How startup culture improves customer success
by Steve Messer, Senior Project Manager, Magnetic Mobile
When asked what our company does I often find myself talking about our culture as much as current capabilities. The reason for this is that after the first pitch or sale, the tenants of our company culture are really what creates “stickiness” and pushes customer relations from a traditional client-vendor viewpoint to an open partnership. We still follow all of the latest technology trends and patterns, but we also take a moment and listen to what the real problems are and how they can be resolved. Every organization is different and not every strategy or framework will work for all. That said, I’ll go through what works for us in creating a collaborative culture that drives innovation and customer success.
While thinking of the modern startup, the open workspace usually comes to mind. There certainly are pros and cons, but we’ve found that physically opening up the room results in open interpersonal communication. Easy access to team members breaks down barriers and encourages discussion. Our VP of IT does not have an office and sits at a desk identical to everyone else. If someone has a question or a problem, it usually gets resolved immediately. Often a team member who is blocked on a project just needs a quick answer in order to proceed. Each team member is on equal footing and we’ve found that the extra space can be used for huddle spaces and whiteboards. New norms will need to be established to make such an open environment work. We like to “save the mornings for work” and schedule meetings for the afternoon. The reason for this is that the mornings are our most productive part of the day before hitting the big lunch. If someone has headphones in that means he or she is focused on work and shouldn’t be bothered unless there is an urgent need.
When customers or potential clients visit the office it is very easy to introduce them to the whole team. This gives us a chance to explain our process/capabilities and also humanizes future interactions by putting faces to individuals from emails and phone calls. The open space ultimately creates authenticity; it is very hard to hide the impact of culture when there are no walls. Here is what one of our newest hires had to say:
One of the things that attracted me to Magnetic was the geek/nerd factor. I loved walking in for my interview and seeing everyone's Funko pops and t-shirts. I love that we ask about favorite superhero and Hogwarts house in the interview, not as a "prove your nerd cred" test, but as a way to learn more about a person in a fun way. It let me know immediately that the people here shared many of my own interests and that I wouldn't be judged for my Disney or Star Wars obsessions. It was a really easy way to start early conversations and get to know people.
Founders or hiring managers contribute most to company culture by finding individuals that can do the job but also naturally fit within the organization. It is important to find new team members that either fit the current culture or fit in way that will evolve the company culture in a positive direction. Once a founder or hiring manager has brought someone onboard, culture then becomes the responsibility of them and the team. A candidate can be the most qualified individual, but they won’t last if they cannot work in a team or positively contribute to the company’s maturity.
In a startup, most of the process is owned by the team. We encourage questions and frequent feedback on how we do things. Like the software we build our process is frequently iterated upon. The openness also allows others to weigh in on projects they are not assigned to. Another of our team members had the following to say regarding process:
I like that I always feel as if I can speak my mind and express my opinion here. There's never a feeling that I can't chime in on something because it's not my area. Anyone can weigh in on anything, even if they aren't working on that project or it isn't their area of expertise. I feel like everyone is heard and respected.
By leveraging the backgrounds and thoughts of our team members the company has access to innovative ideas that may otherwise be suppressed in traditional settings. Customers appreciate this mindset as it allows us to remain agile in the ever-changing technology landscape. The team is quick to learn and adapt as needs or requirements change (as they often do). Rather than creating a process that restricts flexibility our teams have learned to accept change and develop their own processes to deal with these pivots.
As mentioned earlier, it’s hard to hide when there are no offices or cube walls. This is especially true for leadership in startups or small companies. Team leads set the example for the rest to follow. Leaders in our culture are expected to be servants facilitating and providing guidance so team members can do their best work. This doesn’t mean getting in the way and providing the exact instructions on how a task is to be completed. Rather, the lead’s job is to provide support, answer questions (or hunt down answers), and serve as a mentor. Leaders in early startup culture are often on the front-lines working side by side with the team.
How a leader interacts with clients will directly affect the team’s view on customer relations. Part of our culture is that we always pick up the phone and we give the bad news with the good news. No one likes being in the dark and being proactive with customer communication creates trust and credibility. If leaders maintain a positive outlook towards customers and treat them well, others on the team will pick up on this and carry forward the same attitude.
As the company grows, leadership can shift and focus on higher level objectives knowing that they’ve trained new leaders to handle day-to-day objectives. Many of our leaders today grew from the first few teams in the company.
Breaking down barriers and providing mentorship has created self-organizing teams in our company. Individuals know they can drive culture and the various teams often organize potlucks, events, and professional development opportunities. These highly adaptable teams often outpace the speed in which our customers or other third-party vendors operate. The combination of these elements will foster new ideas for services and products. Once you’ve learned to open up communication early and often within the team, you will find yourself doing the same with customers. In our experience, customers have learned to appreciate the value of acting early, learning, and iterating on a project. Projects that utilize this frequent feedback cycle are often the most successful for our customers and becomes a principal reason for coming back and staying on as a partner.