Startup stories

5 ways to retain a startup culture while scaling

How to, London, Edtech, Upscale 3.0, Mid Stage , ,

Bertie HubbardBertie Hubbard, February 5, 2018

This article was originally posted on the Tech City UK website.

This a guest post from Bertie Hubbard, CEO of MyTutor, an Upscale 3.0 company

At MyTutor, we’ve gone from a team of one (a father who built a platform from his bedroom to support his daughters’ studies) to a team of 20+ in a shared office in Shoreditch, with plans to expand again in the next few months as we gear up for our second institutional fundraising round.

There are elements of startup culture that are both wildly different from the corporate banking world that I came from and yet completely necessary in order to make the business work (fast iteration cycles, lightweight process, collaborative problem-solving etc.).

Some startup working styles are inevitably compromised as a company grows and begins to embed process; evolution after all demands change. But what can remain constant is a vision and a set of values – and both of these ensure a company’s culture stays essentially the same.

Here are 5 values we intend to hang on to as we scale and how I think we’ll manage it:

Energy

The working culture at MyTutor is dynamic because the team are energetic, intelligent and engaged. This is partially self-fulfilling because the positive social impact of our product attracts people who are emotionally invested in making the company thrive. We support this with a careful, team-centric hiring strategy. We’ve turned down candidates on the basis of poor cultural fit. We’ll always keep team-fit and motivation a priority, whether it’s our 4th hire or 104th.

A birthday party for a very important member of the team, NED (our database)

Immediate feedback

Since, like many startups, we don’t have a complex HR function – we needed to take a different approach to feedback. We’ve developed an internal culture of immediate feedback. It was born out of a session at one of our summer away-days, with suggestions from friends who’d been through McKinsey’s training programme and we’ve never looked back. Our team sets up regular feedback sessions with other members of the company (often those they work most closely with) but we also encourage immediate feedback where it’s appropriate, as we’ve found it’s often most effective when applied in context. With a larger team, it’s likely that more formal HR processes will be required but we intend to keep situational feedback as spontaneous as possible.

Enjoying dinner at our 2017 summer away-day at a farm in Kent

Knowledge sharing

Because we need to grow fast in order to meet our targets, we iterate quickly. We work cross-functionally on a per-project basis to get things done as efficiently as possible. This means that we’re all constantly learning from other parts of the company, which in turn makes us all stronger business people. All our department meetings are open-invitation and we have bring-a-burrito training sessions during Friday lunchtimes where a member of the team might teach some photoshop, SEO hacks, excel formulas or keyboard shortcuts. While cross-functional teams may become more defined as we grow, they’ll never be rigid and the capacity for learning from other teams and the wider startup network will only ever be encouraged.

A typical Friday burrito announcement

Proactivity

Unlike a bank where solutions might live in someone else’s court, everyone at MyTutor has the ability to affect product changes. Because everyone is close to the purpose of the company, creativity comes from all quarters – and we like to keep channels open for any idea to pass into development quickly, once it’s been validated. As we grow, it’ll be a case of keeping the team invested in what we’re achieving, so that everyone remains personally motivated to see the best changes go through, regardless of whether an idea has come from one of our undergrads (affectionately known as ‘the ninjas’) or from Robert (literally our founding father).

Some of the team in our new offices off the Old Street roundabout

Customer-obsession

Because our online model is challenging more established players in an existing category, we live and breathe feedback and language from our customers (and potential customers!) so that we remain outward-facing and practical in our problem solving. An obvious example of this in practice is our ‘crown rota’ (thus called because the person on duty has a fetching crown and cape to wear for their shift). Everyone at MyTutor has a regular slot answering inbound calls and we’re all trained on basic technical support. This develops familiarity with our platform as well as qualitative customer insights. Even if this changes to an introductory rotation as we scale, I don’t see this coming off the agenda. The thing everyone in the business has in common is our customers, and that’s how it should be.

Tash rocking the crown for her turn on the call rota