Cogent Conversations: Episode 12
Doug English, Co-Founder and CTO of Culture Amp
Episode 12: Culture Amp
“The premise of Culture Amp is that if you can create places to work where you’re helping your employees to grow and develop and learn new skills, and that’s inline with their overall wellbeing, then you will create more successful businesses.”
– Doug English, Culture Amp
‘Enabling organisations to be great places for humans to work’
It’s one of those aspirations that’s easy to say and agree with, but yet seems to be a challenge for so many workplaces nowadays.
After a number of attempts experimenting with different product ideas to help move organisations in this direction, the co-founders of Culture Amp decided to try again, this time without writing a line of code. Armed with hi-fidelity designs they pitched their idea to HR leaders of large organisations to see if it had commercial viability.
Fast forward a few years, and they now have a significant positive impact on the workplaces many of us are part of, including here at Cogent.
We spoke with Doug English, co-founder and CTO of Culture Amp, about how they built the momentum they enjoy today, how they developed their own culture, and what’s emerging in the domain of creating great places to work.
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Meet the host: Adam Murray
Adam has led digital business, consulted to start-ups and corporates, run co-working spaces, and created his own podcast. Currently, he’s a Product Manager at Cogent, helping organisations verify their venture ideas and enable them to evolve their culture (but just quietly, the thing he loves most is coaching his son’s team of aspiring under-10 footballers).
Full Episode Transcript
Adam Murray: This is the Cogent Conversations podcast made by the people at Cogent. Cogent Conversations is about understanding all the things that go into making a digital business thrive. Helping create these types of organisations is what we love doing best. We also want you to have the opportunity to take the learnings from the best of what Melbourne has to offer so you can apply them to your own business. To learn more about Cogent, check us out at cogent.co.
Doug English: The premise of Culture Amp is that if you can create places to work where you’re helping your employees to grow and develop and develop new skills, and you’re helping them to do that in a way that is helping them with their overall wellbeing, that you will create more successful businesses.
Adam Murray: Hello, it is Adam Murray here and welcome to this episode of Cogent Conversations. This is an organisation that is a great place to work, enabling other organisations to be that way as well. These are two things that we aspire and work towards here at Cogent and they underline many of the things we do.
Adam Murray: The business we are talking to in this episode takes this to a whole new level. It is their entire purpose to make the world of work better, doing this through a digital platform that enables organisations to put culture first. We love what they are aspiring to bring into the world, as well as the inspiring story of how they got to where they are. The organisation we are speaking of is one of Australia’s most recent unicorns, Culture Amp, and we chatted with Doug English, Culture Amp’s co-founder and CTO. Let’s get into it.
Adam Murray: Doug, it’s good to be sitting here with you here in Cogent’s podcast studio, a makeshift podcast studio we might say. It’s a little bit cramped for you. You’re a little bit taller than I am. I’m relatively comfortable here, but yeah, thanks for taking the time to come here.
Doug English: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me, Adam.
Adam Murray: Yeah, you’re welcome. You’re based in Richmond still. That’s where the organisation started as well? Is that right?
Doug English: Yeah, I guess it actually started in Cremorne, but yeah, very close to where we are now in what became the Inspire9 coworking space. So, we’ve been there for quite a few years, really.
Adam Murray: So, you were pre Inspire9. Is that right? Before it was known as Inspire9.
Doug English: We were. We were there when Inspire9 was known as a web development company. Then one of my co-founders, John Williams and I, on a trip to San Francisco … because we’d started a company before Culture Amp and we actually didn’t know of any other people doing start-ups in Melbourne. As far as we knew, there were no coworking spaces. I think that that’s actually true. There weren’t any coworking spaces in Melbourne. It was hard for us to find anyone else doing anything similar to what we were doing. So, John convinced me that we should take a trip over to San Francisco where … Go to the Mecca of where it’s all happening.
Doug English: Met a bunch of Aussies who invited us to parties and started talking about things that were happening in our backyard. At the time, someone there mentioned that there was this guy in Cremorne, Nathan, who had a … basically just let people come and work for free out of his office. And so, we figured that that kind of place certainly beat working out of a state library and cafes that got annoyed with us and our bedrooms, and so we decided to rock up one day and check it out. We were there for about a day. Basically, it was a studio apartment where there was a garage or carport on the first floor and then two floors above, one with a tiny kitchen and bathroom. And then the top one was where the studio bedroom was, which is where Nate had his desk and a bunch of tables pulled together. And it was basically the core of the Ruby community there.
Doug English: So yeah, we spent a day there and basically got no work done because the core of the Ruby community just spent the whole day talking about fascinating topics but doing no real work. So, at the end of that day, we approached Nate and said, “How about we sublease the lounge room on the first floor?” And so, yeah. We officially became the first Inspire9 residents, and then moved with him to Richmond when he set up Inspire9 as a coworking space.
Adam Murray: Amazing.
Doug English: Yeah.
Adam Murray: Funny because I am good friends with Malina Chan as well, who was instrumental in getting Inspire9 to be what it became. And funnily, I ran a coworking space in Sydney as well, and we were looking at that very building that Inspire9 ended up being in. It was more of a serviced office as opposed to a coworking space. It was on that on the cusp I suppose, and I just remember thinking, “Oh, this is such an amazing space.” We rented it, but nothing ever came of it. We’re so close to what Inspire9 ended up doing, but so far away as well. I don’t think we could ever have created the amazing community and … there must be so many threads that are started from that, including yourselves as well, but so many good things. Yeah.
Doug English: For sure. Lots of great companies that were all working there at the same time and a lot of them are still connected very strongly, too.
