Culture is key, but how do you scale it?

August 24, 2017

Rapid growth presents a lot of opportunities for startup employees, but growth comes with its own set of challenges as well. The carefully guarded cultures many startups pride themselves on become a lot harder to maintain when new additions are made to the team every week.

We spoke with five fast-growing Chicago companies that have held onto their tight-knit cultures through periods of massive growth. Here’s what they did to make it happen.

 

Label Insight is all about transparency. After all, its core product helps consumers understand what’s in their food, pet products and personal care items. But the startup strives to maintain open lines of communication within its ranks as well. To keep their eyes on that goal as Label Insight’s headcount neared triple digits, product manager Abbie Bys and her colleagues decided to start a culture club.

What has the growth you’ve experienced been like?

Two years ago when I joined Label Insight, our Chicago team consisted of around 20 employees working out of a tiny storefront office. Today, we are over 100 team members. The exponential growth has created opportunities for team members across the company. We have also made the large organizational shift from one large engineering team to five smaller, cross-functional teams with great success. This has given autonomy and ownership to our engineers building the product. The cross-functional teams have also brought product owners closer to our customers, creating a better user experience.

What is the most important thing you put in place to ensure that your team retains its core culture?

Transparency is not only a key part of our mission statement, it’s deeply ingrained in our culture and how we work. To ensure that transparency and our other values remain intact as we scale, we implemented a culture club, of which I was a founding member. The culture club is made up of a diverse set of employees who are committed to helping the company retain its core culture and represent what both our founders and employees value.

For the Label Insight team, remaining true to our core values and continuing to check in with our team members to ensure we are living those values has been key to maintaining our culture and the transparency we all value as we’ve scaled.

 

One of the country’s fastest-growing startups, Reverb.com has seen a lot of change over the course of its four-year life span. But one thing that’s stayed the same is its all-hands meeting, which gives employees a chance to share something about themselves and their interests. Founder and CEO David Kalt said that tradition isn’t going away anytime soon.

What has the growth you’ve experienced been like?

Each year since Reverb.com’s inception, we’ve doubled both our sales and our headcount. Since 2013, we’ve grown into the most popular music gear website in the world, with sales expected to reach $429 million in 2017, more than 10 million music lovers visiting our site each month and roughly 150 employees on our team. Last year, Reverb increased international users by 700 percent, grew international sales by 150 percent, and hired on-the-ground team members in the UK, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and more.

What is the most important thing you put in place to ensure that your team retains its core culture?

Each Thursday, our entire company gathers in the only room big enough to fit us all — our unfinished basement — for an all-company stand-up meeting. At each meeting, three to four team members jump into the middle of the circle, Fight Club-style, to present on a topic of their choice. We’ve had speeches on everything from Taekwondo and improv comedy to meditation and living with OCD, with nearly every story ending with an applicable piece of advice that employees can apply to their daily work at Reverb.

This meeting is something we did when Reverb.com was just five employees crammed in a small room above a drum shop, and it’s something we will continue to do even as we approach 200 employees and continue to grow. It gives employees a voice. It allows team members to learn things about one another that they may never have known otherwise. And, oftentimes, the speeches are extremely motivating. Reverb was founded on a culture of learning and transparency, and our weekly all-company stand-up meeting is one of the best ways we’ve been able to keep that spirit alive as we grow.

 

Bootstrapped since its founding ten years ago, Neighborhoods.com recently entered a stage of rapid organic growth. CEO Bill Ness said his strategy to maintain a close-knit culture at this stage is the same as it’s always been: placing an emphasis on trust, coaching and support.

What has the growth you’ve experienced been like?

We've grown immensely over the past several years. The company started in 2007 when it was just me and a taped-up laptop in my living room. Ten years in, we're up to 60 employees and we just keep growing at a rapid pace. We're bringing on about seven new people this month alone, which is amazing for a company that isn't VC funded.

What is the most important thing you put in place to ensure that your team retains its core culture?

It's definitely a challenge to maintain a small, family-like culture as we get bigger. To the benefit of our culture, we've had a core set of championship team principles in place since the early days. We instill them in all of our employees from day one. These pillars — trust, coaching, support and more — really help stave off major issues and solve problems as they crop up. They also help ensure that team members feel appreciated –– we spend time during every all-hands meeting acknowledging one another for exhibiting these principles in our day-to-day work.

 

Founded in 2005, StratEx unlocked a major growth stage in 2016 after taking its first round of funding. Having established a close-knit team over the past decade, VP of human resources Gretchen Van Vlymen said her company wanted to protect that culture as it started to scale. To her, one of the best tools for doing so has been StratEx’s monthly town hall meetings.

What has the growth you’ve experienced been like?

Growth can be both exciting and terrifying. It's been great because it signals forward progress, but it’s also scary in that it can bring its own set of unexpected challenges. For instance, we have to constantly ask ourselves: "Even as we grow larger, how will we still maintain our current close-knit, family-like corporate culture?"

We also have to make sure we have the proper new hire and training procedures in place so that we can adequately support the growth we experience. It's a constant race to keep up with the changes, but it's one that's definitely worth the effort for all parties involved!

What is the most important thing you put in place to ensure that your team retains its core culture?

We have made multiple changes to our recruiting, interviewing, new hire and training procedures to ensure we are fostering our values within each new team member from the get-go. However, perhaps the most major way in which we maintain transparent communication, a welcoming atmosphere and team interconnection is through our monthly town hall meetings.

The first Monday of each month, we gather for a company-provided team lunch followed by an all-hands meeting where our CEO speaks candidly and from the heart to the entire company about the state of our business. He and other department leaders provide important client or product updates and give shout-outs to team members who have gone above and beyond to embody our values in their everyday tasks. The leadership team also directly answers questions submitted by employees so that everyone feels they have a seat at the table and access to our most senior team members. These town hall meetings are a huge priority for leadership, and they provide a great vehicle for maintaining open lines of communication and the inclusive atmosphere that we strive to achieve.

 

Emerging technology firm Solstice has grown by 100 employees since the start of the year. Senior manager of employee experience Jennifer Finn said the company has had to adapt its onboarding process to keep up with the growth, but the team still puts an emphasis on encouraging employees to get to know each other on a personal and a professional level.

What has the growth you’ve experienced been like?


We have added 100 new employees to our team this year, and it's been extremely exciting. The day we reached 300 employees, we called everyone into our Hub where we had balloons and 300 cupcakes. The flatscreens connected all our offices so we could celebrate this milestone together. It is an accomplishment we share because it took efforts across the company to source, refer, greet, interview and onboard all these new Solsties.


What is the most important thing you put in place to ensure that your team retains its core culture?

We've improved our onboarding process to keep up with the increase in demand, and we encourage personal connections amongst employees. When a new Solstie walks into the office, they see a "New Solstie" balloon at their desk and they are welcomed by the employee experience and marketing teams for some introductory meetings. At their first weekly company meeting, a new employee receives a dramatic Chicago Bulls-style entrance and their introduction is seen on the Hub screens.

Every month, the executive leadership team hosts a lunch with new hires so they can share more about themselves and their stories. Quarterly happy hours are another way the teams get to celebrate together. New employees are also invited to participate in a Solstice Connect class where they work with a veteran and learn how the company’s principles are reflected in their own personal and professional lives. New employees feel empowered to participate in the culture from day one and immediately begin looking for ways to contribute.

 

Images via featured companies. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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