and understanding built here endures long after the time.

 Once a year we go away on an outdoor adventure. Because there’s nothing like being out in some proper English weather to build camaraderie! But also because the team gets to live our customer’s journey, which is particularly important for new joiners and particularly for some of the developers who don’t have direct contact to our customers in their daily work. We avoid corporate power point presentations during these trips; we rather use stories and the outdoors to create the adventure and demonstrate the personality of the company.

 For us, values and culture are fundamentally an instruction set and if the team knows what the values are and live them, then we can trust them to make the right decisions in the course of their work. In this way FATMAP can move faster because our people are empowered to make decisions and take action.

 One of the unexpected benefits of bringing our team together to share an adventure is it allows us to add an extra dimension to the hiring process. We now ask ourselves whether the candidate we are interviewing will fit in with the group when we all are away on an adventure. From a candidate evaluation point of view it gives us another dimension to explore for potential cultural fit or not.

 Our leadership team understands that it’s natural for different subcultures to develop in our offices. Different nationalities are different cultures in themselves and as a leader you need to accept that you can’t change a national culture. However, it is important that you understand the impact that the national culture can have on your team and to ensure that the subculture that’s developing is not at odds with the overriding core values of the company’s CulturalDNA.

 For most of the year we’re a very distributed team so to keep everyone connected we have an all hands meeting every 6 weeks.  At the end each person has 30 seconds to say 3 things about

  • Something they have done they are proud of

  • Something someone else in the team has done that they are proud of

  • Something they are looking forward to

 It’s an idea I borrowed from Tracy Doree and is really powerful in bringing remote people together.  We keep to time, which with a team of 25, makes sure that we keep things moving along with energy at a brisk pace. It gives the team a window into understanding what is happening across the company, what is important to their colleagues, whilst also helping to build a strong culture of support and appreciation for each other. 


What additional perks does FATMAP offer?


We all have a passion and thirst for knowledge, and are generally interested in learning about stuff. We encourage our people to develop themselves. In general we don’t use a set budget for things, but try to rather use value based judgements. If an individual wants to spend X on a course, we ask what’s the value that they and the company, will get from it. We approach all self-development opportunities in this way. We want our team to grow and develop; they just need to justify the business value clearly.

 Our team can buy whatever learning materials they like and are slowly building a library. We just introduced coaching for all of the leadership team. We invest in them so that they can develop as people and develop their teams. We also use the coaching that our leadership team receives as a form of feedback. Without breaking confidences, we ask the coach to give us feedback on areas that we need to be aware of and things the company needs to work on.

 We are into knowledge sharing and have “lunch and learn” sessions where we let our people choose which topics they want to explore. And we want our team to feel like they are part of a family so when we go for drinks or dinner, the company plays the host.  It’s less about the actual money and more about the principle of taking care of each other.


Is there an example that you have come across recently of a company that gets culture?


I visited Facebook recently and their guest wifi password was “movefast”. I liked that they use every day opportunities to consciously communicate their values.


 But one of my favourite examples of cultural rituals is the Amazon door-desk. In the early days of, everyone who joined had to build their own desk made from a Home Depot door and a set of four-by-four wooden posts. It sent a clear message about Amazon’s ethos of minimising costs to ensure the best prices for customers.

‘It was quite therapeutic getting a better understanding of what we are as a company’

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An interview with Paul Archer, CEO of Duel.

 Paul Archer, CEO of Duel, attended a one-hour workshop I ran at Runway East on how to utilise a company’s CulturalDNA (values, motivations and behaviours) to hire and build teams more effectively. A couple of days later Paul emailed me to thank me for the session and to say that as a result of the workshop he and his team had met up and taken the first steps to defining their Duel’s values.

 I was impressed that he had taken action so quickly, in a matter of days after the workshop. I was also interested to discuss how he had set about defining the values with his team and how they were planning to integrate their values into their hiring process. 



What steps did you take to come up with Duel’s values?


After your workshop we spent some time thinking about how we wanted to approach defining our values. We decided that we wanted to see what our people thought the company’s values were and what they would come up without any steering from the founders. We are a team of five and we wanted to try to understand and discover what the whole team thinks about our values and culture. We asked them to think about:

  • What do we stand for?