Adam Murray: Yeah. So, you’re next door to that now? Next door to where …
Doug English: We are, yes. So … which has a bit of a story to it as well because when we were in Inspire9, we wanted to move into the building next door, but it had never been used as an office before. So, it needed a huge amount of work on the actual building: council permits, fire brigade permits, all sorts of things. So, we spent about nine months working with the owners of the building to try and get through all of those sorts of permits and still hadn’t made any real progress and eventually had to … The whole time, our team was growing and growing. Thankfully, Nate had opened Foundry Nine on level three so we’d expanded in there. I think we’d got to the point where we filled up two-thirds of his floor up there.
Doug English: And so, it got to the point where we just couldn’t keep growing there. There was no more space and so we had to let go of the building and move into the city and then we ended up office hopping for a couple of years. Rome2rio who were also Inspire9, literally went to the same lawyer, picked up where we left off with that floor and rode it through for another six months and ended up moving in. So, that’s on level one, and so when we outgrew where we were in Queen Street and we’re looking for where’s our next home, fortunately the level two was still available and because Rome2rio had done all the hard work of working through all the council permits and so forth, it was a smoother ride for us to move in and set up the internet and all the rest. So yeah.
Adam Murray: Yeah. They’re beautiful buildings down there. It’s a great story and a great part of Melbourne. I guess it will always have that feel for a long time to come. I wanted to go back to what you’re saying early on about the founding of the business and travelling to San Francisco. How many founders are there? Are there four?
Doug English: It’s four.
Adam Murray: Yeah, that’s right, and this was not your first attempt together to start something, from what I’ve heard. Is that right?
Doug English: Yeah. So, I think John Williams and I started a company together and then we had been trying to convince Rod to come and join us. And then we also met Didier through essentially the start-up community, so through one of the start-up dinners. And so, I think it was a couple of years into John and I working together that we ended up joining forces with Didier and convinced Rod to join us at the same time, and I guess all merged onto Culture Amp.
Doug English: So, Culture Amp was started by Didier about six months before that, around this idea of creating better places to work. And so, the four of us joined forces to try and focus on the product that he was working on at the time, which was around employee feedback. So, it was around performance reviews. So, I guess the idea of Culture Amp is to try and create better places to work, and very much one of the things that we believed in from the start was that feedback or creating better feedback loops within companies was a core part of how to create better places to work. One of the most broken feedback loops we could see was the performance review process. So, we were working on that as an idea for probably another, I think it was another 12 months or so as a founding group. We struggled with that one because I think it was fairly ahead of its time, I think, in what we’re trying to do.
Doug English: We were trying to turn what we saw as a broken annual process into something that was more connected to the day to day in a meaningful way, that was more focused on growth and learning and development opportunities rather than the punitive review process. So, our big company that we hung our hat on was ThoughtWorks. So, ThoughtWorks Australia really loved the product and were our one big paying customer. We had a handful of others that were paying us a small amount of money, but after 12 months, we looked at it and went, “We’re just a long way from enough paying customers for this to be a viable business.” And so, we had that hard moment of, “Okay, even though we’ve got some customers that love what we’re doing, we just haven’t connected enough.” I think the biggest problem there was that … the problem that we were solving was one that a lot of companies had and knew they had, but internally, in most companies there was no one that wanted to own the problem. And if no one’s owning the problem, it’s not coming out of their budget.
Doug English: And so, I guess the reality of it was back then, there weren’t enough companies that were thinking the way ThoughtWorks were. And so, we’d ended up building a product that I think was a bit too ahead of its time. So yeah, we had a really tough decision to pivot from that idea, played around with another one called Process Amp, which was basically repeatable checklists. So, it was for building process around the manual repeatable tasks that are hard to automate. It was really based off the checklist manifesto concept. So, we built that for about three months and basically set ourselves criteria at the start. We’d learned from our previous challenges that we wanted to make sure that we set criteria of ‘what does success look like’ and be really hard on ourselves to say upfront, “Are we going to meet this or not?”
Doug English: And so after three months when we didn’t have enough sales, we said, “Okay, we’re not investing any more in this,” and we tried another idea and that one was what we called the Murmur platform originally and we renamed, after a couple of years, to the Culture Amp platform, and that was around employee feedback. So, there was … looking at, I guess a similar thing to what we we’re doing with the performance review process for individuals, but looking at the whole company instead of an individual and I think what that idea had going for it was a lot of companies, at least companies that were 500 people or up, were already spending money running surveys on their employees, but they were doing it through consulting companies.
Doug English: So, they already had a budget. It was already a horrendously inefficient system that was very similar to the performance review process, an annual process run with often technology that was written in the ’80s, handed over to a statistician that did a lot of the number crunching through stats packages manually, pulling together exact presentations and then doing some form of a static PDF report cascade through an organisation.
Doug English: So, a lot of what we were doing was really just saying, “Okay. Maybe we can apply a lot of the massive development that had been happening in the customer survey side to the employee survey world and build a ‘software as a service’ platform that allowed internal HR teams to have more control over the process, have the results more immediately, run the surveys more often and have more control over how widely they share the data and who they share it with and how much they share,” and those sorts of things. And so yeah, it ended up being a product that even a bunch of engineers could sell.
Adam Murray: Yeah. Well, so many questions that spring to mind off the back of that. The first one is around how through those – what I imagine would have been some difficult times when you’re deciding are we going to continue going with this or not – how did you manage to stay together as a group through all that and not disband or, I don’t know. Was it relatively easy because of who you were that you haven’t let go?
Doug English: I think the first thing is that there was an aligned purpose for the company, which was to create better places to work. And that was a purpose that Didier started with Culture Amp when he started up before we joined. But it aligned really nicely with the reason that John and I wanted to start our company originally, which was … The reason that I left my corporate life and wanted to start a start-up was I wanted to have more of a sense of ownership over what I built and have more of a direct impact on the world. I wanted to do something that I considered to be meaningful and I wanted to create the kind of company that I would want to work at, to attract great people to come and work with me.
Doug English: And so, in a lot of ways, when we were talking with Didier about what he was trying to do with the company, it aligned really well because for me it was like, “Oh yeah. If that’s the company I want to build in the first place, why not build a company that helps other companies do the same thing?” And I think for similar reasons, that quite excited Rod, which I think is a big part of why we managed to finally convince him to come and join as well. And for the four of us, it was a uniting purpose, which I think was really important for keeping us on the path.
