We've featured a lot of large companies on our blog—culture profiles on Airbnb, Zappos, Google, Evernote, among others—but it's important to us to recognize smaller companies doing significant things on the culture front as well.
One company I really admire is a startup based in Vancouver, BC called Quietly. They're a content marketing solution for brands and publishers, and their team of 20 is as passionate about producing world-class editorial content as they are about building an exceptional culture.
I recently sat in on their Monday all-hands meeting, and their positive, energetic, and supportive vibe was immediately apparent. The team was all gathered in the kitchen, some standing, others sitting, and the first question they all answered was about the highlight of their weekends. It quickly became clear that this was a company with a family feel—a company that values the soul, interests and personality each person brings to the office.
After multiple conversations with Quietly's Co-Founder, Sean Tyson, I realized that this was a company culture that deserves attention. Tyson's profound care for his employees, and his genuine interest in their development was something I hadn't seen before in a startup environment. Startup founders are usually pulled in a million directions, and spread so thin that the number one critique they receive is that they aren't able to offer enough time to employees (often a catalyst for turnover). Not so at Quietly.
The Q&A below gets into the details of Quietly's people-focused culture, and dives into the why and how they've been able to scale it as they grow.
Q&A With Sean Tyson, Co-Founder of Quietly
The word culture is ubiquitous in the startup world, and its definition is increasingly subjective. What does company culture mean to you?
Company culture, to me, is a representation of the people who work for the company and the values they embody. Put another way, it is a manifestation of the interactions between the employees inside and outside the office. On the other hand, culture is absolutely not about the artifacts in the office (e.g. foosball, beer keg, etc) as those tend to be a bastardized form of generosity towards employees.
In 1-2 sentences, how would you describe Quietly's culture?
Unassuming, genuine, weird, fun, hardworking and professional. We take the work very seriously, but we never, ever take ourselves too seriously.
Did Quietly have any formal processes to establish its culture?
We never really set out to “establish” culture, per se, and that’s because, in my opinion, culture is simply a reflection of the values of the people in the organization more than a set of things prescribed by leadership.
When the company started we were small, and it was easy to allow things to develop organically; however, we did go out of our way to create an environment that was accessible and would let anyone flourish. In that sense, we intentionally created a setting that would encourage people who shared our values, and then we actively hired people who shared those same values. That didn’t mean hiring people who think the same way as us (more on that later), but rather, hiring people who had the same inherent value set and spirit. It’s also worth noting that we were careful to avoid hiring people who did not share those values. In other words, it’s all about reciprocal trust and loyalty, and it starts with the leadership and their values.
That said, after a certain point in time—probably when we got to 10 people or more—we realized we needed to articulate our values more clearly, so we ended up doing a values jam with the whole team (cheesy name, I know).
The values jam was great for two reasons. One, it allowed the team to share and discuss the values collectively. This is important because it ensures the culture is an embodiment of everyone, not just the leadership. The team had the opportunity to shape the pillars we were living by, and in turn, the direction of the company. That is a big deal, and as you can imagine, it was an exciting session. The second benefit was that we shed light on completely new values. Obviously this exercise helped us reinforce the core values that attracted us all to Quietly in the first place, but it also helped clarify beliefs that were perhaps more abstract or totally unique. It was enlightening for everyone.
Once we landed on key statements or slogans, we had our designer bring them to life as large illustrations and we put them up on the wall. We get lots of compliments on them when people are in our office, but eventually they'll also end up on our website (for recruiting purposes).
The last comment I want to make is that we will continue to revisit our values as the organization grows. We’re enriched by the output of our peers, so as the organization shifts and evolves, so too will our values. Obviously our core values will continue to be the linchpin of our corporate culture, and as leaders we'll strive to ensure they're upheld, but it’s important that the team has an opportunity to regularly (re)state them because we always want our values to remain relevant.
Quietly is big on feedback and regular reviews. What does your process look like?
We're big on feedback, and our ability to listen to each other is not just demonstrated through daily interactions, but through more formal touch points as well.
