What can we learn from a tech start up about being a social business?

Rarely Impossible is a Mobile app development studio based in Bournemouth. I have met Lee Mallon, the MD at different events like Silicon Beach and most recently All About People in June 2016. Lee has a great approach to business and is never afraid to try something new. Rarely Impossible is a very social business, with an open culture. Lee takes inspiration from other successful businesses he’s learned about on his travels. We have great conversations about work and people doing their work over coffee at these events.

Lee’s most recently featured on BBC Radio 4 and BBC South Today where his approach to work email has been the focus – he’s banned it internally.

Lee’s business is a technical partner, solving clients’ problems with digital solutions. Currently there are 11 people in the team and they are tech savvy and creative group. And it’s easy to say “Well that’s why he could do it”. And yes, you would be right. But it’s his wider approach to his business that I believe means that even as it grows, he’ll keep a cap on email and make its use the exception rather than the norm.

So I went to meet him to find out more. We hoped to natter over coffee in the rooftop garden on the building he shares with a group of other small businesses. We got rained off and headed to the high-gloss ‘boardroom’ shared by all the businesses in the building. What a difference a space makes. Immediately you can feel the change in the way you connect in a different location. Lee is definitely more at home in the relaxed astro-turfed roof garden.

Lee takes a global yet inclusive view to the business. The ambition is to grow the business so that each and every one of the employees can one day take a part of the business to run and build up to £1million each.

Lee explains: “Removing email from internal use was just a catalyst in our business. It was one of the irksome things at work so we decided to tackle it. But it’s the wider approach to work that makes a difference. It’s our culture and our purpose that sets us apart.”

So what have they done?

Use resources for the maximum impact for the organisation

At Rarely Impossible, a well-being budget was introduced to use for the whole team. The well-being budget is used for different things each month but always for something for the greater good of the team. It’s not a huge budget but it makes a big difference.

It kicked off with a ‘lunch club’ where everyone cooked healthy food to bring to work and share with each other during the month of January. It brought everyone together, sharing food, ideas and also to learn new skills.

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Next, they went on to introduce a team ‘personal trainer’ for a month. Each lunchtime everyone could join in and they even invited other people who worked in the building to join them. This was so popular that they continue to do this two days a week.

Other initiatives have been an inter-agency laser quest tournament, water sports, music lessons and they’ve recently had a month where everyone can ‘give’ the budget to other people or groups in small acts of kindness ranging from buying a coffee for the person behind you in the queue, to buying someone else’s dinner in a restaurant or to helping a charity.

Future plans are to implement half days for everyone during the month of August starting in 2017. This will be on full pay and won’t impact their standard holiday entitlement. They are working on making sure that the business is ready to carry that through in a year’s time.

“These ideas give us far more value as a team than if we shared the cash between us. The impact of what is a relatively small spend is huge. We have developers, true techies sharing recipes with colleagues and giving coffee to complete strangers. They are often quiet, deep-thinking people so this has been a great way to gently encourage the team to work together and come out of themselves a little. The effects are long-lasting too – we still have people sharing new-found recipes. It may not be ‘work’ work but it’s connecting our people to each other, getting them to share and communicate which supports our overall aims of solving problems together” Lee concluded.

How can we apply this to our businesses?

Make sure that whatever you do, creates maximum impact for your people for the effort involved. Here it was using budgets to bring people together, help people learn new skills outside of the work remit and look after everyone. Happier and healthier people will be far more productive at work, but it’s also having a bit of fun too.

Manage growth purposefully

The business comprises 11 people at the moment, but as it grows they plan to split into small autonomous groups to keep it personal and focussed around products or projects so they plan to keep ‘working groups’ under 15. Lee said: “When we get bigger, we will split the business into three sets of five so that people are able to manage work well within the group without the need for layers of management or bureaucracy, and still feel a part of the wider organisation. There will be subcultures around projects or products but with our approach to the purpose of the business and our ambition, we hope that everyone feel a part of the agency and the wider mission”.

Lee firmly believes that if you empower your team, allow them to try new things out and you manage your recruitment and career progression carefully you can grow into a larger organisation without losing touch of the culture or purpose of your business.

“We all need to be aligned to the target”

According to Lee, Rarely Impossible will need to keep up with the agile nature and ambition of the people working there. “If not they will leave for new and more exciting prospects with other businesses. This is a high priority for us because we’re a high-tech business, we have to keep moving…” Lee reiterated, “We want our people to stay, and be running businesses as part of our group in the next five years”.

How can we apply this to our businesses?

Get involved in the recruitment comms and help to shape the comms and process so that your business can attract the right people. Help your business to be more social, collaborative and open. Whatever that may be in your business, small changes can make a big difference to how your business sustains what’s important during growth and challenging times and it can improve resilience as it evolves.