Doug English: A lot of people have also made the point that four is a lot of co-founders and that comes with its own challenges. In a lot of ways, I think we got lucky that the four of us worked well together and in that sense, it worked. But I think a big part of that also was, especially in the early days, we used to discuss and debate a lot of things. And so, a lot of things; it was basically the four of us coming to a decision. Later on, we started to specialise a bit more as things got out of control, as we grew faster and we basically, through necessity, we had to say, “You own this area or I own this area,” and we got out of each other’s way a bit more. But in those earlier years where I think some of those core decisions were really crucial on, do we survive as a company or not, that was often debated as the four of us.
Doug English: And I think what was interesting was there’s a lot of times obviously we just all agreed and we moved forward. When we didn’t agree, it often became two people versus two people. And I think what made it work was that it was rarely the same two people versus the same two. So, we didn’t end up with two blocks that just fought against each other. And whenever that happened, there was a reasonably good healthy debate, where you had somebody that was essentially on your side helping you craft your position, but there were also people on the other side of the debate also making sure that it’s a robust discussion and all the options are considered. And I think almost always it resulted in us getting to a place where we agreed and moved forward.
Doug English: If it was three versus one, then you had to go, “Well, weight of numbers. I’m out voted on this one so we’ll move forward.” So, we tended to make it work, which yeah, was good.
Adam Murray: Yeah, that’s great. It’s interesting. I guess what I’m thinking about is in a different podcast when I’ve talked to Matt Allen about businesses developing and that kind of thing. And he … one of the things I remember him saying to me was that ‘always team before anything else.’ If you can get the team right, team over product, team over business model, team before anything. That’s what he always looks for in I guess organisations or teams that he’s investing in or mentoring or whatever he does there. And it seems like, yeah, that was the core of what happened with you as well. Yeah.
Doug English: For sure. Yes. I think the other thing is we were four engineers joining and so from that perspective, if you look at it from a more choice of degrees type approach, there wasn’t a great deal of diversity. But I think the reality of it was that there actually, each of the four of us brought very different ways of thinking about things to the table, and so I think that also helped. There was some similarity in our approach which helped us to connect, but there were also different strengths that we could rely on and trust. And so over time, I think that worked really well.
Adam Murray: Yeah. You mentioned that that purpose also was a unifying thing amongst the four of you around, can’t remember quite how you put it, but creating great places to work or enabling work to be great. How did you define that? Did you come from some bad experience of work or did you … had you been doing some reading about ‘this is what work could be like’? Where did those ideas come from for the four of you?
Doug English: So, it probably would be different for each of us. In my case, I think I have worked in a bunch of larger companies where there’s, I guess north of 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 people. So, at those sorts of sizes, I think you see a lot more politics and a lot more stagnation. I guess a lot of the companies would have less engaged workforces overall, where of course there’s always going to be the passionate driven people there, but there’s also plenty of people in the companies that were there really just there to pick up the paycheque and make life as comfortable as possible.
Doug English: In a lot of those companies, they tend to realise that as well. And so, what they typically do, is they try and find those more engaged people and put them in the same teams on the important strategic projects so that they can collaborate. But in a lot of ways, I think that just creates these unhealthy bubbles within a company that’s got wider challenges. So, I think from my perspective it was about, well how do we recreate essentially what those bubbles are, but make up a whole company? How do we address some of those deeper challenges that you have as soon as you start adding more and more people?
Doug English: I think from Didier’s perspective, he had quite a different experience because he joined quite early on a visual effects company that was a lot smaller in size. I think it was 50 people when he started, and then he rapidly rose through that organisation and ended up as the CEO. And I think by the time he left, it was maybe 150 people. So, he was coming from a different perspective of, it was ultimately his job to create the culture of the company. I think through his experiences as the CEO, he realised how important engaging people was and basically wanted to build tooling that would have helped him in his role to do a better job with the company he was in.
Adam Murray: Yeah. That’s one of the questions I had too, was about four engineers I suppose coming together, not necessarily deep experts in the field that you ended up creating a product that was successful in. How did you go about building up your knowledge around how this stuff is done at the moment and how it could be done a lot better?
Doug English: Yeah. So, the first thing is that our first employee is Jason McPherson, who’s still our chief scientist at Culture Amp. He’s a deep domain expert in the space and particularly with … So, he joined us when we started working on the Murmur product, which became the Culture Amp platform around employee feedback. He had previously worked at Kenexa which was one of the consulting companies. He’d also had a lot of experience on the customer surveying side, and so he helped us enormously, both in terms of educating us on the space, but also helping us to work out what are the algorithms we should be building into a platform? How should the driver analysis work? What questions should we be asking?
Doug English: So, a lot of our templates were basically drafted initially by his, I guess industry experience, the perfect set of questions that he would like to ask if he was running his own company rather than being in the consulting companies where they constrain you towards what they already had. So, it was basically his opportunity to craft a lot of the questions he thought were the right questions to ask. Then, as we ran forward over the next several years, we started collecting good data and that helped him to actually learn and tweak. So, some of the questions did get tweaked over time towards being more impactful and relevant. So, big part of it was making sure right from the very first hire that we’re hiring domain experts, and that’s continued massively.
Doug English: So, we hire a huge number of org psychologists that we call ‘people scientists’ internally, and they’re embedded in every part of the company. So, we have plenty of people scientists that are working directly with customers, but they’re also in our marketing team, in our sales team, in our engineering teams internally. So, one of our people scientists basically has Culture Amp as a client, and basically helps us with employee engagement and education and those sorts of things.
Doug English: And then I guess the next way is just heaps of reading, reading of books and articles and just taking a real interest in the domain.
Adam Murray: Yeah, just on that, what are your top three books for people to read who are interested in this kind of thing?
