Street Culture: Birdzi Finds ‘Liberation’ in Lack of Corporate Hierarchy

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It’s rare to catch a startup right in the moments before its popularity gains traction, and that pivotal shift is happening at Birdzi right now.

Birdzi (as in a bird’s eye view) is a shopper engagement software company targeting mainly supermarkets, and it has potential to move into retail spaces in multiple industries. The service is up and running in 80 stores in the U.S., sending individually targeted promotions to shoppers as they walk down aisles, and is expected to go live in all 300 stores under contract by the end of 2016. With only seven employees — and everyone working remotely — the company is primed to hire between 20 and 25 employees this year. CEO Shekar Raman said he knows what to look for in new team members: they must fit into three pillars of the company’s new-but-strong culture.

“If you aren’t a believer, you can’t work from home productively and you’re not going to survive in this environment,” Raman said. “You have to be excited about what we’re doing. All these guys on our team could walk into any company they want and make three times as much as they’re making right now. But they’re here because they believe in our vision, that we can impact the day-to-day life of shoppers and retailers.”

Belief in the company is number one, Raman said, followed by chemistry, or a natural ability to gel with the rest of the team. Thirdly, new employees must offer a unique skill or value. Raman recalled when one employee, Birdzi’s embedded systems programmer, brought an unmatched value to the team about a year and a half ago.

“He does the programming for our Bluetooth location stuff; he develops the analytics so when shoppers are walking through the store they are targeted with offers specific to them,” Raman said. “A year and a half ago when we were deploying in a new store, setting up 50 beacons would take us the better part of a day. We’ve brought that process down to 30 minutes. That was enabled by that one employee.”

That employee, Ranjeet Wadhwani, works for Birdzi out of a village in India. Others are based in Boston, California, and Raman works out of his home in New Jersey.

“We’re all connected by Google Hangouts,” Raman said. “That’s our office. We connect every other day. The fact that everyone is experienced and no supervision is required is a huge thing right now. We have clearly identified roles and there is no hierarchy at this point. Yes, I’m the CEO, but all that means is there are certain responsibilities and decisions that fall on me.”

New employees coming on this year are expected to work out of one of those locations, for the most part. Other decisions on how to scale are happening organically, he said. Most of the current employees transitioned to Birdzi after working for corporations, and Raman laughed as he said he felt liberated when he and cofounder Franc Borges saw their company growing.

“There’s a certain sense of liberation you feel in this environment,” Raman said. “Financial corporations usually have a kind of stifling background, hierarchy, a dress code, a lot of rigidity in the work environment. Here, it’s totally intentional. I think we find this way more productive; it’s fun. You wake up in the morning and there’s no regimen where you have breakfast, beat the traffic, stand having conversations over the coffee maker. It’s life. You get up, and live.”

Birdzi’s culture is different from the status quo of corporate culture in its freedom to fail. Everyone is encouraged to speak their minds and propose ideas.

“It’s a discussion, not a directive,” Raman said. “What happens a lot of times in corporations is you find that decisions are made that can’t be questioned. You just have to follow along with them and some of them make no sense. They’re riddled with politics and bureaucracy and people hedging their positions. We don’t have any of that and we want to maintain the flat nature of our company as much as possible.”

Three connected aspects make up the Birdzi technology: personalization, customer engagement, and in-store engagement. The personalization part processes data from a retailer to match individual shoppers with offers or specialized content. Customer engagement is facilitated on a branded mobile app, a web platform, and email service to let retailers reach their customers with specific content assigned to the customer’s preferences. Lastly, in-store beacons direct customers with the app to locations of their favorite products.

Raman sees the technology being applicable anywhere; not just in supermarkets and retail.

“Also hospitality, entertainment, any place where there is a customer and a service or product being provided,” he said. “That’s what keeps it exciting, when we can walk down the street and see businesses that can use our technology. That’s exciting.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.