Adthena Giving Culture the Credit It Deserves

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Search intelligence company Adthena is headquartered in London, and in October officially launched its new U.S.-based offices in New York and Austin.

To ensure that expansion would reflect the company’s values, founder and CEO Ian O’Rourke brought the new U.S. team to London specifically to assimilate them to Adthena’s company culture.

“We’re very particular about our culture and we want to make sure that we do a good job of exporting that,” O’Rourke told Street Fight in an interview. “We made investments early on and we know that the U.S. is a very big place and a complicated market. There’s a lot of attention and forethought that needs to happen before you go in and are able to make this kind of expansion successful.”

In November, Adthena’s total number of employees was approaching 90 people. Founded in 2012, O’Rourke says that his experience founding a previous company helped motivate him to put more effort into culture.

“I sold my last business to a very large company, and once I got in there I found it to be kind of a rubbish culture,” O’Rourke says. “Working there for any period of time was a soul-destroying experience.”

Employees can feel motivated by work, he says, an understanding that he initially didn’t give much thought to but now embodies a core of Adthena’s success.

“It’s really important that they understand how their work contributes to the company objective, rather than just being busy and doing things and not knowing whether it has an impact on the company goals and outcomes,” he says.

O’Rourke’s experience has made him a “religious convert” to Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), he says, that many other culture-driven companies also employ as a way to build successful teams. Adthena uses OKR practices to measure individual and team performance and to understand where the company is headed. After eight quarters, O’Rourke says the system is getting better and better at helping the leadership realign the company’s direction.

“I want to avoid the situations that make bad companies, where there’s lots of political fighting, people are not motivated or passionate about what they do, and then they leave and you lose all the best talent,” he says. “I really want a business where people are treated like adults.”

In his previous companies, O’Rourke says he was more focused on other things and didn’t give company culture the credit it needed or deserved.

“I just sort of raced off to start the company and thought everything would just work; people would just know stuff,” he says. “It’s not until you get down to tracking everything and start asking questions about why is this not working? Why does everyone hate that person? You don’t realize the importance of culture.”

Company growth especially affects culture as the leadership loses its close connections and communications with employees.

“You lose control,” O’Rourke says. “You can’t control things with 80 or 90 people, so you have to have an organizational culture that everyone buys into and aligns with, and behaves in that way because they see everyone else behaving in that same way.”

Adthena’s culture touchpoints are relayed in a random list that O’Rourke has ingrained as one of the basic parts of his business mentality: “deliver remarkable products”, “get shit done”, “smart and always improving”, and “freedom and responsibility”. Some of those values were likely cultivated from O’Rourke’s personality.

“I am very persistent and I like to think that that’s captured in part of the culture,” he says. “I will just keep on keeping on. I also like to fix stuff. I’m very curious and if something can be done faster or better or different, I will want to dive in and do that.”

Employees are encouraged to take initiative and to make suggestions where they see potential improvements, but O’Rourke says, half-joking, that his executive team might not be especially thrilled with his own fixing of things.

“Sometimes I want to fix stuff that they’re responsible for,” he says. “If you’re the VP of sales or the VP of marketing, you don’t really want the CEO diving in to fix things that he’s seen in your portfolio. I’m sure that sometimes they think my meddling isn’t always the optimal way to do things.”

Now, he does spend a lot of time preaching Adthena’s values, explaining to employees what they mean to the company and to individuals, and giving people tools – such as OKRs – to enable the culture to spread.

O’Rourke says he’s learned that when mistakes happen, they need to be addressed immediately – especially with hiring.

“You always make some mistakes,” he says. “You need to be very careful in hiring and then fairly quick and definitive in removing someone from the organization if they don’t fit. We’ve had a number of challenges where someone comes in and they talk a good game, and then they just wreak havoc. You have to stop it immediately and remove them from the business.”

That’s a challenge he still wrestles with, especially when someone is a good person and gets along with the team, but isn’t performing well, or does good work but doesn’t unify with other employees.

“I’ve had to do that recently, and if I’m being honest with myself, I delayed longer than I should have,” he says. “Even at this stage. So you’re always making mistakes, but also hopefully learning from mistakes and not making them again.”

April Nowicki is a staff writer at Street Fight.