Doug English: ‘Primed to Perform’ is definitely the top of my list, which is really talking about the differences between adaptive performance and tactical performance. So that’s a really good one. Another one is ‘Immunity to Change’.
Adam Murray: Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, yeah, yeah.
Doug English: That is amazing, that one. And so yeah, the third I’d say is ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’.
Adam Murray: Yeah, yeah, I haven’t heard of that one or the first one as well, which is ‘Primed to Perform’?
Doug English: ‘Primed to Perform’, yeah.
Adam Murray: I’ll look those up. Cool. So, we were just talking about, before I interrupted with a book question there, we were talking about how you sort of skilled yourself up in this domain. How did you go about creating your own organisation? So, you had this purpose of creating great places to work out there. What did you go about doing from those very early days as you were hiring your first employees to make sure that you were the thing that you wanted to create in the world as well?
Doug English: So, one of the things that we did pretty early on, I think we probably would have been, including the founders, about 10 people, so it was probably after we’d hired six or so, half a dozen people, was an exercise of defining our values. And I think that has proven to be really, really impactful and important as we’ve grown. And I think I probably in hindsight realise now that was mainly driven by Didier, to his credit. And I think in hindsight I realise now just how important that was.
Doug English: Because I think in a lot of ways, the way we think about values and use values is that every time somebody joins or leaves a company, they will change the culture of the company, and that’s actually really important because that’s how you can grow and become a better company over time. You can respect the diversity of different people, diversity of thought and background and all sorts of things coming.
Doug English: The values are the opportunity within a company to hold onto something that doesn’t change. And so, the way we think about it is that the values, ideally, are what differentiates you as a company from other companies. So, if your values are integrity and respect, they’re kind of meaningless because you’d hope that every company would treat their customers with integrity.
Doug English: But if you can craft values that do differentiate what it means to be a part of your company versus another, then it can become a really powerful hiring tool for both helping people to connect with your company, but also being very upfront with people to allow people to self-select out as well. And it becomes a focal point also for helping internally for people to make decisions so that everything doesn’t always have to go back to founders or back to the senior leaders in the company, as long as they’re making decisions within the frame of the values. So, I think that’s probably the most important thing that we did.
Adam Murray: Yeah. What are your values? What did you come up with and are they still the same?
Doug English: So yeah, they are. Although we did add one. So, first three that we came up with were having the courage to be vulnerable, learning faster through feedback, and trusting people to make decisions, in that order. And so, the idea is that by having the courage to be vulnerable, that opens up the opportunity to have the feedback. And so, learning faster through feedback, what we spoke about at the start, it was something we saw as being really core to the principles of how to create better places to work. So, it was really core to the mission of the company as well.
Doug English: And then the trusting people to make decisions is really about how to grow a company at scale. So, deliberately all three of those values were values where there’s two sides to them. So, for example, with the trusting people to make decisions is that you trust me to make a decision or I trust you to make a decision. And so, I think the idea of it is that it first of all focuses the question of who’s the right person to make a decision before we jump to what’s the right decision? And so, that has helped a lot in terms of the way we’ve grown.
Doug English: So, they were the three values that we had for a long time, and it was probably about a couple of years into running Culture Amp, I think we would have been, I’m trying to remember how many employees that would have been, maybe about 60 employees or so. And in some of our surveys actually there was feedback that there were people that felt we hadn’t captured everything that we should be capturing about our values.
Doug English: And as one of the founders, I’ve got to admit that at the time I was kind of of the opinion of, “Well, we’ve already defined our values. These are our values. We don’t need anything else beyond these.” And thankfully, we decided to go down a series of ideation sessions. And so, we ran them in each of our different offices.
Doug English: And actually, it had to have been later than 60 employees because we had one of the ideation sessions in our New York office, and none of the founders were there for that session. And one of the ideas that came out of that was what we eventually sort of phrased, and I actually think it was literally the phrasing of ‘amplify others’.
Doug English: And it just resonated really well because we realised on reflection that the other three values were very much about the individual within the company. And it was definitely true that within Culture Amp it wasn’t just about the individual. There was a lot of focus on how do we as a team achieve things? We’d structured our teams around … cross functional teams that are very mission-based. And a lot of what we did was about trying to amplify other people.
Doug English: And so, it actually ended up being something that we realised actually, yeah, it is a really important missing value that defines how Culture Amp is different to other companies. And so, we tried it on for, I think, about six months, and then we adopted it as a company value.
Adam Murray: Yeah. Wow, that’s cool. I love those values. Cogent defines itself as a values driven or a values led organisation as well. So, we’ve got five values in there. I guess the other thing about values is they can be generic, and they become meaningless, and they can also become tokenistic in a way too, and they’re there, but are they really lived?
Doug English: For sure.
Adam Murray: And we’ve actually just gone through a process of refining our values slightly as well, which has meant dropping three and sort of adding two, just mixing it up a little bit. Which I found quite interesting as well because part of that evolution, I suppose, is that, yeah, there’s still this core that this is what our values are, but they can change a little bit over time.
Adam Murray: I think with values it’s important that they don’t change that often. But as companies change and evolve, maybe they do change a little bit. Maybe yours might be a bit more static than what ours are, but yeah, we’ve found that’s been good, and we’re going through a process of embedding them in the organisation now, yeah.
Adam Murray: You talked about that whole idea of adding the value of amplify others – it came through your own application of your own tool, I suppose. Can you talk about another example of something that’s come through from those employee surveys where it’s just been like, “Ah, yes, of course”? And you’ve had to change something and maybe something that’s been a little bit confronting maybe to the leaders of the organisation team? Is there something that you can talk about there? Not necessarily confronting, but yeah, just some kind of change that’s coming from your own survey?