  • What motivates you?

  • Why do you enjoy working here?

  • Why do our customers enjoy working with us?

 It was actually quite therapeutic getting an understanding of what we are as a company. It’s a great feeling when you make the invisible visible, and we realised that as a team we are pretty much aligned in our thinking about our values and culture.


What did you do once you had defined the values?


One of the main reasons we went through the exercise was to ensure that we make the right hiring decisions as we build out our team, so we decided to review the unsuccessful hires that we had made in the past. We haven’t made that many but we used this as an opportunity as a team to try to understand what didn’t work and why. We checked our values against the unsuccessful hires we had made and in retrospect it was clear why they were the wrong hires for our team.

 We used this to really delve deeper into what our values mean. For example we discussed the difference between people who are naturally gregarious and those who aren’t. It is not realistic to expect everyone in the team to be the gregarious outgoing type, it’s clearly not a value for us, but what is important is you must at a fundamental level have a propensity to be happy. So to join Duel you don’t have to be naturally gregarious but you must be able to demonstrate how you represent our values, one of which is happiness.

 We took the values and wrote them into our current job description. Integrating our values into the job description  allows us to give a normally bland document some personality, and really gives potential candidates a good idea of what’s important to us.



What are your values?


It’s too early in the process to say that we have our values set in stone. This is an on-going process, currently our core values are

  • Life-first (balance, freedom, growth, efficiency and – most importantly – happiness)

  • Loyalty

  • Ownership (responsibility, success driven and pro-activeness)

 Life first

  • It’s all about efficiency and balance. Balance is enabled by efficiency. The more efficient you are the more time you can spend living outside work. Don’t waste time doing the wrong things at work, so that you can leave at decent hour and enjoy life outside of work.

  • We want to employ people who are efficient in what they do, people who can get work done.

  • We are not clock-watchers. If you get your work done by 5:30pm then go and enjoy yourself riding your mountain bike, or whatever.

  • It’s important to us for our team to have a life outside work.


  • Be autonomous and take ownership

  • At Duel employees can choose their hours, and we have unlimited holidays. I was annoyed and irritated by having to count peoples holidays, so we decided to scrap the holiday limit. It turns out that people work harder if you trust them to get on with their job and they are more effective


  • It’s important that you have the ability to grow in your role and the company

  • We encourage living healthily and offer our team gym membership

  • We have a budget for learning and our team can buy whatever books they need or want


  • We want to hire happy people, people who are predisposed to be happy.

  • We hire people who are able to make themselves happy through their work and life outside of work.

  • We look for people who are generally positive by nature and don’t dwell in depression and other forms of negativity


  • We look for the kind of person who is loyal to what they do, who is not looking for the next job all the time

Ownership and Responsibility

  • We want our team to take responsibility for the work they do

Success driven

  • We are looking for people who are turned on by being challenged in the work they do and want to achieve success more than earning more money


  • We are building a team of people who are proactive, take action, and get stuff done.


An online job advert is one of the first places that a new employee may get to interact with your CulturalDNA. It makes sense to describe your culture and include your values in the job ad in order to attract like minded candidates and start to inform the eventual successful candidate about your company’s culture. 

Comparing Duel’s Growth Marketer job description below to the average online ad, you can see clearly how Duel differentiates from the other bland job ads. Secondly, you can see how they have given the copy energy and personality by describing their culture and values to attract candidates who might fit in with the Duel culture:

Senior Digital and Growth Marketer (Bristol/London) £25,000 – £34,000

You will be responsible for managing Duel’s social presence, creating, writing and managing content, PR, SEO, paid search and paid social. In short, you will be the hero of all our online activities…

As a key employee in a dynamic startup you will have to be comfortable wearing a number of different hats, but generally you’ll wear the marketing or ‘growthhacking’ hat, obsessively metrics driven to bring amazing, qualified sales leads to our sales team.

You will work closely with the Founder and will directly affect the success of the business. We will build a team around you as we grow. You will also contribute ideas and additions to the product based on customer feedback.

