What if your people are not your greatest asset?
How the "odd" concept of borrowing someone else's dog has grown into a significant business with hundreds of thousands of very happy customers!
An interview with Rikke Rosenlund Jacobsen founder & CEO of BorrowMyDoggy
- Why your people are NOT your greatest asset.
- How an allergy resulted in the creation of BorrowMyDoggy
- Why Rikke will sometimes bring a dog into the interview process
- How Simon Sinek's ‘How great leaders inspire action’ TED Talk helped Rikke realise that her personal motivation matched the impact that BorrowMyDoggy has with borrowers and dogs.
What is your company’s greatest asset?
Having worked in start-up recruitment for the past 15 years I have asked this question countless times to founders and CEO’s.
Nine out of ten early stage start-up CEOs I ask answer “people.”
However when I ask them, “Which one of your team, if you lost them today, would result in your business closing down today” most admit that their team are all replaceable. They recognize that their company would still be the company even if they were to replace their most exceptional employee(s).
So, if your people are not your company’s greatest asset, then what is?
In start-ups most technology is replaceable and can be built better. Brands can be changed, and everyone, including the CEO, is replaceable. It’s not ideal and this sort of over-haul would be incredibly challenging, time consuming, and extremely costly, but in essence it would still be the same company, even if all these elements were changed out. My point is - if everything and everyone in your company is replaceable, then what truly defines your company? What is the invisible glue that binds the people, technology and brand together?
The answer to that question, in the hyper competitive start-up world, is also a start-up’s greatest asset, its CulturalDNA.
CulturalDNA is the untapped gold mine of competitive advantage - it is the differentiator between a good company and a great company, and more often than not, the key differentiator between success and failure. In the course of writing Built to Last, the authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras found that companies that had been successful for five decades or more, companies like 3M, GE, Wal-Mart, P&G and Walt Disney, had invested in defining, embedding and reinforcing their CulturalDNA, the values, behaviour and motivations that the founder(s) aspired to, at a very early stage of the company’s development and that the culture of the company was a major differentiator in the long-term success of a business. Most of the companies that were built to last were found to be cult-like, without actually being cults.
The importance of developing the right company CulturalDNA is almost universally overlooked in the early stage development of a start-up because it is not obvious how to define it, never mind nurture or develop it (especially for a first time CEO).
Too many start-up CEOs do not invest in their culture. Defining fundamental values, motivations and behaviours that influence their business is not on their agenda because they are too busy and don’t believe they have the bandwidth to think about it. The problem with not guiding the growth and development of your CulturalDNA, is it develops and grows invisible and organically, whether you like it or not. At some stage, probably when the wheels have started coming off, a CEO will realize that they have no insight into, or leadership over one of the critically important elements of their business. Trying to understand and rebuild your company’s CulturalDNA two or three years down the line is a lot harder than doing it right from the start.
Start-ups invest in recruitment, technology, sales, marketing and operations but the majority of start-ups do not invest enough time or effort in defining, understanding, building and nurturing their CulturalDNA. The creation of a start-up’s CulturalDNA is not a singular event; your company’s CulturalDNA does develop over time. As CEO it is your responsibility to create the right environment for your high performance culture to develop.
By its nature, a start-up is under-funded, under staffed… it’s totally under resourced, and the scarcest resource for a CEO is time. As a start-up CEO you need to organise your company in a way that will help your team achieve greatness without the need for micro-management or much supervision. You need to hire people that you can trust to do their job and take the right decisions. Start-up companies work best when all members of the team share a common vision of the future and operate on the basis of a shared purpose and values. In these companies, members of the team are able to operate with responsible freedom and don’t need supervision. If implemented correctly your CulturalDNA will assist you in building a high-performing team and sustainable business. If, as I believe, it is your greatest untapped asset, then it makes sense to not only understand more about it, but to invest in it.
So, what is your CulturalDNA? How do you define it? What does it consist of? What are the advantages of guiding the growth and development of your CulturalDNA? Where does it come from? Can it be measured? How does it impact the bottom line? How does it impact hiring, firing, promotions, reward structures, performance reviews, communication and learning in your company?
From my interviews from these blogs, executive search experience, advisory work and Seedcamp investor experience I have noticed that the positive effects of investing in CulturalDNA are:
- consistent and impactful communication
- improved ability to hire A+ candidates who fit with the company’s culture
- significantly lower employee churn
- higher trust factor across the company
- improved team happiness and satisfaction
- perhaps most importantly, having everyone pull in the same direction during times of hardship for the company
- better overall results, higher growth, greater profitability and exit potential than the “average” start-up
By defining your company’s CulturalDNA – its values, behaviours and motivations and embedding them into your company, your team will glue together and feel empowered to live the values and support the company’s vision, mission and purpose at all times because they fundamentally believe in it and therefore live it 100% of the time.
Cultural DNA in action: interview with Rikke Rosenlund Jacobsen, founder of BorrowMyDoggy
Rikke is the founder and CEO of BorrowMyDoggy, one of the few start-up CEOs who, when I asked what her company’s greatest asset was answered “Our culture.” I sat down with Rikke to understand what she and the BorrowMyDoggy team have done and are doing to codify their CulturalDNA.