Doug English: I mean, I think one of the recurring themes that we’ve had as a company that we’ve really struggled with over the years is breaking down communication barriers between departments. And I think a lot of that is driven by the fact that we’re a very global company. For example, our exec team is split between Melbourne and San Francisco. Product is based out of Melbourne. Our sales and marketing is head officed out of San Francisco. And then we have offices in New York and London that are more sort of go-to-market teams and customer success teams.
Doug English: So, I think running the survey and seeing that results are consistently lower than benchmarks and being a challenge has been an impetus for us to keep investing in what are better ways that we can create a more inclusive culture across each of those different offices, and it’s driven a bunch of changes.
Doug English: For example, quite a few years ago now, we had our All Hands meeting rotate between each of the four offices, which we still do today. So, it means that even though half of the company is in Melbourne, when it comes around every third or fourth month, All Hands is run at basically 2:00 in the morning in Melbourne in a time zone that is just not going to work. And so, it gets recorded, and everybody in Melbourne has the experience of watching a recorded All Hands.
Doug English: We’ve invested heavily in video conferencing software and hardware. We’ve done more travel than we probably should to be honest in terms of our environmental impact. But yeah, there’s been a bunch of work done to try and find better ways for us to collaborate, including also starting initiatives that deliberately have people from multiple groups in them. So cross functional teams that include people from marketing and customer success as well as engineers, and a lot of that has helped a lot as well.
Adam Murray: Yeah, there’s a couple of things I want to talk about. One is around the culture of Culture Amp. You talked a bit about the values and that kind of thing, and I’m just interested in some of those ideas about ‘Immunity to Change’ that you’ve talked about and some of those books. They’re really big on that kind of giving pretty open feedback to people and not necessarily just relying on surveys to do that, but kind of doing that in a quite ongoing, incremental daily way. Is there some of those practices that happen at Culture Amp as well? Yeah, what’s it like to work there?
Doug English: Very much so. I mean, I guess particularly leaning back on the value of learning faster through feedback. And so, we tend to focus very much on trying to use radical candour. So, how do we give feedback to people, but also do it in a way that is going to actually help them rather than it being some critical feedback that’s, “You just stuffed this up”?
Doug English: So yeah, I think that’s been through a combination of training, in terms of how do we train our people to give better feedback and receive better feedback? Some of that’s actually built into the tool. The way the tool is designed is trying to push people if they’re giving feedback through the tool. So, obviously we want people to also be giving it more verbally. But if it’s through the tool, then pushing them to be specific, so give examples and make sure that you’re giving feedback that is based on your own experience rather than something you’ve heard from someone else. And so, all those sorts of just healthy hygiene things in the way that you give feedback.
Doug English: But I think at Culture Amp, at times, particularly when we’re talking about larger change initiatives, it can sometimes be quite overwhelming because particularly in the ‘who’s the right person to make a decision’ type question, we can often come to a conclusion of, okay, this person’s the right person to make a decision. And then because of the culture that we have, suddenly we have a huge number of people going, “Here’s my opinion, consider this, consider this.”
Doug English: And so for that person, I think it can often be overwhelming, and we’ve had to do a bit of work internally to kind of say, “Okay, it’s important that everybody is heard, of course, but we also have to respect how hard that can be for the person who has been asked to make a decision.” And how do we make it easier for them to listen and to consider lots of different opinions, but also to have their decision respected, and we move forward sort of respecting that, and yeah, working in the right ways.
Adam Murray: Yeah. Switching focus a little bit now to the impact that you’re having outside of the organisation through the tool, and the impact that you want to have long term as well. Let’s go back very early on. You’d had a few goes at different tools, and then this one started to stick. Was there a moment when you were like, “Oh, wow, I think that might actually have something here”?
Doug English: Yeah, I mean, I think that probably happened in a couple of different phases I think, which is the way kind of these companies tend to work. I mean, I think the first thing was when we started to realise that, I mean, even before we built anything, the very first way that we tested this idea was, to be honest, we were just sick of writing code that just got thrown away.
Doug English: So, we kind of went, “Okay, we’ve got to try this a completely different way.” And so, we built high fidelity mock ups, so we actually didn’t write any code initially. We just built mock ups of what the dashboard would look like. And then we tried to get that out to as many CEOs of 100-person companies as we could. So, we used our networks and tried to reach out to as many CEOs and one up meetings.
Doug English: And we had a piece of paper that obviously was not a legally binding contract, but it did have an amount of money on it, which I can’t even remember what it was now. But basically, we lined up a bunch of these meetings, and we showed them what the dashboard would look like. We talked about the fact that if we got enough interest, we’d build this, and this is how much it would cost you monthly. Would you be willing to sign to say that if we built this that you’d sign up as a customer?
Doug English: And I think we set the initial challenge of go to 50 CEOs and get at least 10 of them to sign. I don’t think we actually got 10 signing, but we did get five signing, and I don’t think it was from 50 CEOs. So, I think, yeah, we probably reached about 25 CEOs and got five signatures. And we sort of figured, okay, well, there’s actually a fair bit interest here. People are willing to sign a piece of paper that actually is a higher activation than what we were experiencing with our previous product where we had made the mistake of saying, “What do you think?” And people are like, “Oh, yes.”
Doug English: But the way that people were interacting was very different as well. So, I think what we realised from the previous ideas is that nobody says, “No,” but that’s very different to someone being excited and saying, “Yes.” And so, I think we could see it from that point. And that’s what drove us to say, “Okay, this is worth actually putting some code down and going from there.” And we built a product that was selling reasonably well.
Doug English: But for probably the first year or so of even that product, we were struggling to work out where’s our niche market? So, we’d sell to an insurance company and then we’d go, “Oh, it’s insurance companies. We’ll hit up all the different insurance companies and see if we can sell to them,” and get nowhere with any of the rest of them. And then we’d sell to a not-for-profit, and we’d do the same with not-for-profits.
