Glass walls and Foosball: How digital industry “start-ups” scale culture as they grow

Startups and their accoutrements have captured the imagination of the business world.

Foosball tables, hoodies, and millennials have all become shorthand indicators of a young, scrappy, and innovative enterprise. Another signal that a start up is thriving is clearer than one might think: glass walls.

During early days, founders huddle together in a shared space, collaborating in a way that imprints transparency on its burgeoning culture. When a business grows, walls tend to go up and glass is a way to preserve that transparent spirit.

How else can a growing company maintain their scrappy energy as they pass major milestones of size, age and profitability? We spoke to leaders at three companies in advertising, publishing and technology about how their culture has kept pace with headcount.

Collaboration is key

Digital agency Huge was founded in 1999 by 4 creatives in DUMBO and quickly lived up to its name. Today it employs more than 1300 people in offices around the world as an integrated part of “big-four” global holding company Interpublic Group. The tipping point for Huge came at 100 employees, when they realized that preserving the spirit of scrappy creativity and interdisciplinary collaboration would take some effort.

“We tried to codify it at first, but it’s hard to codify something like being being collaborative or being entrepreneurial” said Huge CMO Patricia Korth-McDonnell, who joined the agency in 2005 as employee number 13.  “For us it’s really about modelling, and having leaders encourage people. Everyone needs to see that they’re allowed to step outside their job title. They need to see that they can care about the whole work product, that they can’t just live for their specific role.”

According to Korth-McDonnell, Huge maintains a flat organizational structure. But that structure is bottom up, one in which any employee can bring an idea, or even a criticism, to senior management. Even with offices on three continents, Huge wants its whole team to feel as close to their bosses as the first handful of employees in DUMBO. “It’s chaotic,” she admitted, “but you need that if you’re going to succeed.”

Hire for culture, not just competency

Keeping doors open and walls transparent are key for fast-growing programmatic startup, The Trade Desk. With more than 400 employees in 13 global offices, the firm is focused on maintaining a collaborative culture.

“We focus a lot on culture hiring” said Kayla Vatalaro who heads global talent acquisition for The Trade Desk. “We know emotional intelligence is needed for successful collaboration. We hire for that. Sometimes problem solving grit is just as important as technical competency.“

Maintaining an office culture isn’t just about keeping the workplace pleasant. A little organized fun can go a long way toward collaboration. Engineer Jeremy Buch connects the company’s popular happy hours directly to productivity. “When you’re social with the people you work with, it’s easy to find ways to help each other.”

Keep the doors open

A growing startup can erect as many glass walls as they want. Those walls are only effective if the employees inside are actively keeping the doors open.

It’s been a long time since The Hufington Post was viewed as a startup. Still, the publisher has worked to hold onto its open culture as it scaled. Culture remained a priority even as HuffPo was absorbed into AOL, and later Verizon.

“If I want to hear new ideas from my team, then I need to talk to them.” says Kirsten Ceislar, a senior strategy and development manager at The Huffington Post. “My door is open to anyone who has something to add.”

Ceislar believes that open door policies, both for senior leaders and mid-level managers, become more important as a company grows. “When you’re working with a small startup team you can talk to anyone. They’re probably sitting in the same room. We’re bigger than that, so we have to work harder to make sure everyone has access.”

Conclusions

Glass walls are a startup cliché for a reason. Like the open office plan, they’re meant to keep things literally, and figuratively, transparent. According to the leaders we spoke to it’s not enough to simply erect walls of glass, you have to put the the right people behind those walls and encourage them, at every level, to collaborate.

Author

  • In January 2015, Forbes Magazine recognized The Trade Desk among the top ten Most Promising Companies in America. Founded by the pioneers of real-time bidding, The Trade Desk has become the fastest growing demand-side platform in the industry by offering agencies, aggregators, and their advertisers best-in-class technology to manage display, social, and video advertising campaigns. The Trade Desk powers the most sophisticated buyers in advertising technology. By maintaining a pure buy-side focus, The Trade Desk delivers on branding and performance for clients worldwide. Headquartered in Ventura, Calif., The Trade Desk has offices across the United States, Europe, and Asia.

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