Watch the Job Description video


Duel is an award winning, 10 month old, well-funded, VC backed start-up.  Our customers are global brands and marketing agencies and they love us because we help them get amazing content.  We do this by building an automated Customer/User Generated Content platform that helps brands, agencies, record labels and e-commerce stores to incentivise their customers and audiences to create content – photos, ideas, reviews, videos… anything – for them.

The business was founded in Bristol by World Record breaking adventurer, Paul Archer, as a tool to bring adventure into people’s lives and this continues to underscore our core philosophy.

Having recently expanded into London, we are seeking ambitious, smart and fun people to join our team in Bristol. We are on track for substantial growth over the next 12 months and require team members who can grow accordingly.  The product went live in December 2015 and has since won a number of awards (SXSW, Publicis90, Unilever Foundry) and worked with major brands and agencies.


  • Flexible and fun, but absolutely driven to making the business a success

  • Tech and process driven – we make tech, we love tech and we use tech to make our lives easier where possible

  • We work with people we like, and we like the people we work with. This means after work drinks, happy hours and boozy lunches happen regularly.

  • We stand by our Core Values: Life-first (balance, freedom, growth, efficiency and – most importantly – happiness), loyalty and ownership (responsibility, success driven and pro-activeness)


  • Data and metrics driven. Test, iterate, test, iterate…

  • 3-5+ years experience

  • Quantitative modelling

  • Solid organisational skills – you will be working with a CRM and need to keep perfect track of deals

  • Experience across multiple marketing and advertising channels – PPC, social, paid social, content marketing, lead generation etc.


  • Total internet obsession. There’s not a cat meme you don’t know about.

  • Experience creating content. We want to see it! You made something, it’s out there and you can link people to it.

  • Regularly updated social media profiles.

  • Excellent writing skills, with evidence to back it up. Ideally witty.

  • Passion for technology and startups

  • Some experience of growth hacking

  • Advertising industry experience – working with brands, agencies or publishers

  • Your own web presence – social media account, blog, YouTube account etc.

  • Good chat and a mischievous take on life


  • Open plan, busy office

  • Free tea and coffee (and beer & wine on a Friday… and most other days!)

  • Flexible working hours and home working options (in fact, actively encouraged!)

  • Unlimited / Zero holiday policy.  If you don’t need to be in the office, do the work required from anywhere in the world – Skype is a wonderful thing. Life-first.

  • On-going training where required

  • Perks: gym membership, Headspace subscription and work related or personal growth reading/Audible budget.

  • Options scheme for all full time employees – if you help us build the company, you should own some of it!

  • Bonus package

(No recruiters please! We would rather save the money and put it toward an awesome team day out. Also no phone calls. Everything to must be done by email and if you can’t follow these simple rules, we don’t want to hear from you anyway. Cheers!)

If you are interested in this role you can apply here.

 About Duel

Duel is a platform that allows brands to unlock the power of User Generated Content, driving engaging content in a manageable and brand safe environment. Duel’s UGC Management System controls the collection, ranking, sorting, moderation and storage of a brands fans’ content. Because Duel gives brands the ability to interact with real people the images and video content that the fans create for the brands are seen as more authentic and result in higher conversion and click through rates. The company works with large brands and agencies like Unilever, Publicis and Visit Britain. Duel has offices in London and Bristol.

“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” breakfast event – Feb 8th

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Join us for the “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” breakfast event!

SVB and FG CBSBreakfast event hosted by the Forsyth Group and Silicon Valley Bank

February 8th 





Registration & Breakfast
Exploring start-up company culture – what successful companies are doing to build world beating cultures
– Bretton Putter, Managing Partner Forsyth Group, Cultural Geneticist  Start-up Hierarchy of Needs
The ROI from getting culture right
– Guest panel
How a mission driven culture helped TransferWise scale from 30 to 600 people in 2.5 years
– Nilan Peiris, VP Growth TransferWise
Open discussion Q&A

This event is unfortunately sold out!

What if your people are not your greatest asset?

