Behind the culture: 5 Boston tech companies share how to build it right

October 10, 2017

Many tech companies are starting to realize that all the free lunches and ping pong tables in the world can’t build a great company culture.

That’s why startups are putting more thought than ever into how they want to create a collaborative, innovative and compassionate environment where employees thrive and produce great work. We asked five fast-growing Boston startups to share their survival guide to building awesome culture.

 

levelup
Photo via LevelUp

At Boston-based payment platform LevelUp, director of talent Jen Paxton said their very own team of "Fun Rangers" keep the office outings exciting.

What does a good company culture look like?

For us, it’s about diversity, inclusion and making sure our team feels great about coming into the office every day. We’re building something that is really cool, and certainly revolutionary, which requires our team to think creatively, critically and strategically at all times. As important as this is, it’s equally important for us to have fun, share our hobbies and reward our successes.

How do you build company culture? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?

Building a good culture should be organic, but there are also steps that can be taken to be purposeful about it. We’ve built our culture unintentionally and deliberately. In the earlier stages when the team was so small, the culture just kind of happened as LevelUp was being created. As the company started to expand, we made sure the elements of our culture that were important to us, like radical transparency, were systematized in a scalable way for the organization. For each thing startups love about their culture, they should plan early for what that will look like when they are  10 times the size. Purposeful, organic culture fosters a happy team that makes for a better business and product.

Has your strategy changed over time?

Our strategy has never changed, but our people have, and they are the driver of how we define, build and appreciate the culture we have. At LevelUp we have “The Fun Rangers.” They are in charge of planning all the company events, outings and just keeping everyone excited to come to work every day. They plan events as big as holiday parties, or as small as pumpkin decorating contests.

Are there any pitfalls you recommend other companies avoid?

Don’t try too hard or force something that doesn’t feel right. We constantly ask for feedback after planning events to ensure we’re doing things that make everyone engaged and happy. In addition, try not to make your culture revolve around events. Events are a big part to a healthy company culture, but the root of a successful environment is how well everyone works alongside each other. Another thing to be wary of is evaluating culture fit. If you only bring on people that are like you and others in your company, you’ll turn away candidates that can expand and enhance your culture. Instead, focus on shared values and work ethic; choose people that will represent the company in the best light, are enjoyable to work with and have the opportunity to share new ideas or bring a different perspective to the table.

 

toast
Photo via Toast

Restaurant tech company Toast has a 'no ego' policy that helps foster a positive working environment, said CEO Chris Comparato.

What does a good company culture look like?

I would describe our culture at a high level as vibrant, diverse, positive and driven. Of course we are obsessed and passionate about food and restaurants, and that is a strong undercurrent that runs beneath the team. Most importantly, we have put a lot of time and effort into our core values, which are the glue to our culture. Examples such as ‘do right by the customer’ and ‘no ego’ are critical values that we try to screen for up front and cultivate as we grow. Our culture has really become the fabric for how we operate across the business and our core values are fully on display in our best Toasters.

How do you build company culture? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?

I believe that certain elements of culture are organic and inherent in the team you have built and are building. A simple example may be the energy level, which at Toast is extremely high and organic, not manufactured. Another example may be our appetite for innovation as is shown in our regular hackathons. An obvious example mentioned earlier is the gravity pull toward food and restaurants. These elements of our culture are organic and unavoidable in a good way. Other elements in our culture may be a bit more deliberate, for example certain management disciplines or techniques you want to see that you pick up from other companies or even good books. Often we are fostering, watering and feeding the uniquely positive elements and on the flip side doing our best to repel or weed out any culture elements that may be unhealthy.

Has your strategy changed over time?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that our strategy has changed over time. It has been relatively consistent and focused. For example, we are at a leadership event off site as I write this, and it is reassuring to have a solid strategy for the next three years and our team aligned on that. A good analogy would be like a peloton with bikers slipstreaming near each other, well aligned and minimizing drag. However, what may change over time are our tactics and how we run certain plays to accomplish that strategy. Also, opportunities come and go that may get in the way of your strategy, so staying focused and perhaps saying ‘no’ to certain moves is a key success factor.

Are there any pitfalls you recommend other companies avoid?

Sure, many pitfalls get in the way. On the culture front, ensuring you hire with a strong focus on culture fit, raising the bar as you grow, not the opposite. Are you interviewing for culture fit up front, for example? On the strategy front, are you doing too many things? We’ve learned from other top-growth firms how important it is to stay focused and become good at saying no to certain opportunities, and therefore doubling down on what you do really well.  Another one could be around your customer base. Are you talking to, listening to and learning from your customers enough? Like most companies, we expect pitfalls at different stages. A true test of the team and the culture is how quickly you can adapt to a pitfall and continuously improve.

 

fuze
Photo via Fuze

Cambridge-based communication software company Fuze provides a 'work from anywhere' policy that fosters trust in employees, said chief people officer Mary Good.

What does a good company culture look like?

