Hubspot's Karen Rubin: How Start-Ups Can Maintain Company Culture While GrowingMarch 13, 2012
Harvard Business Review
by Karen Rubin
Over the past three years, the number of employees at HubSpot has grown by over 800 percent. No company experiences that pace of growth without hitting some cultural speed bumps along the way. When that happens, it’s tempting to blame external forces. But we have maintained our unique company culture by admitting that most of these hiccups have been self-inflicted.
For instance, in late 2008, HubSpot had about 40 employees. The company was just starting to gain momentum when overnight, customer churn spiked as the economy tanked. With all the uncertainty, it wouldn’t have been surprising if morale had followed suit. Instead, employees banded together to solve some clear issues with our business model, and the team made its numbers month after month.
By comparison, in late 2010, the company simultaneously changed the compensation plan of the sales team and began reorganizing the product department. According to CEO and Co-Founder Brian Halligan, that was when “the wheels started to come off.” Our largest cultural speed bump to date wasn’t due to any external forces. Rather, it was because of internal adjustments that weren’t quite right.
We’ve taken two approaches to addressing these speed bumps as they’ve cropped up, and I believe they can be useful to other fast-growing start-ups: communication and measurement.
It’s important to stop the downward spiral before it goes too far. If you wait too long, the solutions are harder to find, and you run the risk of losing good people. If you notice more complaints or confusion than usual — or from key people who rarely exhibit frustration — it’s time to take action.
The first thing to do is spend more time communicating with and listening to your employees. Identify the influencers and loudmouths and take them out to dinner. In late 2010, Halligan met with the leaders of the sales and product teams who had voiced their displeasure. Through discussion about the problems with the compensation plan and the team reorganization, he was able to identify why they were dissatisfied. He was also able to take it one step further by asking what they had heard from others on their team. He spent time just listening, not interjecting his own thoughts, so he could learn more and find effective solutions.
Hold town hall meetings with your whole team, and let them voice their complaints. When the HubSpot sales team was upset about their compensation plan, V.P. Mark Roberge and Halligan held a structured conversation with the entire team, where they asked the group questions about why the current plan didn’t work, which allowed them to find better solutions that were more likely to please people. By understanding deeply what the problems were, they were able to work together to find solutions. This doesn’t mean that your company has to be run as a democracy, but the best compromises regularly come out of heated debates and discussions.
Only after you’ve taken this listening tour, convene your management team. Make sure they’re all on the same page and can show a unified front when communicating back to your employees. There may be things you have to do that the employees aren’t happy with, but it will help if the entire management team can articulate the reasons and be transparent.
The second step we’ve taken is a measurement system. Measuring culture is hard, but finding ways to gauge employee happiness helps us understand when we’ve hit a speed bump and if we have successfully moved beyond one.
Use internal surveys or interviews to get a baseline. Find out why people enjoy working at your company and what they value the most about being there. Use this information to keep an eye on what matters most to your employees.
Consider using tools like Net Promoter Score (NPS), which allow you to have a consistent measurement of how happy your employees are. HubSpot runs an internal NPS every six months, asking its employees just two questions: “How likely would you be to recommend working at HubSpot to a friend?” and “Why?” It ensures a consistent measurement over time and allows for the top concerns to bubble up.
Speed bumps are part of any quickly growing, fast-moving company. Deal with them quickly and effectively — before they slow you down.
What approaches you have found effective to help you advance beyond speed bumps?