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An interview with Rikke Rosenlund Jacobsen founder & CEO of BorrowMyDoggy

Highlights include:

  1. Why your people are NOT your greatest asset.
  2. How an allergy resulted in the creation of BorrowMyDoggy
  3. Why Rikke will sometimes bring a dog into the interview process
  4. How Simon Sinek’s ‘How great leaders inspire action’ TED Talk helped Rikke realise that her personal motivation matched the impact that BorrowMyDoggy has with borrowers and dogs.#



What is your company’s greatest asset?

Having worked in start-up recruitment for the past 15 years I have asked this question countless times to founders and CEO’s.

Nine out of ten early stage start-up CEOs I ask answer “people.”

However when I ask them, “Which one of your team, if you lost them today, would result in your business closing down today” most admit that their team are all replaceable. They recognize that their company would still be the company even if they were to replace their most exceptional employee(s).

So, if your people are not your company’s greatest asset, then what is?

In start-ups most technology is replaceable and can be built better. Brands can be changed, and everyone, including the CEO, is replaceable. It’s not ideal and this sort of over-haul would be incredibly challenging, time consuming, and extremely costly, but in essence it would still be the same company, even if all these elements were changed out. My point is – if everything and everyone in your company is replaceable, then what truly defines your company? What is the invisible glue that binds the people, technology and brand together?

The answer to that question, in the hyper competitive start-up world, is also a start-up’s greatest asset, its CulturalDNA.

CulturalDNA is the untapped gold mine of competitive advantage – it is the differentiator between a good company and a great company, and more often than not, the key differentiator between success and failure. In the course of writing Built to Last, the authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras found that companies that had been successful for five decades or more, companies like 3M, GE, Wal-Mart, P&G and Walt Disney, had invested in defining, embedding and reinforcing their CulturalDNA, the values, behaviour and motivations that the founder(s) aspired to, at a very early stage of the company’s development and that the culture of the company was a major differentiator in the long-term success of a business. Most of the companies that were built to last were found to be cult-like, without actually being cults.

The importance of developing the right company CulturalDNA is almost universally overlooked in the early stage development of a start-up because it is not obvious how to define it, never mind nurture or develop it (especially for a first time CEO).

Too many start-up CEOs do not invest in their culture.  Defining fundamental values, motivations and behaviours that influence their business is not on their agenda because they are too busy and don’t believe they have the bandwidth to think about it. The problem with not guiding the growth and development of your CulturalDNA, is it develops and grows invisible and organically, whether you like it or not. At some stage, probably when the wheels have started coming off, a CEO will realize that they have no insight into, or leadership over one of the critically important elements of their business. Trying to understand and rebuild your company’s CulturalDNA two or three years down the line is a lot harder than doing it right from the start.

Start-ups invest in recruitment, technology, sales, marketing and operations but the majority of start-ups do not invest enough time or effort in defining, understanding, building and nurturing their CulturalDNA. The creation of a start-up’s CulturalDNA is not a singular event; your company’s CulturalDNA does develop over time. As CEO it is your responsibility to create the right environment for your high performance culture to develop.

By its nature, a start-up is under-funded, under staffed… it’s totally under resourced, and the scarcest resource for a CEO is time. As a start-up CEO you need to organise your company in a way that will help your team achieve greatness without the need for micro-management or much supervision. You need to hire people that you can trust to do their job and take the right decisions. Start-up companies work best when all members of the team share a common vision of the future and operate on the basis of a shared purpose and values. In these companies, members of the team are able to operate with responsible freedom and don’t need supervision. If implemented correctly your CulturalDNA will assist you in building a high-performing team and sustainable business. If, as I believe, it is your greatest untapped asset, then it makes sense to not only understand more about it, but to invest in it.

So, what is your CulturalDNA? How do you define it? What does it consist of? What are the advantages of guiding the growth and development of your CulturalDNA? Where does it come from? Can it be measured? How does it impact the bottom line? How does it impact hiring, firing, promotions, reward structures, performance reviews, communication and learning in your company?

