I met up with Alicia Navarro, the co-founder & CEO of, Skimlinks to speak with her about the unique culture that her company Skimlinks has built.
How Alicia uses a toaster as a cultural enhancement strategy
The power of #Skimlove
How the company is able to differentiate and hire the best A+ talent through creating an environment where their employees can self-actualise
Why Alicia prefers to read fiction vs business books and biographies
How Maslow’s Hierarchy can be applied to the world of start-ups
Skimlinks is the leading affiliate marketing platform for online publishers to convert their existing links into affiliate marketing links. The company was founded in 2006, has raised $25m in funding, and is the dominant player in the space.
As the interview progressed I realized that Alicia and the Skimlinks team have built a CulturalDNA (the company’s values, motivations and behaviours) that matches well with the Start-up Hierarchy of Needs model that I have been thinking about for some time. The Start-up Hierarchy of Needs is my twist on Abraham Maslow’s brilliant work on human motivation that he published over 60 years ago. This post is broken up into two parts: the first part contains my interview with Alicia, and the second gives a brief overview of Maslow’s Hierarchy and maps Alicia’s answers onto the Start-up Hierarchy of Needs.
Part I – The Interview
How did you develop the Skimlinks CulturalDNA?
From the very beginning of the business I believed that building a strong culture was important for Skimlinks. Culture is something that I have been finely tuned to and have a natural affinity for developing. In the early days our culture developed organically; we didn’t actually turn it into a formal program until a few years into the business, when it all started to come together around the #skimlove hashtag. At first it was a little tongue in cheek, we started to have fun by prefacing words with “skim” like “skimtern” in place of intern, “skimball” in place of football, etc. We would also celebrate a new customer win on Yammer and via email with the #skimlove hashtag. Then my co-founder Joe came up with the idea of putting #skimlove in neon lights in the kitchen, when we moved into our first dedicated office space. #Skimlove has developed into the core of our CulturalDNA, where #skimlove describes and highlights the fun, the camaraderie, and the love for the company and the Skimlinks family. #Skimlove is about the way we treat our customers, our team members, how we celebrate technology and company achievements, and how we try to make every day challenging and fulfilling.
I have always wanted any office we occupied to be a high calibre environment which is inspiring and where people want to spend time. We didn’t have a lot of spare cash when we moved into our first office space, but we found inexpensive ways to decorate the office and make it personal, like Joe’s neon sign. We have moved into new offices since then and have deliberately designed aspects into the office in order for it to feel more like home. We have the kitchen in the center of our open plan office, and we deliberately placed the toaster in the middle of the kitchen so the smell of toast – a smell of home and safety and happiness – infuses the office. This may seem like a small detail but they all add up to form our #skimlove CulturalDNA:
Sparkle – Skimlinkers have a sparkle in their eye; we are unique, quirky and playful
Kick ass – Skimlinkers are talented, smart, capable, and we are great at what we do
Inventive – Skimlinkers are solution minded and work well together to solve tricky issues
Master of our domain – Skimlinkers are the CEO of their domain, we are accountable and delivery focused
Likeable – Skimlinkers are charming, fun and interesting people who love to deliver for our customers and celebrate success
Open-minded – Skimlinkers are open-minded, welcoming of difference and diversity, and can be cheeky too
Vocal – Skimlinkers are feisty, have an opinion and are confident to share it
Entrepreneurial – Skimlinkers are aspiring entrepreneurs
How has your culture changed over the years?
The needs of a business change as the business grows. The Skimlinks’s culture has always been very inviting, inclusive, innovative, hacker-like, compassionate and human. Our culture has developed over the years and it has adapted to the different stages of development of the business. In the early stages of a start-up you need to be able to multi-task and do what needs to be done, so our work culture has been about flexibility, rolling up your sleeves and doing whatever is needed to get the job done. We have now grown to over 80 staff and are focusing our efforts on accountability, execution and delivery. Our values haven’t changed but our focus has. During the early years we had to be flexible in our roles and responsibilities, but we are now growing into a business that requires more structure where individuals focus more on their specific roles, execute their function and deliver against targets. It is important at this stage to balance the core values of the Skimlinks family, which we have built over the past 8 years, with the requirements of a business that is growing rapidly, has offices in the UK and the US, and requires more structure. It is critical that our team gets this right as Skimlinks grows and scales new heights.
