We’ve all heard of Google’s famous culture and seen pictures of the unique offices they have all over the world – but how do you make sure your startup’s culture doesn’t get lost by the baggage handlers when you expand overseas? Your culture isn’t programmed – it’s not even written down anywhere! Your startup’s culture still just happens – and making sure it continues to happen when you decide to go global is no small task.
At Austin-based uShip, we took on this challenge when we opened our second office in Amsterdam – and we will face it once more as we now expand into Brazil and Latin America. Here’s a look at what we’ve done to make sure we “keep uShip weird” across the globe.
Pick a location that matches your culture, not just your business
Amsterdam is a huge transportation center, making it an ideal location for uShip’s EU headquarters from a business standpoint. But in choosing Amsterdam, we also felt like it was a place where our culture could thrive. Austin and Amsterdam are both “transplant cities,” with a significant part of the population having moved there from somewhere else. This creates a diversity and open-mindedness that we like to extend into our office.
Make culture a priority from day one
When we opened our EU office, we set it up in a way that mimicked uShip’s early days. Everyone was in the same room (a mall one!) with simple desks and the simple luxury of sandwich supplies. Shawn Bose, our Vice President and GM of Global, made early trips that focused on getting everyone out of the office and growing from coworkers into a team, making sure they realized that the hard work should also be offset by some fun and relaxation.
Bob Kagle of Benchmark Capital (and early eBay investment fame), who sits on our Board of Directors, even made the trip to Amsterdam and went out to dinner with the whole team. By chance, a couple of employees missed the memo and had no idea who they were talking to – but had an enjoyable evening chatting about soccer nonetheless! No big deal.
Set up an exchange program
One of our first Amsterdam employees had worked in Austin for more than a year before moving to the EU headquarters – and we found immediate value in having someone over there that knew how to talk to the people (and personalities) back in Austin and could help others do the same. As such, we began sending developers to work in the overseas office on three-month rotations. This helped with communication and provides a potentially life-changing experience for those that get to go. We sent our PPC Manager over for a couple of weeks, and he decided to stay for a year!
Likewise, as we’ve brought on more permanent resources in Amsterdam, we’ve made an effort to bring even entry-level employees back to Austin to meet the team and put a face and a person to each email address they interact with daily.
Put your culture online
Some employers will discourage or even block use of sites like Facebook while at work. We’ve taken the opposite approach, using Facebook as a tool for intra-office and intercontinental communication. Employees are encouraged to post about product launches, promotion announcements and even things that are just for fun in uShip’s private group. Facebook, like Skype, Google Drive, and many other tools that can help connect your offices through presence, are completely free. Through words, pictures and videos, the whole team gets to see what’s going on throughout the company.
Use video as much as possible
Beyond using Skype for most of our meetings, we went a step further and set up the Amstercam – a constant Skype call between the Austin kitchen and the Amsterdam main office that provides a live window from office to office. Austin employees getting their morning coffee can root on Amsterdam employees playing some Friday afternoon beer pong. We’ve even attempted the cross-Atlantic Skype beer pong shot – it works!
When you only have one small overseas office, it’s easy to forget them in company-wide events. Don’t do that! When time zones permit (Amsterdam is 8 hours ahead of Austin), we make a point to include Amsterdam in all-hands meetings, celebrations and First Friday adventures. (The entire company takes the first friday afternoon of each month off to do something fun as a team.).
On Scavenger Hunt First Friday, teams were scavenging on two continents – and for Viral Video First Friday, the competition included two foreign films, as well as one filmed by all of our US-based remote employees.
The road (er, boat?) goes both ways
It is equally important to make sure the overseas culture makes it back to the home headquarters. New traditions and processes, both un and work-related, will come back from abroad and can add a lot to your domestic culture. The domestic office has to make an effort to understand how the overseas office runs to have any chance of working together effectively.
Sometimes it’s something as simple as a delicious snack – as the entire US office is pretty much addicted to stroopwafel.
Written by Adam Grenspan, Sr. Manager, Global Markets for uShip.