Doug English: So, by the end of that first year we had this kind of really weird eclectic bunch of customers where we had like one legal company and a school. And then we managed to, I think initially it was through a blog post that was written by Joris who was the head of people at Atlassian, talking about, he actually was comparing our previous tool that we moved away from, so the performance review feedback tool, against another company called Small Improvements. And they eventually went for Small Improvements, so they didn’t choose us, but we were kind of the runner-up. And he was kind enough to talk about what he liked about both products in this blog post.
Doug English: And I think it was initially through that blog post that we started to find for a long time even after that was posted, we’d get people reaching out to us about performance. And we were able to kind of say, “We’re not doing that anymore, but we are doing this engagement product or this employee feedback product. Are you interested in this?” And his audience was a lot more fast-growth tech companies. And so, I think we started getting a lot more interest from fast-growth tech.
Doug English: At a certain point, we realised we could close deals over Skype. We were using Skype at the time. We don’t use it anymore, but this is going back quite a few years. We could close deals with San Francisco over Skype in about half the time we could people we could meet for coffee in Melbourne.
Doug English: And so, we just started focusing all of our effort on fast-growth tech companies in the Valley. Started having founders on the ground at least once a quarter flying across and walking the pavement and just connecting to as many companies as we could, running events over there.
Doug English: So that’s where our event strategy for Culture Amp started was basically us saying, “We’re going to be sending out a bunch of emails,” that we worked out the shorter the email, the better. And our typical approach was basically just inviting them to a drinks function at a pub at some point during our trip. And just saying, “We’re in town for two weeks. We’re going to have someone from the industry there.” So, try and get a couple of domain experts in the room, and then just invite customers and people we wanted to have as customers and just let them sell for us.
Doug English: So, that strategy worked pretty well for us over there, and before we knew it, we kind of had a lot of fast-growth tech companies. So, at that point definitely we saw something that was kind of going really big.
Doug English: The other thing that we found was at that time, we were also considering VC companies and we went to quite a few VCs over in San Francisco. And at the time there was not the appetite that there is now for investing in companies that are not based in the Bay Area. And also, I think there really wasn’t the appetite for HR tech, either. We were kind of a little bit early in that space. And so, a lot of the VCs didn’t really know what to do with us.
Doug English: But what they did know was that our target market was companies that looked very similar to their portfolios. And so, in a lot of cases, they just put us in touch with their portfolio companies. I think partly to sort of go, “Well, I’ll pass you across, and if they find you interesting, then maybe.” But it meant that we just ended up with all these warm leads to portfolio companies that just, yeah, they kind of went, “Oh, my VC is saying I should look at this,” so they looked at it, and a lot of them became customers. So, I think that also helped us a lot in the early days.
Adam Murray: Yeah, so you started to get that momentum through word-of-mouth. And I’m wondering about the actual, like the product that you built and the impact that it was having on those businesses as well. Was there a moment where you started to see they love it and it’s enabling some really amazing change? Our purpose, the thing that we want to bring to the world, is actually starting to manifest?
Doug English: For sure. I think the reason that it was particularly good in the Valley is that even back when we started Culture Amp, and obviously continuing today, is a massive war for talent. And it’s already to the point where the salaries are just out of control over there, right? And so, companies can’t just keep putting up the salaries and trying to out compete with that side of it. And they’ve already got every perk under the sun that they’ve thrown at the problem, right?
Adam Murray: Yeah.
Doug English: And I think they’ve come to the realisation that it’s not actually the way to retain really top talent. I mean, yes, you have to pay them reasonably. You have to pay them against the market, but you don’t have to be the top paying company to hold good talent. I think for all of us there’s things that are way more important than money and some benefits. And that goes to that sense of purpose, and meaning, and doing something that you believe in and feeling that sense of progress and working with great people and those sorts of things. And so, by giving them a tool that helps them to understand what is driving engagement within their companies, it helps them to evolve their companies towards greater places to work, where they can attract and retain great talent, and they don’t just have to keep using this very blunt instrument.
Doug English: So, I think particularly in the Bay Area where it was such a challenging space for them in the hiring, it was a really obvious choice for them to hire, and to acquire our tool. But I think that’s a story that’s played out everywhere. And we’ve seen some really, really great change on individual levels as well. So, for example, one of our Melbourne companies a long time back, I remember they had one particular manager who when they ran the survey, the scores for their team were very low. Particularly the questions around the manager.
Doug English: And they were a pretty progressive company that opened their data tool with their employees, so everyone saw this manager had this very, very low score. And we actually worked with them to work with their manager on basically, how can we make meaningful change around the space? And so, to his credit, he was actually really great about it. And it opened up a bunch of insights that he didn’t realise, and allowed him to have a lot of open conversations with the team about what wasn’t working and put some meaningful changes in place that meant over the next several surveys that they ran, his scores went up and up, and up until the point where he was not just, wasn’t the lowest manager, he was doing really well as a team. So, I think that’s a very specific example, but there’s literally millions of those across every company.
Adam Murray: Yeah, kind of makes it inspiring to work at a place that’s enabling that kind of change inside organisations and people, I imagine.
Doug English: For sure.
Adam Murray: Yeah.
Doug English: Yeah, it’s definitely what I was looking for in terms of having an impact on the world, when I left the corporate world.
Adam Murray: Yeah.
Doug English: Yeah.
Adam Murray: How does what Culture Amp does translate across say cultures as well? Is it very much just, this is for the western world or western way of thinking? Or is it exploring how these ideas translate directly, or maybe they need to be tweaked a bit to enable certain kinds of ways of working in other cultures as well?
Doug English: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think we definitely do see some cultural differences in the way that surveys are answered. For example, our benchmarks in Germany, the scores are a lot lower than in other places. So, I think that the culture within Germany is more critical in terms of questioning of things. We definitely are taking a very global view in the way that we want … So, a lot of the discussions we’ve been having is, how do we change the tool so that we can, for example, we’ve already internationalised large swathes of the tools so that we can run surveys in, I think it’s something like 60 different languages.
