An Agile Culture is a Marathon, Not a Sprint


This article was originally published on July 31, 2015 via my LinkedIn profile.

We started indinero Full Service three years ago like any other startup in San Francisco. Our office was full of picnic tables for desks, the kitchen was stocked with pizza and Gatorade for nourishment, and we were just a quick walk to artisan coffee around the corner for stamina. While these early times had frustrations of their own, I had no idea the far more complex headaches I’d face after making the decision to open other indinero locations. I found myself filled with fear that there would be disconnection between teams and that distance would exaggerate any chinks in the armor, ultimately imploding our foundation.

Even though I wanted to, I couldn’t let my nightmares hold indinero back. There were many reasons we HAD to open new locations, the biggest of all being talent.

The Nuts and Bolts

Our major failures from phase one of indinero had to do with culture. We were everything TIME magazine has said about millennials… and then some. We could visualize our long-term dreams for what we wanted indinero to become, but nothing had the muscle to make it full circle. When we pivoted we started rebuilding with the basics and formed a value-based foundation which we have integrated into every level of the indinero that exists today.

It’s all Relative, Stay Open to Interpretation

The most successful shared culture allows each office to express their individuality. indinero’s culture is framed by what is important to the organization, but each location has the freedom to interpret that. The goal of expanding was not to replicate SF, but to carve out an identity and everything we can learn from that. Both our Portland and Philippine offices have distinct identities, and while we maintain the same core values, each office has a different way of expressing that personality which is what we really welcome and gives us the added bonus to steal best practices from each other.

An example of this stems from our “all team, same team” core value and the fun events we encourage to keep teams integrated and thriving. Fun is a part of our function and a priority. Each office has formed a culture committee that knows the resources and budgets available to have fun – they get to decide how those are applied for their office. There’s no difference between the different parts of what we’re built upon, and the key is “all team, same team.” All colleagues are the same, which means equality across functions as well location.

Never Settle! Go Where the Quality Is

This may come as a shock— I know it did to me— but San Francisco (indinero’s home base) is not everyone’s idea of the promised land. While we still see a bevy of young hungry sales reps and IT/software engineers that call the City by the Bay their mothership, it’s a very desolate market for expert skill level in other job functions–client services, accounting, marketing to name a few.

There was no way we were going to dazzle our clients if we settled for what we saw in front of us. Our business model only works when we hire great people who are passionate about what they do and can communicate effectively. So we researched and found our sweet spots for higher caliber candidates elsewhere: in Portland and the Philippines.

Our Makati (Philippines) office has been up and running for about two years now and Portland (Oregon), while just a few months old, is standing almost 30 strong in client service, account management, accounting, engineering, recruiting, admin, sales, and marketing roles and is looking to double in the next six months!

Finding the Formula

My tested and replicable recipe for building a great office from scratch is also stupidly simple. The first hire is always a General Manager to run the office, second is a Talent Manager to head up local recruiting efforts. Those are my two allies on the ground. In a GM, I look for a good listener with creative ideas about culture and what an office environment should look like. I can tell I’ve found the right person once I get a sense of their parental instincts. If I think to myself “I would want this person to be my parent” they are the perfect fit! Being a GM is a very nurturing but demanding role and takes someone with a strong work ethic who sees colleagues as an extension of their family and feels comfortable integrating their team into their life.

The first few months have always been critical and taken a lot of blood and sweat, but once things were running it was easy to trust my GM on the ground. At that point you can be more hands-off culturally and focus on staying involved in team building and hiring.

Communication Is Your Only Strategy

A large chunk of my fears from the start of our expansion stemmed from my anticipation of forming and addressing processes and tools for effective communication. We’ve remained flexible and kept a curious eye on the best practices for addressing time change, long distance communication, and training:

Time Differences – While our San Francisco and Portland offices are both on Pacific time, the Philippines are 15 hours ahead. We adjusted the Philippine offices to open at 6am (3 pm PT) to allow for about 2 to 3 hours of overlap each day. So far, they’ve given nothing but positive feedback about the change and are loving the benefits earlier mornings provide (easier commute, more personal time in the afternoon, etc.).

Long Distance Communication – It’s 2015. If you’re thinking email will be enough for your widespread business, think again. We saw huge improvements in cross-office team communication when we moved from email to strictly real-time messaging (Slack is our chat solution of choice). We also use Skype and Google Hangouts liberally for anything from daily group and one-on-one meetings to our quarterly all-staff kickoffs. Simply using these tools in day-to-day communication has brought all of our offices closer together.

That’s not to say we’ve gone off the digital deep end. We’re building new traditions, like pairing any interested stateside employees with a counterpart in the Philippines for an old school pen-pal club!

Removing Management Barriers – Traditional hierarchy doesn’t fit our team model. Instead, we’re following our own brand of organizational structure, Entreocracy, which eliminates the need for managers to dictate stifling processes and liberates each individual to find the path of least resistance and make the most impact. Employees don’t have to wait for someone else to explain how to do something, instead they can take initiative to find out what will work best for collaboration.

We can only do this because we hire champions who come into their roles with big ideas and solid experience, and we want to tap 100% of their potential in growing our company. Each person’s voice is the most valuable asset they can bring as an employee and we’re very upfront about that expectation in every role.

We aren’t perfect

Our organizational chart still has some blanks to be filled and there are still the occasional cultural differences across offices that we need to adjust for. We are also working on more ways to organically achieve impromptu, spontaneous conversations. Our hope is that as we continue to break the virtual ice, these relationships will grow in the most logical ways.

Every piece of our strategy and core values comes back to our clients and finding the best way to service their needs. Whether we’re looking for top talent to dazzle on the phone, on our website, or elsewhere, from their first impression on they know they’re working with employees who have the gumption to do what it takes to dazzle them each day.