By Vasco Pedro
The CEO and cofounder of a rapidly growing enterprise software company explains how its mission and culture adapt to encompass team members across seven offices in two countries.
For startups, opening your first office is a landmark moment. For scaling businesses, that moment is when you open offices two, three, and four.
Unbabel started out in 2014 as a single office based in Lisbon, Portugal. In under five years, we’ve grown from 50 to 150 people (and we’re on the search for more, with over 50 open positions as of February 2019). We’re now managing five offices in Portugal, as well as offices in New York and San Francisco.
Expansion is a proud moment for everyone involved in the company and brings more people on board with your vision. However, there is some strategic thinking to do when your workforce expands from one office to several offices, especially when those new offices may start small in order to expand into new countries and continents.
Managing remote teams and ensuring our culture and values translate across offices is extremely important to us. Unbabel’s “Translation-as-a-Service” platform has grown rapidly as a result of removing language as a barrier to global customer experiences, and, internally, we’re very focused on removing the mental barriers associated with workplace segregation and silos. It’s something we’ve addressed very strategically and luckily, very successfully. Here are some tips that, in my experience, can really help every office attached to your business stay in sync.
Often, things can be hardest for a growing company in which the HQ has a real thriving office culture that doesn’t filter out to the satellites because then remote workers feel a lot more absent. Unless you as a business work from a model that is entirely pinned on remote working, your main office (or biggest two or three offices) will tend to become the central hub. This can make it tough for the team of five in Hyderabad in terms of feeling dialed in, compared to the team of 150 in New York.
How can you overcome this? I think it works best when a remote office, in a way, doesn’t feel like a remote office. It is important that new offices feel like hubs, and that everyone in these offices understands the importance of what they’re trying to do and has a shared sense of mission and purpose. There has to be enough gravitas and credibility to the mission in each office.
"There should be an overarching culture across all the offices, but each location should be allowed to flourish within its own subculture."
There should be an overarching culture across all offices, but each location should be allowed to flourish within its own subculture. Embracing the small differences and regularly championing the work and successes of satellite offices will reap rewards.
Function also plays its part. For example, our San Francisco office is very customer-facing. Its mission is to support and grow our customers in North America, so we have given the staff there the functions they require to achieve this.
"Understanding the local customs of your overseas workers is often just as important as understanding the local labor regulations you have to observe."
In Lisbon, we have developed a campus mentality, and we have different offices with unique primary functions. We have an engineering office, a sales office, and an operations office, and all this enables those offices within the campus to create their own subcultures along with the central Unbabel cultures.
As long as cultures are compatible, it’s okay to have derivatives. The nature of humans is to differentiate in some way.
A NUMBERS GAME
It’s important to remember that when starting a new office, the number of people will affect how you manage the situation. Things that work for an office of 150 people won’t necessarily work for an office of 10 people, and vice versa. The more people, the more you must accept that the office environment will grow and branch off in unique ways. You need to give them some freedom to develop or you risk frustrating your workforce. These employees will be shaping your strategy in real time.
But how do ensure that you build a team that complements your existing cultures, especially when it comes to remote teams? It’s simple: By hiring a team that shares the same values, you will ensure you don’t need to deploy a lot of management. I can’t be in every interview, so we’ve codified our values and what fits into our culture so that people can have some autonomy.
It’s also important that the smaller offices have people going back and forth to create and maintain a connection among offices. Have frequent visitors and maintain a consistent stream of interchanges so that everybody is aligned. Spending time face-to-face really helps. Even when people join in our all-hands meetings remotely, I ask them to turn on their camera so that you can see them the same way they can see you.
HAVE A LEADER AT EVERY LOCATION
I’m not saying that you need to separate the C-suite so that one member of the executive team exists in every new office (CEO in San Francisco, CFO in London, CIO in Lisbon, etc.). That’s not very practical. It’s more about ensuring you have a strong leadership figure in each office who can help spread and define a company’s mission.
It’s natural that employees will feel connected to their own office environment compared to the HQ hundreds or thousands of miles away. But having that strong leader at the helm of operation guides everyone in understanding the importance of what they are trying to do, ensuring that there is a solid shared sense of mission and purpose.
Engaging and integrating a truly global workforce often boils down to simply being ready to embrace and encourage diversity. Understanding the local customs of your overseas workers is often just as important as understanding the local labor regulations you have to observe (although don’t forget those regulations!).
If your leadership team can put aside the time to engage with employees the world over, both exposing them to the company vision and learning from them in a continual cycle, your workforce will feel stronger and you will open up the true benefit of having satellite offices. As you grow, you will need to become more thoughtful and mindful. But by doing this and by providing opportunities for new offices to be more than “just another location,” you’ll encourage and grow new business hubs that can help your global business expand successfully.
VASCO PEDRO is the CEO and cofounder of Unbabel, an enterprise software company that combines state-of-the-art AI with a global crowd to break down business communication barriers. The company closed a $23 million Series B in January 2018 led by Scale Venture Partners, with participation from Microsoft Ventures, Salesforce Ventures, Samsung Next, Notion Capital, Caixa Capital, and Funders Club (which followed a $5 million Series A in October 2016). Unbabel was the first-ever Portuguese company to be accepted into the Y Combinator program in 2014.