Doug English: There’s been a lot of work more recently in converting the reporting side, and then also the administrative side towards a lot more languages than just English. But then there’s more of the cultural aspects of how does the particular culture deal with feedback? Some of the areas we’ve had more challenges with are places like China and Taiwan, where I think there’s been a lot of our international companies that run surveys where they have a couple of offices in those areas. And we do often see results that are close to a 100% participation, 100% engagement.
Doug English: And so, I think there is definitely a challenge with trust in some of those places. And so, I think that’s going to be interesting. We’ve not tried to go too far into sort of Chinese companies, for example, yet. The focus of our more global expansion has been more Europe and South America being the two big areas. And then within APAC into areas like Indonesia, Singapore, Japan. But I think it’ll be interesting to see whether there’s much appetite for the survey platform. But I mean, I think the other thing is that things do change over time. And so yeah, we’ll see what happens.
Adam Murray: Yeah. Couple more questions for you and one is about … I mean there’s enormous power, I think, in the questions that you ask and probably the way you frame them. And maybe that’s something that Culture Amp has had to … I’m interested in how you approach those questions and how, say if there’s issues that are becoming more in the public consciousness like pay equality between genders, and some other things … Just other kind of really important social topics. What responsibility do you have about asking those questions, and then yeah, the impact that they can have on our society more broadly?
Doug English: Yeah, that’s a great question. Pay equality hasn’t been an area that we’ve focused on specifically. Mainly because what we’ve been focusing on is employee feedback. So, feedback on a bunch of different topics. So, one of them would be remuneration, but it’s basically … So, on the remuneration side what we’re asking is more whether people feel like the remuneration they’re receiving is fair, or it’s comparable to other companies. So, whether they’re being fairly remunerated.
Doug English: So, we’ve been focusing more on the employee feedback side, and then using demographics to understand whether the experience is consistent or not. So, we can help to identify where there are challenges, whether it be by gender or other demographics. The pay side of it is … a big part of it is we don’t actually have that data unless we’re connecting to an HRS, or those sorts of things. Unless for some clients they will load some form of that onto a survey. So, it is possible to do it through the Culture Amp platform, but it’s not something we’ve done en masse.
Adam Murray: Yeah. I’m going to try and ask that question in a slightly different way as well. Just, I think what I’m getting at is, the questions that you ask can I guess trigger a certain thought process in a person, in an employee’s mind or a person’s mind about, “Ah, maybe that’s important,” or “Maybe this isn’t important.” And this seems to … That’s quite a responsibility that you have as an organisation, particularly as your influence is growing through the community. And how do you go about crafting those questions and thinking about the cascading impacts that they might have as well?
Doug English: So, I mean, I think the first thing I should say is, I’m not a domain expert in the space. And so, how we go about crafting is we hire domain experts that can help us with this. More generically we … Particularly when we’re talking about the surveying side of what we do. So, whether it’s an employee engagement survey, or a manager effectiveness survey, or even a diversity inclusion survey. We tend to have what we call an outcome. And so, for the engagement outcome there’s an engagement index that’s made up of five questions that are trying to build up a balanced understanding of what it means to be engaged, for an employee to be engaged.
Doug English: And so those questions all, for us, they tie back to pride, to belonging … So, pride, recommendation and retention. So, with those questions we’re trying to understand: Are you recommending your company as a great place to work? Are you proud to be there? Do you see yourself here in two years? Do you rarely think about looking for another job? So, a combination of both short-term and longer-term retention questions.
Doug English: And then the rest of the survey is … So I guess the challenge with that, is you could run the survey, you could run it with just the engagement questions and that would help you to understand the differential experience across the company, whether it be that particular departments are less engaged, or teams or whatever it may be. But the challenge is, what to actually do about it. Because you can’t just go up to a team and say, “Be more engaged.” It’s just not going to work.
Adam Murray: Yeah.
Doug English: So, the rest of the survey is really about trying to understand the experience that people are having across every other aspect of their job. And so, the rest of the questions we put in, we try and go relatively broad. And so for example, the engagement survey is about 50 questions in total and they’re on all sorts of different topics, whether it be to do with the leadership of the company and having communicated a vision that motivates me, or whether it be related to learning and development opportunities, remuneration, all sorts of things, right?
Doug English: And then we use a correlation algorithm to try and understand which of those questions are strongly correlated to the engagement index, which gives you an understanding of which areas you might want to focus on in order to try and drive engagement. We’ve actually gone a step further a couple of years ago with what we call a focus agent, which still takes it into consideration the driver strength, which is the correlation. But it also looks at a bunch of other things like for a particular team, how different is their score from the overall company’s? Did it drop from the previous year? How does it compare against the relevant benchmarks?
Doug English: So, it takes a lot of other data into consideration as well, and a lot of the focus is, the idea is that if you had an organisational psychologist sitting with you, what would they be picking? And so, what we’re trying to do is replicate that with the focus agent to say, “For these reasons, this is the thing that you should focus on to drive engagement.” So, with that survey, the 50 questions are basically what our org psychologists considered to be the most representative group of questions. They’re all basically guesses at what might be driving engagement. And so, the idea is, that for any given customer, we suggest that they customise those questions to an extent.
Doug English: So, it’s a great first position. But for example, if there’s certain questions that you’re just not going to do anything about, even if they come back as strong drivers, you really should not be asking the question in the first place. If there’s other things that you think might be driving engagement, that are not covered in the survey, it’s worth putting them in and then we can help you to understand whether or not they are. So, that tends to be the approach that we take.
Adam Murray: Yeah, makes sense. You’re all about kind of enabling organisations to do work well, to be great places to work. What’s your vision for the next kind of five years in terms of workplaces, or 10 years, or what are they looking like? How are they different to what they are today?
