Scaling culture: 5 Boston tech companies share the secret to success

June 29, 2017

The one thing harder than creating your company’s culture? Scaling it.

Every time a tech startup grows — from one person, to 10, to 100 — you can expect many of the processes to break at every order of magnitude. This includes your company’s culture.

To figure out how some Boston companies handle their rapidly expanding teams, we caught up with five fast-growing local startups.

 

Photo via edX
Photo via edX

Cambridge-based edX is a nonprofit, open-source startup that provides free online courses from universities around the world. Founded by Harvard University and MIT, edX registered 73 percent growth in user base over the past year.

Responses via Jessica Burchill, chief happiness officer

What are some of the principles, norms and values that define your company's culture?

edX was cofounded by MIT and Harvard University, and our roots in academia are evident in our culture. We surround ourselves with smart, hardworking and fun people who are open and willing to take risks. A key value at edX is experimentation — we believe that regularly reevaluating how we do things and experimenting with fresh ideas leads to continuous improvement and growth. Another element of this is encouraging our employees to give (and receive) regular feedback and consistently share their opinions and ideas with others. We also believe that the best people know the best people — and many of our employees have found lifelong friendships at edX.

How have you kept your culture while scaling?

Building a consistent culture starts with the hiring process. First and foremost we look for employees that are a great culture fit by tying our values and competencies into the interview process. Once they’re in the door, we continue to listen to what our employees have to say, where they continue to define our culture. We also provide several types of employee engagement and recognition programs, such as Spot Awards. These are an opportunity for employees to recognize their colleagues for going above and beyond with a personal note and gift card. Although scaling up events can pose a challenge for growing companies that are trying to keep budgets in check, we think it’s important to continue to invest in traditions that have always been a part of edX culture. A popular one is our annual, family-friendly, Halloween party. Employees bring their families in for a donut-eating contest, costume contest, parade and more!

Has scaling changed your hiring process?

Our hiring process has changed over the years as we’ve expanded the types of roles we hire for and have grown in size. We spend a lot of time at the start of the hiring process having meaningful conversations with candidates to see whether or not they are flexible risk takers, and open to feedback and frequent change. One of our values is continuous improvement, and we need to hire people that will foster open communication and continuous feedback as we grow.

 

catalant
Photo via Catalant Technologies

Formerly HourlyNerd, Catalant Technologies provides global enterprises with software solutions to access business expertise on demand. Catalant’s rebranding followed a recent $22 million Series C funding round, led by General Catalyst Partners.

Responses via Jenny Patenaude, marketing manager

What are some of the principles, norms and values that define your company's culture?

At Catalant, we prioritized the importance of defining our cultural principles early, before the waves of hiring that naturally follow rounds of fundraising and rocket ship-like revenue growth. We designed a process that started with crowdsourcing perspectives from across our staff and included rounds of feedback and voting so that in the end, we landed on principles that everyone felt invested in. As a company, we decided that four principles drive us. We want to Get Better Together, Surprise and Delight, Win with Technology, and Enable Entrepreneurship.

How have you kept your culture while scaling?

On a three-year journey from 15 people to 150, “keeping your culture” is of course a challenge. But I think it’s probably a mistake to have “keeping” culture as the right measure; rather, a more realistic goal is “evolving your culture properly.” The hiring process is a critical tool to accomplish this, so we do our best at Catalant through our interview questions, our role plays, etc. to identify candidates that are excited and driven by activities underlying the principles above. But there are some less obvious ways, too. For example, in one of our offices, we named each of our conference rooms for one of our four principles so that when teams would gather, they were reminded even in this fairly-modest way of what we care about as a company.  

Has scaling changed your hiring process? What about your company traditions?

When you’re a smaller team and not hiring in droves, it’s a little easier to run a non-scalable hiring process. As crazy as it sounds for the CEO and several other C-level executives to be part of the interview process for even the most junior sales rep, that’s what we did early on. As we grew in personnel, we realized that we could achieve the same quality of assessments by charging others in the organization to step into interviewer roles. The senior team is still heavily involved with the hiring process but that time is now better leveraged and we have created some step-up opportunities for others in the company.

We have some pretty rich traditions dating back to our days as HourlyNerd that remain, including small group end-of-quarter dinners at the homes of company executives, bi-annual team offsites and full-staff lunches on Fridays. And one of the fun follow-on effects of scaling is that new people bring new ideas and, potentially, new traditions. Just this week we are hosting our first-annual Ping Pong Tournament. It’s too early to know if this is a new tradition in the making.

 

disruptor beam
Photo via Disruptor Beam

Disruptor Beam builds mobile games around huge franchises like Game of Thrones, Star Trek and The Walking Dead. In February 2017, the company raised a $8.5 million Series B to grow the company.

Responses by Jennifer Ramcharan, VP of people ops

What are some of the principles, norms and values that define your company's culture?

Disruptor Beam culture is built around three core values: authenticity, continuous improvement and entrepreneurship. Authenticity keeps us true to ourselves, each other and to our work — especially to the IPs with which we work — and to our customers.  Continuous improvement means we have no sacred cows. We work in a dynamic, rapidly-evolving sector of the gaming marketplace, and if we’re not better every day, we’re getting worse. We’re continually evaluating our best practices to make them truly the best practices possible. Finally, our entrepreneurship culture enables us to take intelligent risks and innovate in a team-driven manner.

