In the first days of Gini, just like every other first-time founder, we the co-founders were admiring exceptional entrepreneurs who had built outstanding companies. The success stories which touched us most were not the IPO and fast-exit cases, however.
Admiring successful companies
Companies that made a ton of money, grew exponentially or were mastering the execution game with e-commerce copycats were interesting — but didn’t blow us away. What really amazed us were the few companies that created environments where people are truly happy. Places where people treated each other with an incredible amount of love. Entrepreneurs that had built successful businesses while putting people, not revenue first — and where the atmosphere resembled a group of close friends on a trip together rather than a serious workplace.
When reading about businesses where the whole company including their kitchen chef ate together at a long table every noon, it deeply resonated with us. We were intrigued by businesses that paid education and healthcare for their employees’ families. And we were amazed by an organization that even bought an island and built a luxurious holiday resort for its people to spend free vacations. Caring so much about creating an amazing workplace touched us. And it didn’t seem complicated — given sufficient revenues and cash at hand.
What remained a mystery, however, was how to create an environment where people are not just happy during breaks — but whilst working. How to install a culture where people truly love working together with their team mates. Where everyone is intrinsically motivated, deeply cares for their colleagues and the success of the whole team. Where the job doesn’t feel like a way to follow a personal career ladder — but an exciting mission one can be part of.
While we knew what kind of culture we aspired to build, we didn’t have a clue how hard it would be to get there.
A few years later, we had reached the status of a typical startup. At about forty employees, we had burnt the first venture capital millions and the pressure to hit our goals increased steadily. We invested a significant amount of time into trying to improve our culture and asked diverse “experts” and seasoned management coaches for support. Because survival of the business was often at stake, we listened to conventional management theory — and came up with plenty of mechanisms to control and steer our people.
We installed proper hierarchies and hired senior leaders, had frequent one-on-one meetings with our “direct reports”, controlled all budget decisions and made sure to listen carefully to our employees — before making the calls ourselves.
On the other hand — and because we had the vision in mind to have not just an effective, but also a fun culture — we added ingredients to build a startup team spirit. We offered regular Q&A sessions where anybody could ask the founders whatever sensitive topic came to their mind (the “how many months do we have until we’re broke” was probably an all-time favorite). We used agile methodologies in product development and did bi-weekly retros to learn from our failures and get better. We did three day offsites in the mountains with plenty of teambuilding exercises to compensate for the fast growth. And of course, we offered perks we thought would guarantee a great culture — a huge office with a fancy lounge, a dedicated foosball table & games room, movie nights, weekly team cooking etc.
And yet, besides all the work on the culture, the result was miles away from what we had in mind. Communication was slow and backlogs were growing huge. The speed at which the company moved forward resembled a large tanker rather than a race boat. Our employees’ commitment was mediocre — and happiness, once our biggest driver, absent.
Fortunately, we knew the very source of the problem: More and more often, we were frustrated with our employees’ lack of motivation. If only they had the right attitude, everything else would fall into place. And to get there, our mentors already gave us the answer — we’d have to tighten the strings. We’d have to stop being overly kind and get rid of the perks. We’d need to get more serious. We’d need to give less freedom. We’d need to become better leaders.
Management wisdom — or the opposite.
While we knew that a “tougher” leadership style was not in line with our personal values, we didn’t know any other way of building an effective company. And since everybody we asked reassured us it was the way to go, it seemed like the only choice. Until we learnt it wasn’t.
I had heard about companies with very unique cultures, using approaches that contradicted most of what classical management theory teaches (e.g. W.L. Gore, the Gore-Tex company, famous for not having any hierarchies at all). However, I always considered them to be rare exceptions — and didn’t get to understand how they made their organizational model work for them.
A blog article with a snowball effect
Until one day, we stumbled over a blog post of Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos.com and author of „Delivering Happiness“. His business was already famous for excellent customer service and an outstanding culture when he made a radical move — transforming the 1.500 employee company to follow principles of self-organization and getting rid of all management functions. The way he described the inherent downsides of traditional management and the contradiction with his ultimate goal of creating happy employees resonated deeply with me. So deeply that I instantly jumped to his strongly recommended video to learn more about self-organization — and quickly went on to read the book „Reinventing Organizations“, and absorb everything about it. There it was, the role model we had been looking for so long — the culture of our dreams was indeed compatible with building a fast-moving and highly effective company. Happy employees and high ambitions do not need to contradict each other. It just affords a radically different approach to thinking about people — one that was much more in line with our mindset.
A long way to the “right” culture
The journey started with clarifying our values and making them core to the company’s daily life. It led us to becoming more and more transparent, removing hierarchical pyramids, transforming functional silos (sales team, mobile development team etc.) into small and cross-functional cells and decentralizing decision-making. It allowed us to define a new way of working, where trust and transparency are the default (see ourGini handbook for a detailed description how we do it).
It shaped a culture we have long aspired to have — and created a foundation we continue building on. And best of all, now everyone is actively involved in improving the culture — from freshly joined to seasoned Ginis and introvert to extrovert.
At the very core stood the belief that a company should create happy people — and with them, it can accomplish huge goals. Not the other way around.
This blog aims to give insights into our organizational transformation at Gini — and hopefully help others to take shortcuts in building a culture of their choice.
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If this sounds like an environment where you would thrive, have a look at our open positions and get in touch. We are looking for people to join us on our mission.