A good company culture is one that fosters engagement and builds connections with employees across the organization. It is built on open communication, trust and strong leadership. It’s one where employees feel comfortable reaching out to executives with questions and empowered to do their best work.  

How do you build company culture? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?

Our strategy for building culture here at Fuze is to focus first on the core components of engagement like developing great leaders, creating a high trust environment and engaging openly and often with employees about our vision, products and business direction. These elements of engagement have not really changed much over time and appeal to employees at all levels, from all backgrounds, and in all kinds of roles. It does take some work to ensure the fundamentals are in place. Our culture began with the founders 10+ years ago and continues to this day.  

Has your strategy changed over time?

When the company was smaller, culture was something that happened a little more organically. As we have grown, we’ve had to focus on building out our culture. Earlier this year, we rolled out an official ‘work from anywhere’ policy, which addresses the changing needs of the modern workforce and is authentic to our company (a communications and collaboration platform). The policy gives employees around the world the option to build their own work arrangement with their managers and teams. For some employees, it means a day or two at a favorite local coffee shop, for others a co-working space option close to their kids’ school, and for me, it means I can visit my 90-year-old mother by working from the train on my way to Philly.

Are there any pitfalls you recommend other companies avoid?

It always makes sense to listen to your employees before implementing large-scale changes. My first 90 days at Fuze included a world tour in which I held listening sessions with nearly every office around the globe. I also connected with our remote employees to learn their ideas and challenges. Listening and collaborating is critical when it comes to building your culture. We started pulse surveys to focus on key areas like communication and trust, and the CEO and I read every comment to make sure we have continued focus and course correct quickly if there are areas for improvement.  

 

3play
Photo via 3Play Media

At captioning company 3Play Media, co-founder and CTO CJ Johnson said an annual company-wide Olympics is a favorite event among employees. 

What does a good company culture look like?

We strive to have a “family” atmosphere at 3Play, where everyone is comfortable working with each other and being open and transparent with each other. This stems from the fact that we care deeply about our people and want them to succeed not just at work but in their lives as they balance professional and personal growth.

How do you build company culture? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?

Our culture has grown from establishing traditions out of company events that receive positive reviews from the team. We decided long ago to make fun a company priority. In 2011, after we had hired our first few employees, we decided to hold an office Olympics to blow off some steam after a long year in full-fledged startup mode. There were nine participants, and we held the event in the office itself to save money, but we had a blast. Everyone was able to bond in a way that wasn’t just working on a dev or sales project together.

Now, we host our annual “3Plympics” games at an established events venue, and teams are randomly assigned. A team captain may be a junior employee with a founder or executive on the team as well. It is a way of leveling the office culture for one day, while everyone competes in games such as balsa wood airplane golf, Iron Chef and pub trivia. Fun is still the priority, but we realize the benefit of having these events in building the strength of our team.

Has your strategy changed over time?

The high-level strategy has not changed a lot over time.  We still strive for people to have fun and enjoy their time at 3Play. The biggest difference is just the scale of events now requires more logistical planning to pull off in an organized way.

Are there any pitfalls you recommend other companies avoid?

Obviously, you can’t go around playing games all day, so finding the right balance is the key to creating a good company culture while running a successful business.

 

SHYFT
Photo via SHYFT

At SHYFT Analytics, a provider of analytics cloud platforms for life sciences and healthcare organizations, VP of Talent Michael Brown said perks like beer on draft and ping pong tables do not create culture — transparency, innovation and diversity do.

What does a good company culture look like?

The best cultures engage their employees by creating trust and meaningful work experiences and relationships. We have fantastic perks, but it’s our core values that ground our culture and guide our daily activities. Our core values are, “bring your A game,” “deliver amazing customer experiences,” “everyone is an innovator,” and “have fun and embrace the team.”

How do you build company culture? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?

At SHYFT, we think of our culture as the SHYFT experience. We have built our culture based on trust, honesty, quick wins and mistakes. No one culture is perfect and it takes some failures to get it right. We have focused on aligning our core and foundational values into everything we do and then have added unique twists to make SHYFT culture so unique. We have worked hard to create a culture of inclusivity to allow trust and transparency come to life.

Has your strategy changed over time?

Cultural strategy has to change over time. It’s extremely important that we (as leaders of SHYFT) are listening to our people and understanding the evolutionary changes that are happening around us. The primary pillars of your culture do not necessarily change, but more how you engage, align and act. I’ve found that it’s important to have a pulse on the organization and how staff are feeling about the culture. SHYFT has found that engaging our people through learning, trust, transparency, diversity and constant feedback has been the key to our success. Our annual engagement survey enables us to make better data-driven decisions that help align the culture to the time.

Are there any pitfalls you recommend other companies avoid?

Perks are not culture! The biggest pitfalls I see companies make is to align their culture solely to their perks. Beer on draft, ping pong in the break room and free food do not make up the company culture — although they are very attractive. When projecting and creating company culture, think about what you want the legacy of the company to be. Beer and pong are great, but are only “perks” in creating a great company culture.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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