From my interviews from these blogs, executive search experience, advisory work and Seedcamp investor experience I have noticed that the positive effects of investing in CulturalDNA are:

  • consistent and impactful communication
  • improved ability to hire A+ candidates who fit with the company’s culture
  • significantly lower employee churn
  • higher trust factor across the company
  • improved team happiness and satisfaction
  • perhaps most importantly, having everyone pull in the same direction during times of hardship for the company
  • better overall results, higher growth, greater profitability and exit potential than the “average” start-up

By defining your company’s CulturalDNA – its values, behaviours and motivations and embedding them into your company, your team will glue together and feel empowered to live the values and support the company’s vision, mission and purpose at all times because they fundamentally believe in it and therefore live it 100% of the time.



Cultural DNA in action: interview with Rikke Rosenlund Jacobsen, founder of BorrowMyDoggy

Rikke is the founder and CEO of BorrowMyDoggy, one of the few start-up CEOs who, when I asked what her company’s greatest asset was answered “Our culture.” I sat down with Rikke to understand what she and the BorrowMyDoggy team have done and are doing to codify their CulturalDNA.


How did you come up with the idea for BorrowMyDoggy?


I was born into a family of entrepreneurs; my parents are both entrepreneurs so I had the entrepreneurial bug from an early age. My family have always emphasised to me the value of me being the best I can, and trying to make a positive difference. Whether this is through organisational work (Rotary etc), local community work or even linked to causes they believe in (Save the Children etc), making a difference is at the centre of their values, as it is mine. Unfortunately my mother is allergic to dog hair, so we couldn’t justify having a dog as a pet. My grandparents had a farm and I really loved playing with their dog when I went to visit them, so the idea of borrowing a dog was a good fit to my values – I want to make a difference, and this just made sense to me. People, like me, who are unable to own a dog would be able to experience the companionship, happiness, exercise, joy and love that I did with my grandparent’s dog and give the dog the love and attention that all dogs want.


So how did you go about starting the business?


I was encouraged by friends to test out my thesis that people would want to borrow a dog and others would want to share their pets, so I set up a basic website with a landing page and promoted it by hanging up posters in a local park and via social media channels.  85 people signed up and the reasons they had signed up were incredibly compelling and confirmed my suspicions that there was a need in the market. One of our initial members was an older gentleman, based in Cornwall, who was recovering from an operation; therefore he could no longer take his dog for long walks. Another was from a family whose young daughter desperately wanted a dog but was also very scared of them, so the family wanted to make sure that their daughter would be comfortable with a dog before getting one of their own. Reading these members stories really touched me as I could see how we could make a difference to people’s lives by starting BorrowMyDoggy. In the early days of the business we conducted manual matching of the dog and the borrower and this allowed us to get to know the members really well. We were able to understand their needs and wants, which is something we’ve always been very focused on.



When did you first start thinking about your CulturalDNA?


When starting BorrowMyDoggy I watched Simon Sinek’s ‘How great leaders inspire action’ TED Talk which focuses on asking ‘why?’ and it helped me to realise that this was all about people and dogs making a positive impact on each others lives, which was the same as my motivation for starting BorrowMyDoggy. Once this was clear, we communicated it to the outside world. Our concept and values resonated well with other people and we started to receive so much wonderful help, and even emails from people who wanted to join our young pup of a company, which they did.


What are the advantages to writing down your company’s values?


It’s actually been quite a challenge writing your company’s values down. Our company values have always been unconsciously understood, but never written down, so when we started doing a re-branding exercise 3 months ago, we thought then would be a good time to discuss them, along with our mission and vision. It has been a team effort to write them down, and going through this process has helped us really clarify what’s important to us and how we are becoming more aligned as a team. The values that we are defining will help guide the decisions we make as a business with our borrowers, dog owners, partners and employees. Our overall aim to leave ‘Pawprints of Happiness’ on the lives of millions of dogs and people can be achieved by clarifying our values and embedding them into our business.


Where are you in the values definition process?


Our values focus on happiness, innovation, being positive, going above and beyond, teamwork, and making a positive difference. We have created the initial list of values – they aren’t yet set in stone – and we are now in the testing phase to see if they stand up to scrutiny from ourteam. Defining our values and CulturalDNA is an on-going process and it is still too early to say that we have finalised them, but we have the first version on the wall in our ‘kennel’.


Can you give me some examples of your values in action?


