At the start of acasa, I didn’t think about designing culture at all. I thought culture just happens. It was only with pressure from my co-founder Vas (Vasanth Subramanian) that I had the impetus to actually “do something” about culture.
After co-founding the business in 2013, I got the first draft of our “culture deck” together on the 31st of August 2015 just before raising our seed round in our second year in business. Culture and brand are the two start-up things that I’ve had to have more demystified than anything else. On the culture front, I assumed that being a cool, fun, focused and extremely hard-working person means that the team that I attract to join me will be just the same. And that would be our culture. Voilà!
But it wasn’t so.
After many deep conversations with Vas, advice from mentors and investors, research, and discussion with fellow founders I started to unfurl just how wrong I was. Vas’s definition of company culture revolved around the shared ways of thinking that help our team to individually and collectively make decisions in the same way. Our culture is our compass.
I worked hard to define this through a set of shared values and processes eventually bringing in feedback from my co-founder and founding team. We had a growth process in place where we ran a “dual track” approach to “discovery” and “delivery” projects. The “discovery” track was where we systematically turned unknowns into knowns and the “delivery” track was where we knew the things that needed doing and scoped, designed, and built them. While we knew intuitively and academically from our constant reading about building software how to think and be like this – we didn’t do it on a day-to-day basis – or at least, not as well as we could and should have across the full team.
This was where the promise of documenting and defining our culture lay.
The first version of the culture deck I built caught a lot of flack for being cheesy! But in discussions with Vas, we both agreed on why it was so important for me as CEO to do this first cut of the company culture deck to learn and then iterate. You can check out the original deck here Splittable Company Culture v0.5, last updated 31 August 2015. Hopefully you can see how it served as a somewhat embarrassing MVP but with the right building blocks to eventually create our much stronger culture deck and actual culture we’re so proud to have today!
Over the years, we refined and improved our culture to three core values, our brand story, OKRs and growth process. We updated the culture deck at minimum every year. And when we went through our re-brand from Splittable to acasa we took our culture deck and culture to the next level by packaging it all up really nicely and also focusing much more on actually “operationalising culture” along with our friend, advisor, investor, brand and culture guru Gabbi Cahane (thanks again dude!). Along with Gabbi, we got our whole team involved so it wasn’t just the CEO or just the co-founders. We knew this had to be a team thing, not some dictate on high. Before we did anything with the re-brand we deep dove into this culture work, together.
It was awesome, because once we defined all this stuff it really helped us understand who was a good fit from a team and recruitment perspective. The culture then became a big part of what we did with the brand.
That whole process of writing it down and committing to it was important – I didn’t recognise the value before, but truly appreciated the value after. However, it’s all fine and well to write down this stuff, but how do you live and breath it – how do you ‘operationalise’ culture as mentioned above?
We started building stuff into our day-to-day – giving people props in slack – ideally aligned with one of the three values: be a champion, go the extra mile, live and learn.
When you give someone props you “@” that teammates handle in slack and use one of a few keywords including “props” “kudos” and a few others and a little bot pops up on slack to give you points and emojis – and the rest of the team can add to those emojis – we made our own emojis for each value.
For instance, if someone stopped doing their work to help one of the interns with their work – you could give that teammate props by saying something like:
“Props to @ollie for being a champion and helping Mags out with that boatload of Intercom tickets!”
This is when people can click the emojis and votes are tallied and extra emojis can be added.
At the end of the month we give out the “Monthly Props Award.” More recently, whoever wins gets a £25 gift certificate. When our team was a bit smaller you got a special coffee mug for the whole month. You could just raise your hand or the mug and someone on the team would have to make you tea or coffee immediately. Being a home focused tech company based in a live/work unit in England, tea and coffee is a big deal at acasa!
Beyond a nice cuppa once in a while, our better defined culture helped us in so many ways. We created a “Culture Interview” process. Across our key three values, we broke down key questions and attributes that would identify whether an interviewee could live those values within acasa effectively. I was in charge of designing the culture interview, process and always ran this part of the interview process myself. It was fascinating and extremely challenging. Part of the challenge was that some of the questions, attributes and values could be interpreted generically. But with each interview and candidate, I worked to refine it further. If you’re interested in learning more about this or want to see a copy, tweet at me:
“Show me how to hire for culture fit!”Tweet
One thing we did that didn’t work out so well was building a framework for the team to be able to know how to get to their next “level” of remuneration. This was ultimately a waste of time only because it was done at the wrong time but I believe it was genius (also not my idea, like many of my best ones ;). We essentially implemented it toward the end of the financial runway after one of our financing rounds and too early in our scaling. We likely should have waited until our next revenue or funding milestone, or had this set up right from the start. It did dramatically help the team understand how to grow and live our values, but was done at a time when it was extremely difficult to implement so we got about half way there and it did feel like a bit of a distraction at the time due to timing.
You can check out what we designed here: Levels.
We learned about this structure from another Seedcamp company called Trail and their CEO Joe Cripps. Joe and I had a few long conversations which were instrumental in helping me and my executive team get the basics down before we spent many months designing our “Levels.” Beyond the presentation we shared with our team on this that I shared above, we created long form google docs detailing characteristics and behaviours to increase your level on the “leadership track” and for the four key business areas at acasa: product, engineering, outreach, operations. There were 5 levels for each, ranging from level 5 (entry level ie the “bar” we would be happy to hire anyone into at acasa – if they didn’t meet this bar they didn’t get hired, if they didn’t get to the next level after 3 months, they didn’t stay) to level 1 (expert level).
We used this for a transparent renumeration process, to provide a multiplier on salary. The idea was that eventually we could go transparent across the company on what level everyone was. Then you could see who was worth learning from. It also gave a lot more focus to 1v1s between line managers and the employee.
But when we introduced it, we found about 1/3 of our team were really nervous and concerned about it. Others at the company saw the value both as managers and as employees as it has previously been awkward and a pain in the ass to wonder what people had to do to get a raise. Up until looking at levels, we had a simple review process for remuneration which in layman’s terms meant it was almost like “I think this person deserves…XYZ” rather than a system and checklist to see what people were achieving.
As I say and believe, this was a really important and arguably genius management and culture tool but we launched it prematurely and the team was not fully appreciative or supportive of it.
I imagine at 10-15+ people it becomes really important about having a meaningful conversation about their professional development, remuneration, and track.
Our “Levels” methodology is something our management team were and continue to be proud of. This was another area where my co-founder Vas was towing the line (granted, at the wrong time). He knew the value of what Levels could bring the team in a way that I hadn’t clocked. This was another top moment for me where I realised my technical co-founder knew, and arguably more importantly “felt,” a lot of the softer sides of company and culture that I had not yet fully tuned into yet.
Looking back over the past 7 years of acasa I feel a hint of shame and guilt – I perennially undervalued culture. I think people believe I’m cool and easy to get along with when I’m at my best – and of course a difficult asshole when at my worst – but I just assumed culture would all kind of happen. I didn’t put enough effort into designing it and putting together team activities for instance in the earliest years and even more recently.
But when everyone is underpaid and promised a rosy future with equity options in a market where no-one really knows anyone who has made money from equity options, culture, learning, and challenge are some of the best benefits you can really offer an early founding team at a startup.
At the end of the day, what I do know, is that our current team and all our alumni relished their time at acasa. And while I give myself a hard time for my own personal development process in terms of getting to grips with designing culture, with a little (OK a LOT!) help along the way, I actually feel like I and my team did a really great job. The hard work was worth it. I’m reminded of this whenever I chat with my team and whenever I chat up with a former colleague.
Our culture at acasa is amazing and I’m really proud of it.