How have you kept your culture while scaling?

At our most basic level, we’ve done this through living our core values. We make sure to hire not just the right person for the job, but the right person for the company. Making sure new hires are a good cultural fit is just as important as makings sure new colleagues have the right skill set for their job. With the right hiring, we amplify our company culture while bringing in highly skilled, great people.

Has scaling changed your hiring process? What about your company traditions?

Certainly we’ve had to build more defined processes compared to what we had in Disruptor Beam’s earliest days. We’ve each had to narrow or redefine our roles somewhat to be more specific and less generalistic. But the same core principles and values guide our hiring as they did on day one: Are we hiring the right person or the right resume? Hiring the right person is always the way to go.

 

ezcater
Photo via ezCater

ezCater is an online catering marketplace that allows individuals to order food from local caterers all over the U.S. The company raised $35 million in January 2017 to continue its rapid growth by accelerating product development and expanding sales and marketing efforts.

Responses via Stefania Mallett, CEO

What are some of the principles, norms and values that define your company's culture?

We have nine "ingredients" in our culture recipe. (Naturally, we love food metaphors.) All nine ingredients are important, with 'Be Insanely Helpful' ranked No.1. We weave insane helpfulness into everything we do, from how we interact with our customers and restaurants, to how we treat each other. Other ingredients include 'Just Try It. And Track It,’ 'Trust in Transparency,’ and ‘Grow Fast. Eat Cupcakes.’

How have you kept your culture while scaling?

We believe it starts with being principled. We’ve spelled out, and we work very hard at living our culture recipe. Then, we make it everyone’s job to uphold, strengthen and improve the recipe. We explicitly ask each new hire to take this responsibility on, for themselves and for ezCater. Of course it helps that we hire great people who do right by that responsibility.

Has scaling changed your hiring process? What about your company traditions?

I used to interview every person we hired, but we’re adding 70 to 100 people a year. Two of our ingredients apply here. I can’t let myself be a bottleneck, because I want to ‘Aim Higher. Make It Better.’ And since our employees all ‘Own it. Figure it out,’ I’m confident they’ll hire at least as well as I can. Our traditions have naturally evolved — we don’t all fit onto a swan boat any more. Two traditions have remained intact for many years though. Our "Company Song," is a meeting between me and every new employee where I go over our 2.5 policies. And "Legends & Lore" is a fun deep-dive (really, people swear it’s fun) on the history of ezCater. Both always get high marks and are integral to employee onboarding. 

 

zerto
Photo via Zerto

Boston’s Zerto provides enterprise-class business continuity and disaster recovery solutions for virtualized infrastructure and the cloud. In November 2016, the company was ranked No.45 fastest-growing tech company in North America by Deloitte.

Responses via Ziv Kedem, co-founder and CEO

What are some of the principles, norms and values that define your company's culture?

They fall into five pillars: Teamwork, Customer First, Everyone Matters, Think Big and probably the most unique one, Enjoy the Journey.

We spend so much of our lives at work with our colleagues, so it needs to be fun! Life’s too short to drag your feet to work every day, or to not feel like you’re part of something big. Zerto prides itself in offering some of the best perks in Boston. These include free catered lunches every day, a fully stocked kitchen, generous commuter reimbursement, four weeks of paid time off, an employee equity program, monthly company mixer events, fully-paid annual summer outings and all-expenses-paid travel to annual sales events hosted at exciting places such as Cancun and Jamaica.

How have you kept your culture while scaling?

Our biggest priority to maintain our culture as we scale is to continue to have a strong focus on the type of employee we hire. Zerto attracts go-getters who are intelligent, ambitious and vibrant, which ultimately makes up the lifeblood of our culture heartbeat. They continuously raise the bar for the entire company.

Furthermore, even though we’re quickly growing, we’re also committed to listening to and helping employees do their jobs efficiently and effectively by giving the resources and environment needed to help build the business. We never want an employee to feel frustrated or limit company and professional success because of unnecessary roadblocks. This will remain a key tenant of ours, no matter how large we get.

Has scaling changed your hiring process? What about your company traditions?

Even as we continue to hire and grow staffing well in excess of 50 percent year-over-year, our hiring processes and company traditions have stayed tremendously steadfast. We continue to follow a rigorous candidate review process not just between HR and hiring managers, but across teams and at different levels. We still continue to bring in new hires from all corners of the world for a week-long intensive “boot camp” to help them learn more about the company, products and seamlessly integrate them into the culture and teams.

Our traditions — while starting from smaller, much more humble roots — have maintained their spirit while actually growing quite extraordinarily. Some examples of that include summer outings consisting of Boston Harbor cruises, holiday parties and monthly mixers across various offices. Other more recent traditions are taking on a life of their own, with Zerto’s running team, for example, participating in various competitions such as the annual Reebok Ragnar Reach and the Beach Relay in New Hampshire.

Responses have been edited for length/clarity.

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