How did you come up with the idea for BorrowMyDoggy?
I was born into a family of entrepreneurs; my parents are both entrepreneurs so I had the entrepreneurial bug from an early age. My family have always emphasised to me the value of me being the best I can, and trying to make a positive difference. Whether this is through organisational work (Rotary etc), local community work or even linked to causes they believe in (Save the Children etc), making a difference is at the centre of their values, as it is mine. Unfortunately my mother is allergic to dog hair, so we couldn’t justify having a dog as a pet. My grandparents had a farm and I really loved playing with their dog when I went to visit them, so the idea of borrowing a dog was a good fit to my values - I want to make a difference, and this just made sense to me. People, like me, who are unable to own a dog would be able to experience the companionship, happiness, exercise, joy and love that I did with my grandparent’s dog and give the dog the love and attention that all dogs want.
So how did you go about starting the business?
I was encouraged by friends to test out my thesis that people would want to borrow a dog and others would want to share their pets, so I set up a basic website with a landing page and promoted it by hanging up posters in a local park and via social media channels. 85 people signed up and the reasons they had signed up were incredibly compelling and confirmed my suspicions that there was a need in the market. One of our initial members was an older gentleman, based in Cornwall, who was recovering from an operation; therefore he could no longer take his dog for long walks. Another was from a family whose young daughter desperately wanted a dog but was also very scared of them, so the family wanted to make sure that their daughter would be comfortable with a dog before getting one of their own. Reading these members stories really touched me as I could see how we could make a difference to people’s lives by starting BorrowMyDoggy. In the early days of the business we conducted manual matching of the dog and the borrower and this allowed us to get to know the members really well. We were able to understand their needs and wants, which is something we’ve always been very focused on.
When did you first start thinking about your CulturalDNA?
When starting BorrowMyDoggy I watched Simon Sinek's ‘How great leaders inspire action’ TED Talk which focuses on asking ‘why?’ and it helped me to realise that this was all about people and dogs making a positive impact on each others lives, which was the same as my motivation for starting BorrowMyDoggy. Once this was clear, we communicated it to the outside world. Our concept and values resonated well with other people and we started to receive so much wonderful help, and even emails from people who wanted to join our young pup of a company, which they did.
What are the advantages to writing down your company’s values?
It’s actually been quite a challenge writing your company’s values down. Our company values have always been unconsciously understood, but never written down, so when we started doing a re-branding exercise 3 months ago, we thought then would be a good time to discuss them, along with our mission and vision. It has been a team effort to write them down, and going through this process has helped us really clarify what’s important to us and how we are becoming more aligned as a team. The values that we are defining will help guide the decisions we make as a business with our borrowers, dog owners, partners and employees. Our overall aim to leave ‘Pawprints of Happiness’ on the lives of millions of dogs and people can be achieved by clarifying our values and embedding them into our business.
Where are you in the values definition process?
Our values focus on happiness, innovation, being positive, going above and beyond, teamwork, and making a positive difference. We have created the initial list of values - they aren’t yet set in stone - and we are now in the testing phase to see if they stand up to scrutiny from ourteam. Defining our values and CulturalDNA is an on-going process and it is still too early to say that we have finalised them, but we have the first version on the wall in our ‘kennel’.
Can you give me some examples of your values in action?
One is that we really focus on our customers. Whether that’s valuing their feedback, personally helping them find a match, or just generally answering their questions, we’re there for them. I love to hear our customer service team speak with our community as it is so evident that our team really do care about every person they speak to. I am also very proud of the fact that we consistently have very high customer satisfaction scores within the help team.
Another value is ‘One Pack, One Team’. The team works well together across the company, and we also play together. We’re aware that we all have the same goal in mind, and by all pulling in the same direction; we’ll get there faster. Where relevant, team members include each other in discussions and make each other aware of any new projects under way. The team has come up with pack activities, including water pong Fridays in the office and welcome lunches for new members - it is lovely to see the friendships being formed and that we are helping each other out beyond the time together in the office.
Another of our values is for us to take risks and react fast. We have brainstorm sessions on how we can improve our members’ experience and build the business. A lot of these discussions are based on feedback from our members. As a result, we run a lot of tests across the business - obviously some of them do not work out so it is important we react fast to any of the learnings.
We are a high-growth, entrepreneurial company so we need people who, amongst other attributes, take initiative, get things done, are caring and are not self-absorbed. To get team members who fit in the ‘Pack’ we ask a lot of questions around these attributes and will listen carefully to the types of questions the candidates ask us, too. The questions tell us a lot about what’s important to that person. Sometimes we’ll bring a dog into the meeting room during an interview to see how the candidate reacts - if the candidate doesn’t react positively to the dog’s arrival, reach out to touch the dog or interact with them, they’re definitely not suitable for us. Now that we have a clearer picture on our values, we will be building interview questions that will test whether the candidate’s values match ours or not.
Which company in your career had the best culture?
I joined Hard Rock Café in Madrid as one of my first jobs and I still remember the values the company vividly: take time to be kind, teamwork, double-check it & love all, and serve all. It was an incredible environment to work in and the fact that I still remember the values tells you how effectively they embedded them in the company.