We do semi-annual performance reviews with everyone. These are formal and we take them very seriously, but we also schedule recurring monthly meetings because I find that the semi-annual (or even quarterly) cadence is not enough. Young people want more frequent touch points, so every month, I do a 1-hour coffee with every employee. They’re called “Professional Development chats” and we always go off-site because it needs to feel safe for them.
This is all about me listening, and about them being honest, candid, and critical. Basically, I’m giving them an opportunity to “empty their cup” so it doesn’t fill up and boil over when they’re stressed. They need to be able to vent—albeit constructively—so we can manage to the issue instead of the rule. We’re a fast-paced, growing company so it’s important that we talk about the changes and challenges we face. After all, it’s “growing pains” not “growing pleasures.”
The biggest thing about these meetings is the agenda. They need to come prepared and communicate their thoughts in a succinct manner so we use the following framework:
- Current roles and responsibilities
- Career path and aspirations
- Life, love, rock 'n’ roll
The first section is all about identifying things that we can improve on a day-to-day level. They have to come with solutions, options, and recommendations for how they would fix it themselves. I then add my ideas to the mix and we net out with an agreed upon next step. It’s therapeutic. Good stuff always comes out of these meetings, and we work very hard to act on challenges so we can show measurable progress in those next 30 days. For example, a telling question is, “What is your favourite—or least favourite—meeting and why?”.
The second section is more aspirational. Here we remind each other about the goals we’ve set out in our (formal) semi-annual reviews. We see how we’re tracking, what things they need in order to be successful, and what things are blockers (and how we can remove them). Basically I’m saying “what career do you want?” and we discuss how I can help them get there. It’s fun and it’s important. For example, a conversation here may focus on helping them “elevate and delegate” in order to really progress.
The third is more about their personal life. At Quietly we’re extremely good at separating the personal from the professional, but I do also want to know how things are going outside of work. Are they happy, healthy, etc. Is their family all good? I expect them to deliver as a professional regardless, but we’re very sensitive to our employee's lives outside of work. If someone’s personal life is out of whack, I need to know. As we say, family is always first and if someone’s work starts to compromise their personal life, then we need to talk.
This meeting framework is great because it ensures we’re making the most of the time. Without it I find the person will spend the first 40 mins waxing poetic because they’re just putting off what they actually want to talk about (maybe they’re nervous or anxious) and by the time they get to the serious stuff, we only have 10 minutes to dig into it. Also, the agenda they prepare tells me a lot about where their head is and what’s bothering them.
It’s all about being proactive and keeping our finger on the pulse of our people. They are our biggest assets, so we pay close attention to their needs and situations.
How do you screen for culture-fit when hiring?
The first thing I stress is that every little interaction is a test. For example, in the initial emails confirming the date/time/location of the interview, was the person resourceful, or did they ask lazy questions? The last thing I want to do is reply with a let me Google that for you.
The second is that we’re immediately looking for signals that indicate the values and spirit I talked about earlier. Did the person stand up to shake my hand? Did they offer to open the door and/or stand in line with me? Did they offer to pay? Of course I would never let them pay, but these little manners are telling.
From a non-technical standpoint I’m looking at things like intellectual curiosity, critical thought, hunger, maturity, modesty, and their ability to listen. I also love people with a good sense of humour because to me, humour is the greatest barometer of emotional intelligence. Of course, we’ll talk about professional experience, but again I’m skewing to bedside manners over milestones, and I’m keen to see how they describe former colleagues and employers.
For designers, I’m less interested in their portfolio of work and more in the C.R.A.P.* that surrounded it. That means, how did they handle criticism, rejection, assholes, and pressure? If they can walk me through their process, approach, and share some war stories, then we’re cooking with gas. Of course I’m looking for raw talent, but I’ll always hire for attitude and train for skill rather than the other way around. Lastly, I’m looking to see if they're passionate about our product, our mission, and our industry. If they don’t like what we’re building, they’re not going to have much fun.
[*You can thank Richard St. John for that; he uses that acronym in his TED talk.]
For engineers it’s more involved and we use a multistage process. (Many candidates tell us our interviewing/testing is the best they’ve experienced, even when they don’t end up being selected, so I’m particularly proud of this, especially because we're a product company and technical talent is mission critical to what we do and where we’re going.)
