It is common for successful entrepreneurs to boast that it is their people who make their business successful. Yet building a team while maintaining the entrepreneurial spark that drove the growth in the first place is a difficult balancing act to maintain.
Dan Mountain co-founded Buyagift.com from a bedroom at his home in Muswell Hill, North London, in 1999. He is now chief executive of the company, which specialises in experiential gifts, from hotel breaks to hot air balloon flights, and employs more than 120 people in the UK, France, Italy and Spain.
Mr Mountain is clearly proud that Buyagift, which turns over about £30m a year, has won awards for being among the best places to work, as well as being the largest and most profitable gift experience retailer in the UK. He is clear that employee happiness is critical to all of this.
“Success has come as a result of getting the majority of our recruitment decisions right,” he says. “We take the attitude that you need to spot the people who are best for your business and then offer them whatever they need.”
Among the incentives is an opportunity to try any activity from the website up to a value of £250 once employees have completed their first year.
“We need to be careful about making people feel that they are vitally important,” says Mr Mountain. “But it is also about being part of a team.”
One of the team-building exercises at Buyagift is Pizza Friday, when all 90 of the staff in the London office are encouraged to gather in the same room and chat over some comfort food.
“The hardest thing about growth is you go from a business where everybody knows everybody else to a situation where you have to work hard to make sure that you don’t get people working in silos,” says Mr Mountain.
Transparency is vital. At Buyagift this is done through all-staff quarterly meetings, where Mr Mountain and his directors update everyone on the company’s performance. “We really try to have a very open dialogue where everybody is a part of the team.” Mistakes have been made, admits Mr Mountain. The most memorable for him was when they put the business up for sale in 2008, which allowed their angel investor, Jon Moulton, to leave.
Mr Mountain says that, at the time, they stopped being as transparent as they had been with their staff for fear that the sale might not happen. Morale dropped as a result.
“It was the first ever time we started to be secretive as a business because we didn’t want to tell people in case it didn’t happen,” he explains. “Actually, that was the first year when we had relatively poor results from our [internal] best workplace surveys. It was a wake-up call for us.”
Mr Mountain admits that the company was a little slow in hiring a full-time head of human resources to oversee the introduction of robust procedures for hiring and developing its staff.
“That happened about eight years into the business when we had 40 or 50 people, which was probably a bit late,” he admits.
Tamara Littleton, chief executive of eModeration, faces a different problem in maintaining the entrepreneurial buzz because the vast majority of the 450 staff she employs to manage online discussion forums work from home.
“Right from the start, I had a flexible workforce who could increase their hours when we got busy, which meant we could scale quickly,” she says, adding that the human resource systems have had to cope with her rapid growth in headcount.
“That means that you have to work really hard to create a company culture and bring new people into the family of the business.”
As a company that makes its business from managing online discussion groups it is perhaps not surprising that eModeration has employed social networks to encourage camaraderie between its disparate workforce. It uses Yammer, a social network aimed specifically at corporate users, as an online space where employees can talk to each other about non-work things.
The real world is also important, however, says Ms Littleton.
To this end, the company encourages people who live near each other to meet up. A company coffee budget exists for people to have a drink with one another.
“If you don’t share the company values quickly, your culture can change when you hire new people,” explains Ms Littleton, adding that some staff organise house swaps when travelling between their offices in London, New York and San Francisco.
“We’ve worked hard to create a culture where people want to support our growth.
“We’re clear about our vision and values and share these with the whole company. Our team wants us to succeed.”
Proving the effectiveness of such systems is not always easy. But Ms Littleton says a key indicator of eModeration’s success was that, in its first five years of trading, when the payroll grew to 120 people, only two of those left the company.
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