What is it that makes up company culture? I’ve been noodling on the topic since Designedge approached me to write this column. Further still, does culture define the organization, or does an organization define its culture?
One thing is for sure, life is way too short to be miserable in your job. I learned this first hand working in London’s (no, not Ontario) financial district. After two years of painful drudgery for the almighty pound, I figured out that substituting money for the lifestyle I desired was not going to sustain me. Back in my 20s I guided rafts, kayaks, hikes and bike trips, and I loved it all. Best job ever. Following my London experience, I decided that my future had to involve marrying my love of the outdoors, adventure and traveling, with the so-called ‘Internet of Everything.’
Fast-forward to today at our agency, VentureWeb: a small team of passionate adventurers who ride boards and bikes, scale mountains and play outside. A team of people that love creativity, design, coding, branding and all things digital. It’s not just us, either. VentureWeb only engages clients that specialize in adventure experiences, destinations and related products.
We are located in Squamish, B.C., which was a bit of an unplanned but happy coincidence. Turns out we set up shop in the perfect spot, wedged between Vancouver’s new media hub and Whistler’s world-famous resort community. Both are only 40 minutes away thanks to a 2010 highway upgrade. People often say to me, “Wow, it must be difficult to find people to hire in Squamish.” The fact is that in the nine years we have been in business we have never had to look beyond our town to find amazingly talented, skilled and experienced digital people. I guess I wasn’t the only one who wanted to fuse an adventure lifestyle with a meaningful career.
We have learned that people attracted to Squamish choose lifestyle first and career second. Similarly, people gravitate to work cultures that share their values and beliefs. Our opportunities and competitive advantage come from building and positioning our business in Squamish. I can’t overstate the role of community in defining VentureWeb’s company culture.
Our policy is to hire for culture first—after all, our value proposition is based on us living this lifestyle. This sometimes translates into crazy interviews where questions range from “What kind of mountain biker are you?” to, deeper still, “Who is better, Sunny Garcia or Laird Hamilton?”
VentureWeb’s culture has been evolutionary, and I think we have approached it with an open mind and flexibility. Our amazing culture was created by allowing team members to add their personalities to the mix, share their life situations and shape our company values. The evolution of this culture is a product of four key focuses.
We play together and experience what our clients have to offer
We have many fantastic clients that purvey amazing experiences and we are lucky enough to partake in these activities. We try to get out for a remote backcountry ski trip each spring and in the fall we do a family trip to a location with some nearby bike trails. These excursions are hugely popular with the team and are a great opportunity for them to get to know each other’s significant others, kids and so on. As much as possible, we take in our clients’ festivals or visit their trade shows or production facilities.
The by-product of all these off-site adventures is a lot of crazy ideas! Inspiring locations, where adrenaline pumps and we all feel super blessed and humbled to be there, provide the best opportunities to brainstorm. And visiting with clients is not only fun for our employees; it has a huge impact on our business. We get invaluable background knowledge of the specifics of an operation and the challenges our clients face. The result is empathy, something we really try to amplify in our approach to client service and in the digital tools we create. User experience design (UX) is the study of empathy.
We are flexible with hours of work and where that work takes place
“Our goal is to focus on results and then get out of the way and let our team deliver without all of the constraints of traditional workplaces.”
Although we work indoors, we are focused on marketing the great outdoors and equipping people to push the limits of their performance or redefine their sense of adventure. This mantra is something we try to realize everyday. But hello, reality check: like any agency, our work is stressful, challenging and sometimes a grind. We encourage our team to manage their own work schedules keeping true to client deadlines and meetings, and when time permits we also encourage taking time to climb, ski, kite and bike, with hours made up later at the office or from home. I think this not only helps deal with stress but allows them to refocus. We have the same challenges that other agencies have and we are far from perfect—and I certainly don’t want readers to think we have this dialed, because we don’t—but our goal is to focus on results and then get out of the way and let our team deliver without all of the constraints of traditional workplaces.
We sustain a great workplace culture through the niche set of clients we attract and get to work with
It is easy to be tempted to take on clients outside of our core niche. However, as the ‘adventure’ expectation has grown and the culture around it has strengthened, the temptation becomes totally counterintuitive. I think this would be selling ourselves out. Sound naive? Ideological? Maybe, but hand on heart, I believe this kind of short-term thinking would be the kiss of death that unravels all that we claim is legitimate and true. After all, if it were all about money we would have gone into financial instruments or big pharma. For us, working on a website for a heli-ski or mountain bike manufacturer is like expressing our passion, and our team members relish these opportunities to infuse a project with their knowledge of the target audience, the product and how it
should be consumed.
The plus side of this is having client meetings on Whistler Mountain, hiking the Stawamus Chief or riding the single track of Santa Cruz. These kinds of interactions allow us to reinforce our value to our clients first hand. We invite our clients and partners to join our staff ski or mountain bike trips too. When clients say something along the lines of, “You guys just really get us,” I feel like yeah, this crazy idea just might work out.
Our culture is never static because we are always evolving and changing
VentureWeb’s approach to culture has been unstructured. We set some strong base values but have not tried to define things in a prescriptive manner. We will continue to let ourselves define our culture and values as time goes on. I can’t really comment on the cultures of other companies too much but I certainly knew what we didn’t want to be. I think ours feels right for the kind of people we are and the kind of people we want to work with. Work is work but we want it to be as much fun and as inspiring as it can be. •
James Morris is founder and principal of VentureWeb in Squamish, B.C.
This article originally appeared in the July /August 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.