—First we start with a casual chat where I’m looking for cultural cues and a sense of shared values. I want to know about them as a person more than a programmer. From there we’ll get into frameworks, languages, etc., and see if there's compatibility and interest with our tech stack.
Assuming all is good, we’ll then bring them in to meet the rest of the team for interview #2. This is really for both sides to interview each other and talk more shop. Then, if we think there's a cultural fit, we send them to our Tech advisor who puts them through an extremely challenging algorithmic tech test. If they pass that, then we engage them for a small paid project. This is the most important component because we actually get to see their work ethic and skills in action, but we’re really looking to see how they communicate and how they handle adversity (we intentionally leave some questions unanswered). From a values point of view, you’d be surprised what you see when you have to do a group project with them.
How has your culture evolved as you've grown?
We’re small enough to notice that it changes with every new employee, so in that sense, our culture has been in constant evolution since we started. We were also in a co-working space when we started, so our culture was very much informed by our surroundings. That said, I would say we more actively promote accessibility since the group is becoming even more diverse.
Practically that means extracurricular activities become less niche, and more about providing an experience that each person can make their own. For example, not everyone drinks, so it’s not just about partying after work. We also have people who have longer commutes and/or have to get home to take care of a young child, so we’re more mindful when we coordinate activities as a team.
Any tips on scaling culture as a company grows?
I was with someone the other day who was surprised I spend 20 hours a month meeting with each of our employees for professional development. In fact, I hadn’t really thought about it from an “hours” point of view, but they basically said they don’t have time for that anymore—implying that they used to do it when the company was smaller, but now they’re just too busy.
I just said, “Listen, if people are your most important asset, why wouldn’t you prioritize your time accordingly?” I went on to compare this person’s company to a high-performance engine, stating that the employees deserved high octane fuel and regular visits from the mechanic. They sheepishly conceded.
Now, obviously I can’t personally meet with everyone if we continue to grow at this rate, but the point I was making is that the relationships with staff are paramount and require constant nurturing. As a result, as our span of control increases, I expect my managers to invest the same amount of time with their people as I invest with them. As my dad says, “it’s all about managing with your hands in your pockets.”
This brings up another good point: as the company grows, the coaching of managers becomes equally (if not more) important since it has a knock-on effect. Some younger managers can find it hard to ‘delegate and elevate’, let alone know how to effectively mentor or coach, so these one-on-ones become critical as they take on additional roles and responsibilities. Sometimes they’re up to their neck, and other times they’re simply in over their head, but at the end of the day we’re helping them navigate things so they can learn to nurture themselves and their team.
In terms of scaling culture with company growth, I think it’s about empowering others to apply the same level of effort down the line, and coaching them to be coaches themselves.
You let your team work remotely from time to time. How did you implement that policy, and what have been the positive/negative implications of doing so?
We have a very high trust environment at Quietly, so it makes it a lot easier to manage a remote working situation because we implicitly believe in each other. For us, it’s all about results, not hours, and it’s certainly not about office hours, so implementing this policy felt fairly natural because we wanted people to work when and where they’re most efficient.
Having established protocols and centralized communication and project management tools is important too (we use on Gmail, Google Docs, Trello, and Slack). For example, we always let each other know when we’re working from home ahead of time, even if it’s a recurring day/time.
Lastly, we ensure we’re all in the office for key meetings—and meetings are strategically scheduled for this reason. At the end of the day it’s all about common sense and mutual respect.
On the other hand, we’ve invested in a nice office because we wanted our staff to be excited to come into work, and we’ve done our best to create environments where everyone can find their focus. And that’s important because culture is the sum total of collaboration between kindred spirits, loving what we do, but also loving where we do it.
Which companies do you think have great (or interesting) cultures, and why?
Invoke Media, because it was one of the few companies that I’ve worked at that truly felt like a family. It was full of people who shared the same values, and where everyone had an enormous amount of integrity and passion. And, when people left to pursue other adventures, it was always a genuine celebration. As a result, Invokers have gone on to do incredible things and remain closely connected as proud alumni. So in that sense I like Invoke because the culture transcends their current team. It has continued to grow on a larger level and touch people outside of those four walls.