Photo credit Slush 2017
Slush is an annual tech conference in Helsinki. Also dubbed the SXSW of Northern Europe, it can be described as the carnival of the Finnish startup scene. This year, culture and the direction of work were among the headlining themes at the conference.
2017 marked the 10th year of Slush. What started as an intimate, 300 person gathering has grown into a global community that organizes annual conferences not only in Helsinki but also in Tokyo, Shanghai and Singapore, as well as more than 75 adjacent events with 40 000+ attendees around the world.
Slush started with a bang this year. A laser and music spectacle opened the conference followed by a speech by Sauli Niinistö, the President of Finland. The opening keynote did not disappoint, either. Al Gore, probably the most anticipated speaker, took the stage to discuss climate change.
Gore talked about how there are only really 3 questions about climate change. “Must we change? Can we change? Will we change?” How we’re on the cusp of a sustainability revolution and that represents one of the greatest business opportunities in history. The talk gave everyone some perspective on what kind of role we as business builders can take in shifting the status quo.
A shared history
Smartly.io’s story is tightly intertwined with Slush and the startup community surrounding it. Many smartlies originally met when working or volunteering for the event. Our founder Kristo attended his first Slush in 2008 when he was just beginning to learn about startups, and later founded Aalto Entrepreneurship Society (a grassroot-level student startup organization at Aalto University), the startup accelerator Startup Sauna, and the internship program Startuplifers.
Many of the elements that formed the culture around the conference have also been baked into the culture at Smartly.io – learning by doing, giving ownership to people, creating an inspiring and ambitious vision, and then trusting your team to execute on it.
So it was great to see that so many of the talks this year focused on the importance of culture in building a successful tech company. Here are some highlights:
Panel discussion: Can self-organizing teams work or is it just a myth?
Our co-founder and CEO Kristo joined a panel discussion on self-organizing teams with Niklas Jansen the co-founder of Blinkist, Vishal Vasishth the co-founder of Obvious Ventures, and Marianne Vikkula, the CEO of Slush. The panel detailed the building blocks of efficient self-organization, including clear purpose, aligned culture, transparency, and recruiting the right people — and debated whether self-organizing teams need leadership or not.
Successful self-organizing teams are formed of people who are willing and able to see the big picture, step outside of their role, and work towards a greater good than merely their individual success. Finding the right people is not easy. As our CEO Kristo said in the panel: “The amount of variables in hiring is huge. You can’t know for sure beforehand if someone works out.”
Articulating your company culture very clearly to prospective employees can help to determine if there’s a match between them and your company. That’s what we’ve done with our recently published Culture Handbook, which is available for all of our applicants.
100% holacracy rarely works out of the box, you have to adjust the best parts of self-organization to the needs of your company and the challenges of your environment. Jansen described how Blinklist outgrew its holacratic structure, and the philosophy that once had helped them scale was now slowing them down. They introduced structure to their previously fully self-organizing teams, and created the Blinkist Operating System.
Smartly.io also believes in a mix of self-organization and servant leadership. “In a way, Smartly.io is actually very far from self-organizing — we’ve put a lot of energy into building infrastructure to support teams so they can self-organize their work,” Kristo admitted, following a recent blog post about our approach to self-organizing teams.
Fireside Chat: Putting your culture and values into action
Another talk that really resonated for our team was Adam Fridman and Nicolas Dessaigne’s discussion about putting company culture into action. Adam Fridman’s formula for building culture was simple but powerful. “Purpose inspires, values guide, habits define.”
Dessaigne’s company Algolia is at a similar stage as Smartly.io — they’ve grown to 170 people, doubling their team in the last year and work across 5 offices. He observed that “Culture is difficult to scale, but it’s also the best tool to help you scale.”
If you want the culture to stick, you should make it top-of-mind, get people to grow habits around it. Algolia has 5 core values: grit, trust, care, candor, and humility. They made Slack emojis for each value to help people use them in everyday discussions.
“Culture is never ready”, said Dessaigne. We agree. You have to keep seeking ways to improve your culture, or it won’t help you tackle the challenges your company will face in the future. You have to be intentional about your culture. When managed right, culture has a massive impact on your success, so you want to make sure you’re building a culture and a company you’ll enjoy working in in the future.
Part of our team is on site at Slush day 2 - come say hi.