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Culture trumps

As a small development shop or tech start-up, it’s tough to compete for the very best developers, designers and project managers. Create your own unique culture to build a team with common values and purpose.

At a recent LeanCoffee meetup here at TWG, we discussed company Culture, and how it can be a competitive advantage. We talked about how it’s sometimes difficult to attract and retain the best talent, about how it’s difficult to keep a work environment challenging and yet enjoyable during periods of rapid growth.

Together, we recognized that a company’s culture is the expression of the values and priorities of the people who make up your business.

For TWG, discovering our own culture, putting a focus on it, and having it become part of our work life has proven to be extremely beneficial.

Back in the mid 2000’s, finding great projects and top talent was the primary challenge for TWG. We discovered that by nurturing our own culture we were able to build a strong, cohesive and happy team, and that consequently, the quality of our work, led us to better and better projects.

Here’s the short list of some things we learned along the way:

    Make your business more transparent in its finances and rewards.
    Spend (splurge) on experiences that bring the team together.
    Listen to your team, and keep them challenged with things they love.
    Share the ownership and success with your team.

I’ll illustrate in more detail by going back through the series of events and decision points in our past that helped shape TWG’s culture, and what I believe has become a competitive advantage.

Jan 2005. Bonus time.

TWG was a tiny shop of 4, building web sites and basic web applications in PHP. We had a few small successes under our belt, but were still paying ourselves and staff far lower than market rates. After socking away about 3 months of reserves, we had about 18K left over. What to do?

The choice seemed obvious. I needed to respect the sacrifices that we were all making, and be transparent about our successes and failures to the team. It would build trust, and make everyone realize that truly nobody was making a buck off of the sweat of another. So we split up the bonus evenly between the team, and we had a Christmas with a fatter wallet.

The Lesson: Be transparent, and let the team know when there’s a profit to be shared by all.

Jan 2007. Vacation time

TWG had grown to a shop of about 7. We were still building websites and apps, but our costs were now significantly higher; we were paying our staff more, and we had a real office and real rent. We’d recently finished a successful project and we were sitting with about 12K surplus… not a huge amount. I could have sunk it back into the business, I could have split it up, and given everyone around $1700. Instead I decided to look into a team vacation – something that we’d all remember, something that we could all enjoy, bond over, and use to re-energize in the midst of a long winter. I asked everyone if this was something they were interested in. Yes.

I researched and found a great place in Mexico, which had good internet connectivity, and facilities. We booked the flights, and headed down in late February to enjoy the first of what has become an annual winter retreat.

The Lesson: Invest in a shared experience.

March 2009. Product development time.

Again, the team was down in Mexico on another winter retreat. Things had gone well over the past year, with plenty of interesting work, and plenty of opportunities, but we were left feeling a bit wanting – constantly building successes for others. A well oiled machine of experienced developers and designers, TWG needed a way to keep challenged, and on the leading edge. After creating successes for our clients for about 7 years, we wanted to take ownership on something, and create something for ourselves.

On that trip, we spent a good deal of time mapping out who we were, who we admired, and how we could improve to achieve our objective in emulating some of their success. One of the ways we thought this could happen was by conceiving and building our own online products. TWG committed to spending time and money on the development of our own products. PostageApp was the first of what we hope will be many online applications.

The Lesson: Listen to the team, respond to their ambition. Make it happen.

March 2011. Lab time and team ownership.

Since the great recession, things have really heated up in the web development world. Salaries for web developers have gone through the roof in the valley and NYC, and yet we’ve maintained an experienced, satisfied team. We’ve diversified our work to include a good amount of product development, while maintaining a roster of great clients. This past winter retreat, after listening to the team, and what they wanted, TWG redoubled it’s efforts to encourage an entrepreneurial environment that keeps us all challenged and gives everyone some of the upside to our efforts.

We decided to formalize two key developments:

1. TWG committed to increasing our lab-day and product development time to 25% of our work schedule.
2. TWG committed to reserving 30% ownership in all team-conceived and developed projects.

The Lesson: Carve out the time, create alignment, share the sweat and the wealth.

It’s exciting times in the web and mobile world, and I truly believe that we have a better chance to succeed as dev shops and startups if we create alignment between all the stakeholders. The suits, the geeks, and the fancy pants.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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