We sit down and review our strategy and values every six months. If we feel that we need to update or adapt any of the values, we do. For example we have adapted the M in #skimlove, which represents “Master of our Domain” to include the concept of accountability as this is a core business focus for us.
What have you done to define the values for Skimlinks?
We ask ourselves questions that help demonstrate what #Skimlove means to us.
What are the values that you are proud of?
What makes us different from the competition?
Why are we succeeding now?
What values make us unique?
Why do our customers choose to work with us?
Why do you love coming to work?
How do you use the #Skimlove values across the company?
We really try to live our values every day across the company. We use the culture and values as a framework for candidate evaluation during interviews and in employee performance reviews. When hiring we are looking for a match with the company’s culture and values. We have had to evolve and tweak what the values emphasise, as the company is growing and transitioning to an environment where accountability, delivery and speed of execution are critical to our continued success. We have added accountability, delivery and speed of execution into our candidate evaluation and employee performance reviews. Having a defined set of values allows us to show prospective candidates what is important to us, why we are different and why they should work with us.
How do you ensure that your CulturalDNA is nurtured and maintained?
We have a Skimlinks Cultural Ambassadors Committee of 10 staff who are our cultural representatives. The committee members are proud to be ambassadors; most have been with the company for a long time and are trusted and respected by the team. We meet every couple of months to discuss any issues that have come up that the committee members may have noticed, and to brainstorm ideas for maintaining and strengthening our CulturalDNA. The committee’s role is to help build a great company with a great culture and they are my eyes and ears on the ground.
How do you approach employee remuneration and benefits/perks?
We pay market rates and contribute to health care, life insurance and a pension. We don’t include a perk or benefit unless it develops or will have a positive impact on our culture. We have recently developed a new rewards program for long tenured employees where the employee gets an extra day of leave or a sabbatical. We allow our people to move internally from one department to another and develop skills in different areas. We have recently created a personal development plan for each employee. We try to emphasize having fun, health and communal good. We hold team lunches and regular hackathons, we do summer and winter parties and have a beer and wine fridge for drinks after work. We hold speaking events and talks; we have a meditation room and a ping pong table. We host lots of events, which is also deliberate. By hosting events and driving the conversation we are fulfilling our mandate as the leader in our field.
How does Skimlinks make a difference in the community?
We hold a number of charity and fund raising events. We are just about to launch a football tournament to raise money for charity, which fits in with our focus on health, community and having fun.
What do you do to improve your skills as a CEO and guardian of the company’s CulturalDNA?
I don’t read business books or biographies; I rather spend my spare time reading fiction. Being a people-focused CEO is all about being able to understand what motivates your team and being able to communicate my message effectively. Reading fiction gives me ideas on how to communicate a message effectively, create a story, enhance the company folklore, build a narrative and create emotional connections.
How much time do you spend working on CulturalDNA?
I spend about 50% of my time on our people and our culture.
Part II – The Start-up Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow was a twentieth century psychologist with an IQ of 195 who proposed a theory of human motivation known as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, which was published in the Psychological Review in 1943. The hierarchy is a set of principles to better understand what motivates human beings. Maslow wrote “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualisation… It refers to man’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely to the tendency for him to become actually in what he is potentially: to become everything one is capable of becoming.” What Maslow is saying here is that all humans have a ‘higher potential’ nature, we all want to be able to self-actualise, to explore and utilise our talents, to fulfill our potential and achieve excellence in what we do, and thereby achieve an optimal state of being.