Doug English: That’s a great question. We actually ran an exercise on what does it look like in 10 years, with our board recently. We asked a bunch of questions around, what does crazy success look like? What does failure look like for Culture Amp? But also, as the industry, what’s going to change and what’s not? And I think a lot of what we were discussing was that, there are some fundamentals that just won’t change around whether it’s 10 years’ time or not, people are still going to be looking for purpose, and meaning, and wanting to be working with people that they really enjoy working with and those sorts of things.
Doug English: So, what will change? I think we’re already moving rapidly to a world where the definition of what it means to be an employee is getting more blurred and confused. So that, I think, is likely to continue. It’s very difficult to work out where are things going in 10 years. I mean, if you look at the existing trends, there’ll be a bunch of jobs and things that will continue to be automated, and then there’ll be a whole heap of new jobs that will be branching out that we haven’t even thought of today. And so, I think there’s also been over the last 30 years or so, there’s been a big shift from jobs that are more with your hands, sort of factory work type jobs towards knowledge jobs. And I think that trend is absolutely going to continue. What are your thoughts?
Adam Murray: Yeah, I don’t know. I can describe what I’d like to see. But yeah, maybe that’s probably more useful for me anyway and I don’t know if it’s useful for anyone else, but easier for me. But I’d like to see places where people’s growth is prioritised, like each individual … the environment built around them is so supportive and has the intention of enabling them to grow, if that’s what they want, I suppose. Not in a stressful way, and not in a way that mollycoddles them as well.
Adam Murray: Because I see … I think some of the trends that I’m noticing, and not just me, but the disconnection that people are talking about and the amount of time people spend indoors and don’t even get outside, because of things like Netflix, and home delivery of food, and those kind of things, and living in smaller apartments that are quite isolated. Work becomes this place where we do often interact more than anywhere else, and we’re spending so much time here.
Adam Murray: I think there’s a massive opportunity for the community of work to grow, and the community field of work to grow, and also for the enablement of people’s growth to be a focus of places where we work. Mental health being such an issue as well, I can see work being not a place we have to compensate for our mental health because we work at a place, but we’re actually better off because of those organisations. Better off mentally, better off socially, emotionally, physically, spiritually. We get meaning from the work that we do. And so, that’s what I’d love to see and that’s why I’m inspired by the work that organisations like yours are doing.
Doug English: No, I think that makes a lot of sense. I mean, the premise of Culture Amp is that, if you can create places to work where you’re helping your employees to grow and develop and develop new skills, and you’re helping them to do that in a way that is helping them with their overall wellbeing, that you will create more successful businesses. And so, I think my view is that over time we’re going to see more and more companies realise that, put their effort into creating those sorts of places and they’re the companies that are going to be successful. And over time you’re going to see more and more companies realise, in order to compete they’re going to have to do the same thing. So yeah, I 100% agree with you. I think that’s probably going to be the biggest shift we see over the next decade.
Adam Murray: Yeah, I’m excited by that. I’m excited to hear that you kind of agree with that, too. There’s another book that Robert Kegan wrote with Lisa Lahey called ‘Deliberately Developmental Organisations’. Have you heard of that one?
Doug English: No, I’ll have to check it out.
Adam Murray: Yeah, check that out and it’s about a few of those couple of organisations, one being Bridgewater Capital, another one being Decurion, another one being Next Jump, I think it is. Next Level, Next Jump. I think it’s Next Jump that have oriented themselves around that kind of approach of that growth, and enabling the culture around it so that it’s supportive of that. It’s not always comfortable to come to work, but it’s amazing for people to come to work.
Doug English: Yeah.
Adam Murray: Yeah.
Doug English: Sounds awesome.
Adam Murray: Last question, and it’s about Melbourne and the city where Culture Amp has come out of. And just your reflections on, what’s a little bit different about the way Melbourne goes about business, the tech scene in Melbourne and what enables an organisation like Culture Amp to come out of Melbourne? What is it about Melbourne?
Doug English: That’s a great question. I mean, a big part of the reason that we’re here is that we have families that are here, and families that didn’t want us necessarily moving elsewhere. I think Melbourne has a lot going for it, though. It’s got a really strong engineering culture, so we have some really talented engineers here, which makes it really a lot easier to start companies and hire great people to help build the companies.
Doug English: I think some of the disadvantages can also be advantages. So, for example, Australia is quite a small country and reasonably isolated. And what that means is that it’s quite difficult to build a business, in some ways it’s quite difficult to build a local business here. And so, I think companies are often forced to think globally a lot earlier, and at the start that can be quite hard, obviously. But I think it means that we’re naturally having to face challenges around languages, and time zones, and all those sorts of things a lot earlier than other companies. Basically, build it into the fibre of the way that the company runs, which I think for say an American company, it’s too easy for them to become quite a very successful, large company just focusing on the US market. And then when they start looking at, how do we grow into Europe, for example, they have to face a whole raft of challenges that basically need them to rebuild the company in order to do that. So, I think that’s a massive opportunity for us.
Doug English: The other thing is, I think with Australia there’s so many Australians that travel. So, we have, almost every engineer that we have, whether they were born here or not, they’ve spent large amounts of their time over in the US, or over in the UK, or elsewhere in the world working and then bringing ideas back – and expertise back. So, that helps. And then of course, we’re also a very multicultural country. And so, we also have plenty of people that have come from all over the world. So, I think the diversity, it’s much easier to build diverse teams here, and diverse teams are provably more creative. So, I think there’s some really great opportunities.
Adam Murray: That’s a great insight to finish on. Really appreciate your time. It’s excellent to hear about Culture Amp, and get that inside look, and I think we’re inspired by the work that you’re doing. So, yeah, thank you.
Doug English: Thank you very much, and thanks for the opportunity to come and have a chat.
Adam Murray: No worries … To help us get the word out there about all the great digital businesses in Melbourne, you can help by sharing an episode you love with a friend, or by rating and reviewing this podcast for your favourite platform. And finally, if you want to tell us about how your business is thriving or you know of another digital business that is having an amazing, positive impact, the best way to do that is through emailing us through firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Adam Murray and I look forward to hearing your story.