One is that we really focus on our customers. Whether that’s valuing their feedback, personally helping them find a match, or just generally answering their questions, we’re there for them. I love to hear our customer service team speak with our community as it is so evident that our team really do care about every person they speak to. I am also very proud of the fact that we consistently have very high customer satisfaction scores within the help team.

Another value is ‘One Pack, One Team’. The team works well together across the company, and we also play together. We’re aware that we all have the same goal in mind, and by all pulling in the same direction; we’ll get there faster. Where relevant, team members include each other in discussions and make each other aware of any new projects under way. The team has come up with pack activities, including water pong Fridays in the office and welcome lunches for new members – it is lovely to see the friendships being formed and that we are helping each other out beyond the time together in the office.

Another of our values is for us to take risks and react fast. We have brainstorm sessions on how we can improve our members’ experience and build the business. A lot of these discussions are based on feedback from our members. As a result, we run a lot of tests across the business – obviously some of them do not work out so it is important we react fast to any of the learnings.

We are a high-growth, entrepreneurial company so we need people who, amongst other attributes, take initiative, get things done, are caring and are not self-absorbed. To get team members who fit in the ‘Pack’ we ask a lot of questions around these attributes and will listen carefully to the types of questions the candidates ask us, too. The questions tell us a lot about what’s important to that person. Sometimes we’ll bring a dog into the meeting room during an interview to see how the candidate reacts – if the candidate doesn’t react positively to the dog’s arrival, reach out to touch the dog or interact with them, they’re definitely not suitable for us. Now that we have a clearer picture on our values, we will be building interview questions that will test whether the candidate’s values match ours or not.


Which company in your career had the best culture?


I joined Hard Rock Café in Madrid as one of my first jobs and I still remember the values the company vividly: take time to be kind, teamwork, double-check it & love all, and serve all. It was an incredible environment to work in and the fact that I still remember the values tells you how effectively they embedded them in the company.

Would you marry someone after spending just 8 hours with them?

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An interview with Rob O’Donovan, founder & CEO of CharlieHR

Would you marry someone if you didn’t know what his or her values were? Some people do, and that usually ends in pain, tears and loathing. In some cases the magic does happen sooner, but the majority of sane people will take the necessary time to work out if their values match up with the person who is the subject of their affections. This process can take weeks, months and in some cases many years and involves dates, long walks, deep conversations into the small hours and, hopefully for everyone concerned, lots of sex.  The advantage that we have as individuals is we have lived at least 20 years in and with ourselves, so we have the time to develop a reasonably good idea of our values and what makes us tick.


The unfortunate truth of the matter is that start-up founding teams see more of one another than the average married couple do and a start-up can at times be way more intense and stressful than a marriage. In the case of an average start-up (if there is such a thing) two of the founders may have known one another for a few years, but the rest of the team have probably been together for a matter of months. The team hasn’t spent 20+ years together as a unit, so they can’t consciously know what their values are. Their true values are hidden below the surface, invisible and active on a subconscious level, and not enough time has passed for those values to surface and really gel with the rest of the team.

Matters are made worse during the process of hiring a new team member because the hiring team only spends 1 or 2 hours each interviewing the candidate. Some invite the candidate to dinner or to join the team for a drink, but at the end of the day, it’s still another 4 or 5 hours added to the total amount of time spent together.

Would you be able to make a decision to marry someone after spending just 8 hours with that person?

It seems insane but the interviewing team and the candidate both need to be able to make a marriage-like commitment after spending less than a day together! How does a start-up company mitigate this risk? The simple answer is through values based interviewing. Your values are the key to successful interviewing because, if you understand what they are you can build them into your candidate interview process.

As an example, here is a part of the assessment that Zappos gives all candidates to make sure they are a good fit for just one of the company’s ten core values. The interviewer doesn’t just accept the first level answer to these questions. They ask clarifying questions to really get into the layers of the onion. The Zappos interviewers rate the candidates from 1 – 5 against each of the questions asked and average the values score for each candidate.


Value: Build a positive team and family spirit


Rationale: The applicant values team and individual accomplishments with equal importance.

