The Simple Processes CoLab Uses to Build Company Culture
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As many startups grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, CoLab was just finding its footing. Over the past year, the St. John’s, Newfoundland startup scaled from 20 to 50 people and is continuing to hire. Speaking with Tech Talent North, co-founder and CEO Adam Keating explained the simple processes CoLab uses to scale their culture as they scale the team.
- Culture grows when you have processes to support it.
- The best culture - and supporting processes - focus on giving direction, not directions.
- Change can be good, but only when it’s based in a solid direction or toward a worthy goal.
From the beginning, CoLab co-founders Adam Keating and Jeremy Andrews knew they’d need to build a big team if their product - a collaboration platform for engineering teams - took off. After becoming the first Newfoundland company to go through YCombinator then finding their footing in enterprise sales, the team can’t hire fast enough. However, even as the team adds more people (it’s gone from 20 to 50 people in the past year), Adam wants to build a culture he and the team can be proud of.
Speaking with Tech Talent North, Adam explained why he prefers to keep culture relatively simple and the processes he and the CoLab leadership have created to support the company’s culture.
Starting with core values
Adam and Jeremy started CoLab out of frustration for their own challenges working as mechanical engineers during university. When the duo decided to start a company together (forgoing prestigious Silicon Valley tech jobs in the process), they said they wanted a culture they could be proud of.
“I wanted a culture I could be proud of in 10 years,” said Adam. “So that meant starting from our core values of team, respect, problem solving, and continuous improvement.”
After taking on core values, Adam felt that culture is supposed to be “a way of treating one another and a feeling that you have about working at the company.” To make it concrete, he provided an example of what he wants the culture of CoLab to look and feel like: “When something bad happens, people come help you fix it. That’s really it.”
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Culture manifested through team-up process
The co-founders also had an inkling that the kind of collaboration tools they wanted to build - including 3D demos, shareability, feedback comment tracking, and more - would be far more complex than the average SaaS tool and require a large team to be successful.
“We knew from an early stage this would likely not just be a five-person company,” said Adam.
Trying to find a balance between scalability without overengineering the early days, Adam designed four processes meant to build and sustain CoLab’s culture.
1. Employees can give feedback every week
Employees are invited to provide feedback every week on how the company can improve. According to Adam, this can be about anything:
- Work systems.
- Talent needs.
- Career progression for employees.
- Work life balance.
The team doesn’t limit what type of feedback can be provided, giving employees the opportunity to list any ideas they feel will help CoLab improve on its values and growth targets.
This process is in addition to regular 1:1’s and performance reviews, which focus on helping employees improve their performance.
2. Leaders explain prioritization with context
Even with a small team, Adam said he received a lot of feedback suggestions. Unfortunately, no company could do all of them (or at the very least, cannot do all of them immediately).
To ensure that every piece of feedback is heard and no one feels like the weekly improvement feedback loop is a black hole, Adam prioritizes feedback into four themes:
- Things to tackle right now / this quarter.
- Things to tackle next quarter.
- Things to tackle next year.
- Things we can’t do at this time.
Under each piece of feedback, Adam provides context on why it ended up in the bucket it did, tying the note to company goals, resources, and other priorities. Then the action items in the “now” and “next quarter” buckets are put out to the team for people to step up and own the project. Adam said he opted for an employee-driven system because he prioritizes in a more top-down way, but wants the team to be able to own the changes they want to see in the company.
3. Quarterly plans are transparent to everyone
Each quarter, the company meets and presents what’s important for the organization. Categories include:
- Overall business goals.
- Technical goals.
- Team initiatives.
- Improvements to culture (taken from the “Now / Next Quarter” buckets above).
- Improvements to team management such as new performance review processes.
The goal of the quarterly meeting is to ensure everyone has clear visibility into both overall company direction and any major changes coming down the pipeline.
4. - Team building focuses on progress and improvement
CoLab now operates remotely, with employees in Newfoundland, Ontario, and outside of Canada. To keep a sense of connection, the team leverages a “Team Wins” Slack channel where people are encouraged to share all sorts of wins for example: creative solutions to team problems, new sales, or great internal performances.
Adam also says the team operates on a “no finger pointing” rule when it comes to problems, instead telling everyone to focus on solving the problem and preventing it from happening again (whether that’s a rule change, process change, or something else). An individual may end up having a private conversation with their manager about the problem and what resolution might be necessary, but the team’s focus is on moving forward and improving.
A culture to be proud of
Three years into the journey, Adam is proud of the culture at CoLab and is excited for the future. But in keeping with the company’s core value of continuous improvement, he’s not resting on laurels and is always looking for ways to make things better. Even the values themselves are up for change as the team grows and new voices come to the table.
“We’re always looking for improvement, even in our values,” said Adam. “They may not change, but we’re taking a look at them now to make sure they still fit for our team as we grow.”