Street Culture: Trans-Atlantic Travel Helps Unacast’s Team Build Trust
Every month, one half of Unacast’s employees travel to visit the other half of the employees – the engineering team is located in Oslo, Norway and the commercial team is in New York City.
The two-year-old beacon and proximity data startup adopted the company-wide travel schedule as a culture-building activity, giving employees a chance to connect while in the same time zone. And though the company’s co-founders know that that policy might not be sustainable through a growth spurt, they’re confident that it’s the right one for now.
“It is expensive flying back and forth every month,” says co-founder and CEO Thomas Walle. “But we believe so strongly that if we can’t build bonds between Oslo and the U.S. now, while we’re still a small and tangible team, it will be impossible as we grow larger.”
Walle cites the “war for talent” in the U.S. as one point that helped the team decide to keep the engineering team in Oslo, where Unacast was founded and could more easily attract talented developers. The trans-Atlantic company trips began after the management team received feedback from employees that they felt disconnected from the other office. So far, he says, the results have been solid: employees are more aligned on sales targets and company goals, and people trust each other more.
“The most important part is the trust piece,” says Walle. “When people learn to know each other, that’s when they build trust. When you build trust with someone, that’s when you’re open with them. If you don’t build that trust first, then you don’t want to hurt their feelings. For instance, holding them accountable for something.”
For now, the traveling isn’t cost-prohibitive, and the co-founders agreed this month that they’ll keep planning and funding the trips for as long as they can afford it.
“I don’t think I can tell you that I know how we will make [the travel] work when we grow,” says Walle. “It depends very much on how we grow, how many offices we have, the state of the company and of the culture. I just know that my co-founder and I, we will and we are spending a significant amount of time to make sure we build the company a year ahead of where we are currently to make sure we can build those strong connections between teams and between offices.”
Unacast teams began traveling every month to visit the other offices only six months ago, around the same time that management also adopted a second culture-focused initiative: a new hiring process for engineers, called “a night at the Unacastle.”
“If you’re an engineer and have been through maybe three or four interviews, you come in and spend a whole night together with a few of the other engineers,” Walle says. “From 6 p.m. to midnight or sometimes early in the morning, they work together, hack together, share some food, just kind of get to know each other. It’s so remarkable to see how many great candidates we see on paper that we’ve been able to take out of the process because they didn’t fit.”
Unacast’s core culture values are directly linked to the company’s identity, and onboarding new workers is already morphing to reflect it.
“First of all, we decided that when we hire people, we have to move super slow,” Walle says. “That’s something that we started to do wrong. We were so eager, it was like saying ‘we don’t care about culture fit or values of the company.'”
Now, the process can take months. To further weed out ill-fitting potential employees, Unacast also launched a dedicated recruitment website, thetwenty.jobs. Job descriptions can be a bit boring, Walle says, especially at a data company, but the site has drawn in thousands of applicants in the six months that it has been live.
“We spent a lot of time on how we can make sure that we as a data company can also have a profile, an identity,” he says. “thetwenty.jobs is one effort to put a face on Unacast for future employees. It’s been such a hit. People, they don’t want to just read boring job descriptions on LinkedIn. In the end it’s not really the job description you’re looking for; you’re looking for who’s working there, how are they, why do they work there. So we flipped it around and focus more on who we are and why we’re building world’s largest proximity network.”
Walle says that from the beginning, the company has always been about doing something that no one has done before.
“No one has ever built a network for aggregated proximity data,” he says. “And proximity data is something that’s completely new. It’s a challenge for the company, but when we want to hire, people have to want to do something new for the first time. The company theme is that we are the knights of the Unacastle. We have one Unacastle in Norway and one in New York, and we’re about the conquer the whole proximity world.”
April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.