  • Question 1:“Do you feel you are a better individual contributor or a better team player? Which do you prefer?”
  • Question 2:“When was a time you “took one for the team” even though it wasn’t your responsibility?”


Rationale: The applicant understands the concept of team and a greater good.

  • Question 1:“When was a time you were thrown work that you were not prepared for? What was the situation? How did you feel about it?”


Rationale: The applicant encourages a positive team spirit.

  • Question 1: “Do you ever socialize with people from work outside the office? What do you think about people that do?”
  • Question 2:“How do you encourage teamwork at the office?”
  • Question 3:“What’s the biggest challenge you faced working in a team environment? How did you handle it?”
  • Question 4:“What co-worker behaviours drive you crazy? How do you handle it when someone is doing it?”


Rationale: The applicant encourages others to take initiative.

  • Question 1:“Give me an example of a time you were working with a team/group and one member was not participating/pulling their weight. What did you do?”


To get further insight into what a start-up founder needs to do to define their CulturalDNA and hire successfully against their values, I interviewed Rob O’ Donovan, founder & CEO of CharlieHR (the free HR platform for small businesses). Rob hit the nail on the head when he said, “At the end of the day everything comes down to people. With great people in your team you can do anything. Our aim is to hire brilliant people whose values are aligned and glued together by our culture. It sounds simple, but it’s not.”




What got you thinking actively about your values and culture?


We felt that we had developed something quite special with our culture and it was important to actually get it down on paper so that we could understand, nurture and develop it further.  The values that we had developed organically needed to be brought to the surface and made more tangible.


How difficult was the process to define your values?


We found the values definition process relatively easy to do. I think this was because we did the values exercise before we needed to, before the team had gotten too big and the wrong values had crept into the business. As a leadership team we realized that we needed to ensure that we created the right framework to scale the business, specifically with hiring the right people who are able to fit into our culture. We were lucky in that at the time things were going well and we didn’t have an issue that needed solving.

We see the values of a business like a map; it really helps to look at the map before you start your journey so that you don’t head off in the wrong direction. We were early enough to not yet have travelled down the wrong path with bad hiring decisions.


How did you go about creating your list of values?


We don’t believe that the values that you expect from a decent human being should be included in our company’s values – words like trust, integrity and loyalty for example. Trust is binary, you are trustworthy or you aren’t, and trustworthiness is not something to be proud of for our team, as it’s something we expect from one another. A company’s values must be something that the team can aspire to rather than putting some words up on a wall that are supposed to remind you and your team to be decent human beings. Enron had the word integrity famously displayed in their lobby as one of their values. Our leadership team got together and created a list of values that we recognized were demonstrated in the business. We then asked the rest of the team to rank the top 5 values and from there the leadership team got together again and defined them into the four core values of our business: Passionate, Ambitious, Curious and Together. Our PACT is the commitment that the team makes to one another.

The values discovery process is easier if you and the team are on the same page already, which is often the case in an early stage company with a relatively small team like ours. It does take time though and it’s important to not expect the values to fall into place over night. The values really need to resonate with the team so that they remember them and can live by them. Creating the PACT acronym helped a lot with that.


How difficult was it embedding the values into the business?


It is an on-going challenge to ensure that we integrate the values and live them on a daily basis. We sounded like a record on repeat a lot of the time, as we really laboured them and repeated them ad nauseum. Apart from the repetition we realised that we needed to associate values with our daily behaviour. In other words what does it mean to live up to our PACT values every day? You have to associate the values with behaviour otherwise it all becomes too nebulous.


What do you focus on during the hiring process?


We work hard to find candidates with the right skills and experience, and a good match for our PACT values, digging into how the candidate demonstrates Passion, Ambition, Curiosity and working Together with others. When you hire people with similar values, you bring people into the team who already resonate with the culture and that means they have the behaviours and attitudes that drive results.


How do you communicate your values to new employees?


