Serial entrepreneur Brent Hoberman explains why you should be uncompromising on company culture
Brent Hoberman is Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of Founders Forum, Founders Factory, and firstminute capital, a $210m seed fund with global remit, backed by over 80 unicorn founders. Previously, Brent co-founded lastminute.com in 1998, was CEO from its inception, and sold it in 2005 to Sabre for $1.1bn. He is also the founder of Karakuri and Made.com.
Company culture seems to have always been an important topic for you in your career. In a letter you wrote to your younger CEO self and published in Frog Capital last year, you put “creating an exceptional culture” almost at the top of the pieces of advice (2nd out of 7) that you felt was most important to share to help your younger self co-build Lastminute.com.
Can you tell us why culture matters so much to you and why you believe it is critical for any company’s success?
You can’t create a great company without a great founder and a great team, and you can’t have a great team without a great culture because that’s what attracts top talent — this is why it matters to me and why I encourage founders to prioritise it in every company or organisation I build, invest in or advise.
It’s also rewarding to watch this change: you see people excel and grow into and beyond their roles thanks to the culture you have helped create. You want to see social connections between your employees and that they’re proud of what they are building. One of the objectives of Founders Factory, for instance, is to create an “inclusive culture where the best people want to work” — it is a worthwhile stand-alone goal in itself for any organisation.
Do you believe it is even more important now in the current context?
What’s interesting about the current pandemic context is that it has exposed cracks in company culture: those with strong, positive culture have emerged even stronger through the periods of forced remoteness — ping pong tables and free food are not culture — they are perks.
Culture is how you make decisions, what you value, how connected employees feel about their work, mission and teammates; how comfortable employees feel calling out something that’s not right, and equally whether they want to shout about the small wins.
This year has also accelerated the trend of global talent: companies are competing for hires on a global level — if your culture is not at the top of its game, it will be impossible to retain that talent. And of course if you’re on-boarding remotely — you need to adapt and master this process in order to create the winning culture of tomorrow.
It seems that sometimes founders and executives wish to build or focus on their culture but they are having a hard time finding out where to start or what tools to use. Can you tell us a bit how you have created company culture in your previous as well as current companies and organizations?
Culture starts with the founders. World class founders attract world class talent.
And your culture will be determined very early on by the people you choose as your first hires, the compromises you are willing to make for growth, what you value, what you reward, what/how you celebrate as well as how you make decisions.
Your core team will be key in helping you build your culture and pass this on to future employees. At the beginning, it can be implicit but as you grow this has to become explicit: you need your employees to understand your culture so that they integrate faster and avoid drowning in too many meaningless processes.
Jean-Charles Samuelian, the founder of Alan.eu, is an example of a leader who is uncompromising on culture, and there is plenty of his writing out there on how to do this. As an investor in Alan.eu, this has been exciting to watch — he has been able to hire world-class talent who will build on these foundations of culture and help this startup go from strength to strength.
What tools do companies and founders have at their disposal today to build, improve or strengthen their culture?
It’s interesting to think about tools to help build culture — and I’ve seen a few employee engagement platforms emerging in the tech space recently but these address a very specific part of company culture. I see many founders come up with company values but this only works if everyone truly embodies them — at Netflix for example, they hire and fire on these values — that’s powerful — everyone knows where they stand.
Ultimately — you need to ensure that as the founder and early team you wear your values and culture on your sleeve.
This is why we liked the concept of Jurnee — helping companies come together physically and/or remotely — because they create opportunities to illustrate and embody your company culture. You need to create environments where people can spend time together and get to know each other, and let serendipitous things happen.
Can you give us some examples of how you re-creating these types of environments outside the office to help boost employee morale especially now?
We are trying to create moments that allow for more than transactional-only interactions. We use Donut — which has been quite popular — to help people connect internally, whether it’s to integrate newcomers, make relevant intros and recreate some of the serendipitous connections you get in an office.
And, of course, we are using Jurnee — it’s always great to use a company you have invested in and immediately see how they address a customer pain point. Their product helps us organise team buildings and company events — like the recent Christmas party, for example. Given the current situation, we needed to adapt the usual format and be innovative in terms of what activities we could offer our team — using Jurnee and having access to their exclusive supplier network made this experience smoother, more efficient and, crucially — good fun!
Thank you very much for your time and these insights, Brent! Is there any other thing you would like to add that we did not go over?
Yes, one additional point — culture is not something you create once and it’s there forever — it evolves as time passes and as your company grows. It’s important to invest actively in your company culture and of course in your employees as individuals if you want your organisation to thrive.