Building Culture to Last

Chris Havemann was the co-founder and CEO of Research Now, the world’s leading online survey data collection business. During his time, the business grew to $230m with over 1,200 employees and 22 offices worldwide. He was awarded the AIM Entrepreneur of the Year award by the London Stock Exchange for his work.

After leaving Research Now, he served as CEO of RatedPeople.com, the UK’s largest online marketplace for home improvement. He is now a company adviser and non-executive director, serving on the boards of HomeServe plc and RealityMine.

Chris received his BSc with Joint Honours in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Surrey and an MBA with distinction from the London Business School, where he is now a member of the Governing Body and International Alumni Council chair.

We met with Chris on the challenges of maintaining a strong culture.

WHEN YOU CO-FOUNDED RESEARCH NOW, WHAT TYPE OF CULTURE DID YOU SET OUT TO CREATE? 

Above all, we set our focus on the customer – this meant getting the job done at the highest quality standard because winning repeat business - or not - from a client, could lead to life or death of the business. We were a massive meritocracy. Everyone pitched in together to achieve our goals. There were enough battles in the outside world without having any battles internally, so we all pulled together to win. 

We also wanted people to be motivated enough to go the extra mile. If the business was going to make unreasonable requests, then we needed to work out what was necessary in order to encourage our employees to deliver for the business.  Financial compensation was a small part of this – of course necessary, and we used lots of tactical bonuses, but nowhere near sufficient. We needed our people to be happy and motivated so they would do their best job for the client.

Finally, we wanted to make it fun and enjoy the journey. We were deadly serious about business, and winning as a team, but we knew how to let our hair down. There was a real sense of camaraderie and team spirit.

HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT CREATING THIS CULTURE? 

Hiring was key. Although skills were important, we didn’t really hire for skills. Instead, we hired based on attitude. We wanted people who would reinforce the type of culture we wanted the business to have – people who would be part of the team.

Very often, potential candidates would have 5, 6 or even 7 interviews before joining the company – this was mostly about fit, in both directions. We were happy for people who didn’t think they would fit in, to not join. 

As founders, we stayed heavily involved in the recruitment of all people at all levels, until the company was well over 100 employees. Eventually, we got to a point where we couldn’t do it anymore – we were forced to be less hands on because of the scale of the business – but we still encouraged our senior leadership to have interview programmes to ensure the right match. 

DO YOU THINK INTERVIEWING COULD HAVE BEEN A TASK YOU DELEGATED EARLIER ON?

I suppose that as a founder you are slightly paranoid. Your early stage success certainly makes you think you have found the right formula, so clearly you want to continue that formula and tend to be quite hands on. But after all, your people are your most important asset. 

WHAT SORT OF THINGS CHANGED OVER THE YEARS THAT HAD AN IMPACT ON CULTURE? 

For us, there were three key things:

Scale
For the most part, we had a great management team and strong internal communications, which allowed us to remain a people-centric business. However, as we scaled, we inevitably hired people who diluted some of this. We also needed to start formalising more of our practices – such as recruitment, onboarding, performance management, continuous feedback, promotions, etc.

International Expansion
When it came to international growth beyond our home market of the UK, we quickly found that we needed to marry our organisational culture with national culture. For example, when going to a German office, it needed to feel German, with German people, yet it still needed to feel culturally linked to our teams in London and New York.  Achieving that was definitely key to our success in going from British to European to global leader.

Mergers & Acquisitions
For M&A, we were careful to only acquire and integrate businesses that were similar culturally: Are these people like us? Do these people think like us? This allowed us to avoid major mishaps. However, we needed to recognise that every company was different, and we needed to understand those differences and transition towards a unified culture. We started by looking at the legacy cultures of the organisations. A common thread among all of our companies was that they were both client centric and team oriented, but we learned that some differed dramatically on other dimensions of culture e.g. speed of decision-making or hierarchical nature of the organisation. As a result of identifying these kinds of differences, we were able to ramp up executive team focus on the issue, and internal communications on the type of unified company we wanted to be and why it mattered. 

WHAT ARE THE KEY THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND THROUGH THESE PERIODS OF GROWTH AND CHANGE IN ORDER TO RETAIN SOME OF THE COMPANY CULTURE HALLMARKS?

1- Communication. Communication is easy when you are a little business. For starters, you often are all physically there together. If not, it is a small team with constant communication between each other. You are all clear about the goals and strategy, and continually connected. As you grow bigger, you must remember to stay open and not forget about the importance of informal communication but also make sure you put in place other mechanisms that will ensure rapid, open and effective communication in all directions across the organisation.

2– Speed of decision-making. When you are a startup, you are constantly problem solving in order to deliver. You are nimble, and it is easy to mobilise and move quickly. Decision processes are less bureaucratic; less stakeholders, less consultation. As you get larger, people generally become more bound by the “structure,” which naturally starts to exist in the organisation – you’re more fearful of taking risks, and creative ideas can get drowned out.  People need to be empowered to continue to innovate and try new things, some of which will inevitably fail.

3- Sense of shared purpose and values. Young companies typically have a strong sense of what they are trying to accomplish. As they grow larger, I think they need to work more systematically on some of the things they take as given early on - like values - which everyone simply lived and breathed in the early stages. 

As you become larger, you have to be more explicit on what those are to guide people. For example, if an employee is supposed to hire someone to reinforce the values of the organisation, they must first know what those are. It is also critical to have leadership by example from senior and middle management to constantly reinforce vision and values through their behaviours.

The other point I would make is that after undergoing significant growth and change (as in our case), the wider team itself needs to agree on what those collective values are. Otherwise, you risk a hollow top-down management edict. Even as a founder, who are you to tell the organisation what those are at that point – the organisation takes on a life of its own!

Overall, you need to ‘grow up’ to some extent in order to stay young.