Keeping culture of hungry start-up

Retaining the vitality of a young and ambitious company can deliver continued growth and lasting success, as Dan Matthews discovers

The celebrated brainbox Benjamin Franklin once said: “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success have no meaning.” Nowhere is this truer than in the commercial world, where “growth” and “success” are used interchangeably.

It’s easy to see why. Bigger companies hire more staff, locate in better environments and have more money splashing around in their bank accounts. Other benefits are clear too; for example, consistent growth practically guarantees interest from the best job candidates, suppliers and customers.

Organisations with an ambitious vibe have a better atmosphere, making them more attractive places to work or visit. Meanwhile, bosses enjoy plaudits from the implicit correlation between size and success. In business terms, fast growth is like a winning smile – it’s attractive.

But growth can be elusive too, especially for bigger, more established firms, and creating a “culture of growth” is notoriously hard. The phrase has a whiff of contradiction about it; growth implies change, while “culture” denotes something consistent.

Ask the boss of any business that’s going places and they’ll admit it’s hard to lay down a lasting strategy. Growth means chaos, not cohesion, and arguably a period of expansion is the worst time to try and build culture.

And yet establishing a culture of growth is seen as one of the key tenets of an exciting and vivacious business. So what’s the secret? Dress-down Fridays and secret Santas, or a rigid and unequivocal focus on getting the job done?

For solicitors DBS Law everything starts with the people it serves. The business spent five years creating a customer-centric strategy and it grew more than 170 per cent during the period. How did they do it? By pretending not to be lawyers.

“We brought in some specialists from California to advise us,” explains DBS Law founder Davinder Bal. “They told us to forget we were lawyers and think of ourselves as service providers. Fundamental to the plan was answering the phone, answering it quickly and having it answered by someone who can immediately assist the potential customer.

“We called it the ‘elite team’ in order to stress the importance of the group to the business. More importantly, this was unlike other call centres; the operatives are para-legal with ambitions to train as solicitors. They are well paid and highly trained, chosen for their drive and enthusiasm and strong emotional intelligence.

“We have found that empathy from the person who has first contact with the customers is vital in demystifying the legal process. Putting the customer at ease and explaining all the technical issues clearly without a sales pitch is all important in converting the call to being a client.”

A common aim for fast-growing firms is to retain the energy and dynamism of a start-up, even after the roots of the business are firmly embedded

Frozen yogurt purveyor Snog is also on a steep growth curve having secured investment from Unilever Ventures last year. Co-founded by ex-investment banker Rob Baines in 2008, the business has seven locations in London and is expanding aboard as well as launching a product line in supermarkets this month.

The business culture is tightly focused to reflect healthy, easy-going lifestyles and delivered on the back of a cheeky brand name. For Mr Baines, the business must stay true to its core principles in order to continue on its current trajectory.

He says: “As a board, we have a shared vision for where the brand should develop and, with the investment, we are now working on the next phase. It’s essential to have weekly management meetings, keeping staff updated with plans for the brand’s future.

“The best businesses invest in their infrastructure without ignoring the importance of brand DNA. Then they translate this throughout the company on a consistent basis.”

A common aim for fast-growing firms is to retain the energy and dynamism of a start-up, even after the roots of the business are firmly embedded. By definition, start-ups have more opportunity to achieve triple-digit growth than bigger rivals, yet for many maintaining this feeling of vitality is central to the business plan.

When media planning and buying agency Maxus launched in 2008 within the WPP fold, it grew quickly and the following year turned over £40 million. To continue this momentum, incoming chief executive Lindsay Pattison identified “culture” as the core ingredient. Fast forward four years and the business achieved a staggering 750 per cent growth with a turnover of £300 million.

“We wanted to retain the soul of a start-up as we moved to being a serious contender,” says Ms Pattison. “Start-ups are full of passionate, switched-on, enthusiastic, hungry people. Our team has grown from 30 in 2009 to over 200 now and as we grew we realised there that people became less familiar with each other which concerned us.”

To stop the rot, Maxus developed its own social media-based intranet, where employees share news, create groups and work on ideas collectively. The network, used by 90 per cent of staffers, helped to re-establish internal communications, but also provide a portal for shared ideas.

“There were some inefficiencies in the way that we were working – needless e-mailing and occasionally a sense of reinventing the wheel, with knowledge becoming siloed,” says Ms Pattison.

“So we created our own web-based social network, I Am Maxus, where everyone has a profile and can share news, create groups, start a brainstorm or refer to key documents, templates and best-practice examples.”

Michelle Wright, founder of social enterprise Cause4, which acts as a strategic partner to charities and philanthropists, goes one step further by suggesting that employees should be encouraged to think and act like entrepreneurs.

The business doubled its turnover to £900,000 this year from last and has raised more than £20 million for its clients. Says Ms Wright: “For a company that encourages its clients to succeed through entrepreneurialism, we believe the staff at Cause4 should be of the same mindset.”

She has introduced a number of measures to boost entrepreneurial fervour in the business, including monthly leadership seminars, external mentors and a graduate entrepreneurship programme.

According to Ms Wright, tapping the entrepreneurial values of a start-up and instilling them in your people is the perfect conduit to a culture of growth. By revisiting these principles regularly, businesses can keep the spirit of enterprise alive, even when the launch phase is a distant memory.