A new joiner is partnered with a buddy from the team and it’s the buddy’s responsibility to make sure that the new joiner gets up to speed quickly, is integrating well, having a good time and understands what PACT stands for and how to live by it. Every new joiner has to do a PACTivity presentation in the first month after joining. The presentation should describe how they relate to PACT. It could be one or all four of the letters that they use to describe how passionate they are or what they are curious about. It’s a great way to get them to associate PACT with their own values, get a sense from them, of how they live the PACT values in their own lives and to introduce them to the team. The PACTivity presentation is a powerful way to show the new joiner how much we care for and live our values and immediately builds a bond between the new joiner and the team.


How important is the social element at Charlie?


We have a young team with ages ranging from 21-29. A lot of the team members have joined us fresh out of university, so they are still learning what work is like. We’ve created an environment where people can work hard, demonstrate achievement, have a lot of fun and build lasting friendships. We get together regularly for team drinks and hold a social event at the end of every month. Because we are all curious we encourage our team to learn a new skill or do something outside of work. We encourage our team to go out and meet new and interesting people to learn from, and thereby broaden their mindset. One of our team has just started taking a course on circus skills, which should be amazing. She will meet interesting new people, learn new skills that she will hopefully be able to bring that back and share with the Charlie team.





What other processes have you put in place to embed PACT into the business?


We have monthly 1-2-1 sessions, where each team member meets with their team leader to discuss how they have lived PACT that month, they are essentially assessed against our PACT values. It’s not a typical review or appraisal session where we assess against bonuses or anything like that, it’s more an opportunity to sit down with their team leader and discuss any range of things, which could include areas where they are delivering on PACT or areas they need to work. It reinforces and reminds the team that we all share the same values, that we are proud of them and must work hard to uphold them. The 1-2-1 session is structured to be an open session so that the team member can also talk about how things are going, any frustrations they might have, and if they want to discuss anything from their personal life, that’s great too. The team member leads it, so it’s up to them how they make the most of the session.

The 1-2-1 sessions allow for open and honest communication. An example of the advantage of this is when we have had resignations in the past. We haven’t had many but the resignations that have happened weren’t a surprise because the team member informed his team leader during one of the 1-2-1 meetings, normally a couple of months in advance that they were unsure if this was the right place for them. If the employee isn’t happy with something she will inform her team leader  and if she is thinking of leaving for a reason that can be changed then we will work on it internally to see if we can change the situation. If that’s unsuccessful then we tend to mutually agree that it’s best for them to move on and  we make an effort to help them find another job if they haven’t got one already. We hire great people and we hope may come back in 3 years time with a whole new range of skills.

As a company we are aiming for radical candour, where our communication is candid, honest and straight to the point. We have a meeting every Monday called Focus and Feedback. It’s like a normal standup with a twist. Each member of the team starts off by discussing what they will be focusing on for the coming week. The second part of the standup is based around feedback and open communication. In advance of the meeting, Every team member has to go to someone they worked with that past week and ask for feedback from that person, which they then have to share with the company at the weekly standup. New joiners struggle with this process at first but it really is very useful. It builds an environment of honesty where people can talk openly about something they are struggling with. If you ask for feedback people feel more comfortable giving it and this builds emotional resilience in the team. The feedback that I received and had to communicate to the team at our recent standup is that when I am very busy working to a deadline I can be unapproachable, trying to get as much done as possible and the team don’t feel comfortable to approach me for help or advice when I am that busy. It happened most recently before my vacation and it’s something that I will need to work on.


How do you view your culture, is it fixed in stone?


We are protective of our culture and believe that our PACT represents our core values. At the same time we are open minded and flexible and will if necessary adapt our culture to changes in the business or the environment. Culture is incredibly fragile. As a leadership team we pay attention because if we don’t we could lose that specialness quickly. We are paranoid about retaining our culture and one concern is that as the team gets bigger we will dilute or weaken our culture. To me our culture is the answer that someone gives at the pub when asked the question “How are things going at work?” We would hope people replied with something along the lines of is “It’s really tough, but I am learning so much and loving it” and as a team we aim to create that environment.


What have you been reading recently?


I have been reading the Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor.




About CharlieHR

CharlieHR is the free HR platform for small businesses that automates the administrative headaches of running a company so you can focus on building real value. Charlie is one of five businesses that Rob and the team have developed out of The Eleven, a startup studio, which he co-founded with Ben Gateley.

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