What makes a great business? For many of us, the answer is not only about supporting a great idea, but also about having a great team of colleagues to work with.
In this episode of the Startup to Scale Up series, we talk to Parkable CEO Toby Littin and CTO Brody Nelson about how they have created a positive culture and amazing team behind the business.
Startups tend to be associated with a more positive work culture than large businesses. Why do you think that is?
BN: “I think a great culture comes from alignment around a vision of the future, and it’s easier to have that alignment with a smaller group of people. You know, an enterprise business can usually pay more, but a startup offers fulfilment in other ways. It’s more of a close-knit culture, trying to achieve a common goal, and it’s more tangible - you feel like you can get more things done in a smaller team. It also tends to be that you’re changing the world, or you’re disrupting something. The vision can be a bit more aspirational.”
TL: “Yeah. And in a startup like us, well, everyone is involved in the culture. Every single person is part of the creation of a new culture. That’s very exciting.”
How would you characterise the team culture of Parkable when you first started the business?
BN: “When we first started the business it was a very close-knit culture, because it was either my business partners who I had worked with before, or people I’d worked with or known for most of my life. It was a group of friends, so it was really fun in those early days, plotting and scheming around my kitchen table about how we were going to launch this as a global business.”
TL: (laughs). “Oh yeah, in our early stages we were just all trying to hustle, and all trying to get stuff done. We had a lot of energy, we were all super enthusiastic, and so culture wasn’t really deliberate. It was just sort of ‘Hey, let’s get it done’. And very early in the piece after that, maybe in the first six months, we started to get very deliberate about our culture, and it sounds really boring, but it was a very valuable exercise - we sat down and asked ourselves, ‘What is the culture we want to foster? What do we want this business to be about?’ We defined the values that we want represented in the business, and we did that really really early. I think that was one of the best decisions we made. And that was really due to someone on our advisory board who drilled into us that we should be recruiting on culture first, and we need to therefore define what that culture is. And that’s commitment, fun, and game-changing. Since then we’ve added that we’re about people. Those values really help to bind us together.”
How has that culture changed between then and now?
BN: “The culture has definitely changed, now that we’re going from startup to scale up - just because there are more people in the business, we’re now at over 20 employees. You know, we used to just be able to hire out a restaurant and all sit around one table, so it just changes the culture a little bit when you can’t do that. But, having said that, I think we’re still a very tight-knit team and we socialise together and there’s a lot of fun. So we emphasise, yes, achieving the results, but also enjoying the journey as we go.”
TL: “Yeah. We’ve been very deliberate about our culture, and so we’ve tried to maintain it. As we grow, though, it starts to drift. And when we notice that, we actively try to bring it back. If we notice that everyone’s really burning the candle at both ends, working really hard, then we’ll throw something on, or try to encourage the team to do something - you know, we’ll have a party in the office. If we notice that commitment levels are waning, then we ask the team to look out for each other, and pull ourselves up, work a little bit harder.
“The other thing that happens when you grow is that you get the occasional… bad egg. You make a bad hire, make a mis-hire. Someone that’s not a cultural fit. They might be a great human, but they’re just not a cultural fit in the business. And that’s quite damaging to culture, and quite difficult to contain. And when that happens, you start to pick up those corporate traits and tendencies that you desperately want to avoid, which is becoming a bit more bland, a bit more locked down in terms of behaviour and personality - and that’s not us. As a business we have a vibrant personality and we employ people with hugely diverse personalities, in what is essentially still a very small team.”
Do you have any ideas on how to mitigate the unwanted effects that growth may have on team culture?
TL: “The first thing to do is to define the culture. Don’t let culture be an accident. If we had let culture to be an accident, to evolve accidentally or without design, we would have ended up just a parking company. And that sucks. So the first thing that we did was to define the culture, and that is represented by our values. Downstream of that, we have some particular behaviours that we want to celebrate and endorse, so we’re really big on celebrating when people do those things that act out our culture. We also hire on it. It doesn’t mean we get it right every time, but it means that we know what we want, and we can tell people what we expect from them, and what they can expect from us. I think that’s a good arrangement.”
BN: “Absolutely, and I think that hiring the right people is so important. In the early days it was, ‘Oh, who wants to help out and do this crazy project with us’, whereas now it’s really about ‘Let’s find the perfect person for this role.’ If you ask me to choose between someone who has a really great skills fit, but not such a good team fit, or vice versa, I’ll always choose the person with the better team fit. Because you can learn the skills, but it’s harder to learn a new personality.”
TL: “Yeah. After that, the way to protect that is to make sure that it’s not just Brody, Warwick and I looking after culture. We need people throughout the business who say, ‘Hey, that’s not the way we roll.’ Sometimes things don’t work out, sometimes they do, but hey, celebrate the wins, celebrate the positive demonstrations of behaviour - we need that to come from everyone in the team, not just one or two of us, and that’s how we protect against it. And that’s really important, because if we can keep the culture right, then we can keep bringing in good talent, we will keep having a good time, and most importantly we will keep being aligned in the way we roll, which will deliver faster, more impactful outcomes.”
How has your hiring changed over the past three years?
BN: “The way that we have hired has definitely changed. It was much more organic in the early days and it was just who was around, who was keen to help, who was enthusiastic, didn’t really matter if you had the skills because the roles were so vague and nebulous anyway. Whereas now days the roles are much more prescribed and formal, which is a good thing and a bad thing. You know, the first person you hire, the first salesperson you hire, isn’t a normal salesperson. They’re a person who can create sales processes and think up which verticals to attack, and all that sort of stuff. The tenth salesperson you hire is much more someone who can follow the process that’s been set out before them. So you need to think about - I believe - that the role does change as the business changes. I think generally what happens is that those people who are startup people, at a certain size of the business, they’ll leave and join another startup. And that’s just what’s going to happen. Some people enjoy the challenge of new frontiers and building the plane as you fly it, other people are much more comfortable when they know what they have to do and what they’re trying to achieve, and they don’t have to do that thinking themselves. It’s just different personality types and skill sets for different jobs.”
TL: “As Brody said, in the beginning we were recruiting people who would just muck in and roll their sleeves up and do everything - we still do - but now we are asking people to do that in their specialty area. And that just means a change in the people we hire, it means some tougher conversations with some of the people who have been around for a longer time, to say ‘Hey, we need you to focus on this one thing.’ And generally, people are into it, if they’re aligned with our culture. And our part of the parcel there is to make sure that we’re not forcing people into roles where they’re miserable, because that’s not aligned with our values.”
What team culture advice do you have for other startups?
TL: “Get the right people, not the first people. In the early days we’d have people come into help, friends and family, and often they’d help for free, because they’re excited and motivated by what we’re doing. Accepting those offers of help is not necessarily a good thing every time. We did accept those offers, and invariably, you would let people down. And that’s not fun for them and it’s not fun for us, so I’d be deliberate about who comes to help in the business, even if they’re volunteering their time. I’d be deliberate about hiring people - get the hiring right and everything else sort of falls into place pretty easily. Get the hiring wrong and it just creates tenfold problems.”
BN: “My advice to other business leaders on culture is that culture is everyone’s job, it’s not just the job of the senior managers. So I would put that challenge to the team. And the other thing is that, if you’re a small or medium-size business, or a startup, one of the best perks you can offer is working with amazing people. You might not be able to compete on salary, but you potentially can compete on culture, and have a great place to work and a great environment to work in and having everyone aligned and working toward the same vision. So I think it’s something that small business owners really need to focus on.”