Out with dickheads, in with grit-heads: How to build a culture that drives rapid growth – StartupSmart

Nimble is one of Australia’s fastest growing fintech startups with a team of 160 employees across two floors at its Gold Coast headquarters. We’ve raised close to $20 million in funding, provided over 700,000 short-term loans (two thirds of them via mobile) and have been recognised as one of the world’s top fintech innovators.


Nimble’s technology platform assesses over 4500 data points to produce instant and automated decisions. Driven by data and technology to lend responsibly and deliver an outstanding customer experience, Nimble is creating a whole new category in the short-term lending space. Central to Nimble’s success is an obsession with culture.


At Nimble’s headquarters, the exposed ceilings, concrete floors, table tennis arena and panoramic ocean views, all make it the picture of startup cool. But culture is more than just a game of table tennis and funky furniture. Culture is about living a set of values that shapes everything from the product to the people, and is the very thing that drives growth.


When Sean Teahan and I founded Nimble in 2005, we poured every cent into it. We shared a cramped apartment, had little social life, and took turns to mow 12-14 lawns a day to make ends meet.


In the years since, we’ve never forgotten those early experiences, or that focusing on culture is the secret to fast growth and sustained success.


Everything stems from those early days. The long hours and hard work we put in with our mates, the mistakes and having barely any money all helped us to see things precisely through the lens of our customers. It taught us to apply keen discipline, humility, rigour, empathy, attention to detail and to always do what we say we’ll do, which has laid the foundation of our culture.


Nimble’s set of cultural values emerged from the very difficult first six years during which it was bootstrapped on less than $200k of seed equity. Now the team is growing so fast it has a full-time talent scout, so staying true to these cultural values is more important now than ever.


Culture is about reinforcing our values every day at every touch point. It dictates everything we do from the product to our recruitment approach, to the way we communicate with each other, and how we treat our customers.


Here are my top tips on how to build a culture that drives rapid growth:


1. Invest in your people


Startups move fast and you need a team of fast movers to reach your goals quickly, or be left behind. The health and happiness or your team rubs off on everything, from productivity to the detail applied when fine tuning the product, and the service provided to customers. Give your team the right work/life balance. They’ll accelerate your startup, and you’ll attract and retain amazing talent.


Nimble runs initiatives like paid volunteer days, employee assistance programs and the ability to buy extra holidays. There’s visits from professional massage therapists, yoga on Tuesdays, fruit on Wednesdays and everyone gets the day off on their birthday.


2. Listen and take action


When a team expands, communication can break down and messages are lost. Losing touch with your team fragments culture, which can easily undo success. Keep an open dialogue to solve problems and build trust. Too often we’ve seen companies create the illusion of listening, but don’t act on the feedback, which leaves people unwilling or frightened to actually speak their mind.


We use HR tools such as TinyPulse for weekly surveys asking feedback from staff on everything from daily operations, job satisfaction and their thoughts for the future direction of the business. Most importantly, the leadership team reviews all responses, replies directly and takes action where necessary, nothing gets left unaddressed.


3. Inspire innovation


No person or single team has a monopoly on good ideas. As teams grow, it’s tempting to believe the people who came up with the initial ideas are the only ones who keep doing so. That’s rubbish. If you’ve hired well and created the right environment, great ideas come from everywhere. Involve your entire team in the innovation process and you’ll solve problems, encourage creativity, and empower your employees.


We run an internal program called Nimble Labs that aims to bring the innovative ideas of our team to life. Everyone is invited to these innovation sessions, where our marketers, techies, data scientists and customer service team members all collaborate to shape the future of our product.


4. Dickheads out. Solid grit-heads in


The startup world is a harsh environment with hurdles around every corner. The most important character trait to look for is grit. Gritty people adapt to change and will stick it out when the going gets tough. They don’t care for fancy titles or self-gratification; it’s about getting the job done, not signaling work to be done.


When Nimble recruits, we do it based on skills, cultural fit and grit. If a person only fulfils some of the cultural values it won’t work out in the long run and the company gradually degenerates. Surround your startup with good people who share similar values and believe in the company culture, and you’ll have a team that is unbreakable.


5. Don’t sell out! Keep the disruptive spirit alive


Too often startups will create a cool culture and build a fun place to work, but in the face of fast growth, a dickhead in a suit sells out to corporate ways and putting money ahead of customer experience. Stay grounded, have fun and the staff who made you successful will not just stay for the journey, they’ll take it places you may never have even thought of.


None of us bought into the corporate life from the beginning, so we’re not going to start now just because we have 160 people, a bit more structure, and some investors. Staff can dress in thongs and shorts if they want, skateboard to meetings or surf on lunch breaks (nice to live on the Gold Coast!). Work needs to be fun, so we throw surprise lunches served by silver service waiters, host regular parties and get togethers, and send a roving beer trolley around the office on a Friday afternoon.


Greg Ellis is co-founder of Nimble.

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