Cultivate the culture

There’s a balance at Rarely Impossible. It’s not a case of just turning up and being ‘at work’ but being a part of it. The balance people need to bring with them is 50% skills and 50% humanity. People can’t learn values, so recruiting is a careful and purposeful process. “I’ve been told that when you get to a certain size you have to recruit people who you don’t necessarily like – but I really hope that’s not true. We hire for cultural fit, team working and those who don’t want to work in teams would find it hard and wouldn’t fit” said Lee.

“Everyone gets it [the culture] – we have hard days, we can be stressed out and very busy, but can see everyone is driving in the same direction” and that’s what maintains the culture .

As Lee continues, “looking after each other, our clients and their customers and our future is what we’re all about”. By doing the things they love and focusing on solving customers problems Rarely Impossible’s ethos is simple and apparent to anyone working in the business.

They are mindful that they don’t ‘undo’ too much of the thinking that works in standard organisations, because if someone decides to work elsewhere they’ll still need to be able to work in a different environment.

“If you think that you can’t do something – I believe you just don’t know how to do it yet.”

Hence the name ‘Rarely Impossible’.

How can we apply this to our businesses?

If your leaders find it hard to pin down the purpose clearly and simply, get them to explain it to children and report back to you. It will help them and you to drill down to the real ‘why’ of what they do and what it means to customers. Recruit for cultural and personality fit. People can learn the skills they need to do the job if they have the attitude and desire to learn.

Work smarter

Of course, Lee’s approach to email and banning it internally was a headline grabbing move, even if they are not the first or only organisation to do this. They also have a distinct advantage because they are small in size and tech savvy. But the working smarter approach is about more than just emails.

The Rule of Four, adopted by Rarely Impossible, is a simple approach to making your communication work more effectively.

  1. If you need to ask something – ask in person, call or text
  2. If you create a task, you are responsible for it (which ever tool you use is irrelevant)
  3. If you want to share some information that may interest the team, share it on Slack (information and updates are deleted after 30 days so it doesn’t become a burden)
  4. Use Dropbox for business information that needs to be preserved… This is their knowledge database

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Everyone at Rarely Impossible works flexible hours – anyone could be anywhere. So long as people are delivering their work it doesn’t matter if they are in the office or on the beach.

Mentoring is central to everyone’s development. Each team member has an external mentor, someone they can turn to for advice and guidance. It’s not the reserve of more senior team members it’s for everyone.  The business finds its mentors from a range of sources. Some are randomly discovered, others are planned through friends and connections they have, and some are clients and others inside the client organisations. This openness and keenness to keep learning means that everyone has an opportunity to learn and develop, creating better ways of working from other people. It provides fresh ideas and new approaches to all kinds of challenges.

How can we apply this to our businesses?

Making sure that people use the right channels for the right kind of content and communication is part of what we do in internal communication. There may be an opportunity to get more involved in the way we communicate as we work, our organisational tools for work and in promoting the positive behaviours we need to shift the way we communicate at work.

For your own development a mentor is a great asset. It can be an invaluable and rewarding experience from both sides of the relationship. Encourage others to get a mentor too.

Openness and trust

Being open and trusting people at work is central to the ethos at Rarely Impossible. To this end, clients can see much of what the team is doing and can access the documentation they need. The business is also planning to start sharing what its profits are with its clients. The business is working towards this in the near future.

This transparency is a refreshing approach and shows that profit need not be a ‘dirty word’ when it’s fairly earned.

Everything the business does is based upon a problem solving approach rather than upon selling a product or service package.

“We don’t run our business on time sheets and hours to measure a task, we run our business on solving problems. Our customers buy that value from us and not a never-ending cycle of hours or support services. For example our developers can give clients the options to learn how to access and create the reports they need from a digital solution, or they can ask us to do it for them – whatever is the best solution for the client there and then. We are very open with our clients letting them make the choices as to what they need us to do for them” explained Lee.

How can we apply this to our businesses?

Openness can be hard to develop in organisations where people have been used to working quietly in their project areas and not sharing their work, ideas or opinions. For internal communication, openness and employee voice is something we are frequently working to improve. Sharing good examples, and starting with small approaches will help to encourage people to start opening up. Trust is crucial in organisations. Micro managing and unnecessary rules are just a couple of examples of where trust may be broken. As internal communicators with a view across our organisations, we may see these areas of broken trust, and should use our influence where appropriate to flag up and improve these issues.

As teams we can take this principle to the projects we work on and solve problems rather than allocate hours or use time spent as a demonstration of value.

There is a lot we can learn from businesses of all shapes and sizes. This may be a small, tech start-up, but the principles they’ve deployed to be social and grow could be useful in many different organisations. Often the businesses that are most different to the ones we know can be the most interesting and inspiring.

Let me know your thoughts or approaches to different challenges in your business.

Thanksf or stopping by, I’d love to hear from you and find out more to share.

 

Image credit: Rooftop – Rarely Impossible. Food – Splashbase.co. Desk – Splashbase.co

 

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