Street Culture: Taking Estimote’s ‘No Barriers’ Culture Literally

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In a conference room, a sign on the wall says, “This is a no bullshit zone”.

At beacon company Estimote, people are trying to take that statement extremely literally. The company’s mission is to build a new operating system for the physical world, and to get there the team needs zero bullshit. Culture is far too important to leave to chance, says John Cieslik-Bridgen, Estimote’s VP of culture. But it’s also important to allow natural evolution.

“I think it’s very tempting as leaders and managers or founders to just define the culture ourselves,” says Estimote co-founder Jakub Krzych, in a YouTube video about the company culture. “At the end of the day it’s the company that we’ve been here forever and we’ve had this vision, so who knows better the culture than we? But from the other hand, the culture is actually something you cannot define, because it’s the people who create it.”

Right now, Estimote has defined a cultural framework, a starting point for employees to use when learning the “soul” of Estimote. Cieslik-Bridgen says that framework, called the culture book, was defined with the help of every single employee at the company. New hires have been added since the framework was launched this spring, but at that time of launch, everyone had participated. Everyone was also featured in the culture YouTube video – a number of people look surprised but amused at being caught on camera.

“There are no barriers to question anyone,” the narrator says in the video.

That point is also taken literally.

Michał Stęchły, software engineer/researcher for Estimote, had just started working for the company in September 2016. This March, about six months in, Stęchły saw Cieslik-Bridgen giving an office tour to the new VP of sales, Ted Driscoll.

“John was explaining to him the structure of the company,” Stęchły wrote to Street Fight in an email. “I was walking nearby and wanted to hear how John explains it, and I didn’t see any reason why it should be any problem for them.”

Cieslik-Bridgen was surprised – a new employee approaching two members of senior management at random and asking to be part of the conversation.

“But what can I say?” Cieslik-Bridgen says. “If you want to talk about transparency and lack of barriers, you can’t then put your hand up and say, ‘This meeting, here in this open space, is a secret one.’”

It’s kind of a shock when this starts to happen, but it does and it will happen. Cieslik-Bridgen is confident that this moment helps show how much the “no barriers” point has sunk in.

“This is a great example,” he says. “An engineer who’s not been with us very long, but he had heard the cultural values, and that we need to understand the big picture. And so he said, ‘I need the big picture. I need extra information.’”

Stęchły already had the big picture, more or less. This actually happened before Estimote unveiled the company culture book. Stęchły had learned this part of the company culture during his onboarding, and though he wouldn’t have asked to join in such a meeting at his previous company, he knew that at Estimote, it was a chance to turn words into real life action. In this case, it was just another day at the office.

“I was standing with them maybe 10 minutes, listening about structure of the company [that] I already knew,” he wrote in the email. “Maybe John [Cieslik-Bridgen] talked about some intricacies of the structure, maybe Ted [Driscoll] asked some really insightful question – I don’t remember.”

Some companies help to shape culture in a top-down manner, or a bottom-up manner, but Cieslik-Bridgen hedges that label and says Estimote is going for more of a hybrid tactic. Startups have a tendency to change over time, as the culture evolves from its original founding vision.

Co-founder Krzych refers to culture as a reminder to use a moral compass, at its base. Krzych heard about this definition of culture from Andrew Mason, founder of Groupon and co-founder of hyperlocal audio app company Detour, at the seed accelerator Y Combinator in 2013.

“Basically, he said that within your startup lifetime, you as a founder and as a team member, you will have a lot of temptations,” Krzych says. “And these temptations will be partly your natural human behavior, for example to hide something or to not be transparent. And these are like, very natural temptations, but culture is there and values especially – the culture book – is there, just to remind you, that every time you have this temptation, there is this moral compass that will remind you to do something else.”

A reminder to use a moral compass is inclusive, and Stęchły fits in by using that inclusivity to upgrade. During his first month with the company, he had an idea to improve the method for measuring the engineering team’s progress.

“I shared it, everybody on the team approved, and we started using it,” he says. “It was a small thing, but it wasn’t rejected only because I was inexperienced or new.”

Stęchły also described having doubts about the naming of Estimote products is consistent, and the conversation he had on Slack with the head of developer experience, Piotr Krawiec.

“[He] told me why he disagrees with me and why we name these products the way we do,” Stęchły says. “Everything in a cool, respectful manner. I also frequently approach our CEO and CTO and ask them a lot of questions. In most cases I try to just educate myself, but sometimes I ask why they made such a decision and they see no problem in explaining it to me.”

Estimote is planning for a significant growth period happening in the coming year, with a community of nearly 100,000 developers worldwide using its products, including 65% of the Fortune 100 in the U.S, and currently at 67 employees. More than 20 open positions are listed on the company’s careers webpage – all in Kraków, Poland – which presents one of the cultural challenges that Cieslik-Bridgen is working on now.

Ten employees are located in the U.S., in New York City and San Francisco, but the bulk of the team is in Poland.

“I think the most important priority for the culture team, at the moment, is working on harnessing the international aspect of our company as a real strength,” Cieslik-Bridgen says. “Taking potential challenges and turning them into strengths. We really really want the company to feel like an international company.”

He says that placing national cultural stereotypes is a theme he wants to avoid, because generalizing is superficial and dangerous.

“We are doing some cultural awareness training on the differences between U.S. and Polish culture,” he says. “That’s early days at the moment, but it’s important to realize there are different kinds of people and different potentials for misunderstanding.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.