Maslow created the Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid for human development. On the bottom rung of the pyramid you find the base physiological needs, for water, food and sleep. As those needs are met we are able to move up the pyramid to the second rung of the pyramid of higher needs for safety, the next level up is for social belonging, then esteem and finally self-actualisation where we are able to apply ourselves to being creative, courageous, open to learn, flexible, able to make mistakes, and humble. As humans we don’t progress up the pyramid to the next level if the needs of the level we are on are not met.
Maslow’s psychological theory was created to understand what fundamentally motivates human beings and I have been thinking about and exploring how Maslow’s hierarchy could be applied to fit the growth and development needs of a start-up.
The 5 levels of the Start-up Hierarchy of Needs:
1. Basic needs
The first level of start-up needs is the basic “subsistence” needs for someone to be comfortable at work. A salary that covers their basic cost of living, job security and a place to work (home or office) with business essentials, such as internet, computer, mobile phone etc. Employees can’t focus on achieving or aiming for their higher needs when they are worrying about whether their salary and rent will be paid. Peter Drucker, the renowned management consultant and author said that money alone doesn’t motivate, however dissatisfaction with money grossly demotivates.
Like most start-ups Skimlinks, during the early stages of the business, paid below average salaries with stock option upside for the people who believed in the company and the opportunity. The company is now able to pay market related salaries combined with a stock option plan. Skimlinks offers health care, life insurance and pension contribution.
2. Business continuity
If your team members are concerned about job security, you will not get the most out of them. Instead of applying themselves to the challenges at hand they will have one eye on the job market, watching job boards, applying to jobs and meeting with recruiters. Job security means that the business is profitable, has raised an A/B/C/D round of funding or is able to raise another funding round relatively easily.
Skimlinks is generating significant revenues, has raised $25m in total funding and in the most recent round the company raised $16m.
3. Environment & social engagement
Actions, thoughts and feelings are shaped by our surroundings and this is one of the reasons why successful companies like Google, Facebook and Skimlinks invest in their office environments. Not all companies have the budget that Google has to offer perks like nap pods, onsite laundry, massages and free food and shuttles, but it is possible to offer perks that don’t cost the company very much, add value or make their lives easier (See below for a list of perks offered by London based start-ups). As human beings we don’t want to disappoint our friends, so it makes sense to create an environment that fosters the building of friendships and a feeling of acceptance and belonging within the “family”. After work drinks, cultural events, sharing of stories and eating lunch together are a few of the ways you can create an environment where friendships develop. Deep social engagement is developed through creating and observing rituals, traditions, and the retelling of stories of ‘company heroes’. The company can build deep connections with the team by celebrating achievement and honouring length of service and loyalty. Alicia has designed the Skimlinks offices to feel like home. The company has always been an inviting, inclusive, understanding and human place to work. Skimlinks encourages employee interaction through team lunches, hackathons, summer and winter parties.
Skimlinks develops deep social engagement by rewarding and recognising employees for long tenure. They have weekly “Skim ‘n Tell” sessions on Friday evenings where anyone can share a story of what they achieved or experienced in the week, as a means of sharing emotional ties around success, or creating emotional connections to our customers.
4. Personal Growth
A business can’t grow and develop unless the people inside the business grow and develop as well. So the fourth level of the Start-up Pyramid is focused on the personal development of your employees. How are the individuals in the team going to grow, learn and develop? Have you asked your team members what they want to learn, study or experience? Do you know what their personal development requirements are? Nobody likes to be stuck in a job where they aren’t growing or learning. If you create an environment where they are able to learn, grow, and gain recognition for their achievements, they will increase their self respect and self esteem, which will in turn benefit your business. In order for your company to grow it will need to take on new challenges and these new challenges are the opportunities that your team are looking for to learn from and develop.
Skimlinks offers training programs to the team and has allowed employees to move across into different departments if they want to learn a new set of skills. The company promotes healthy living and has recently formalised a personal development plan for each of their staff members.
5. Self-actualisation & making a difference
To achieve the fourth level of the start-up hierarchy of needs your team must not only be able to progress up the pyramid, but must also be able to master the levels by taking advantage of the opportunities you design and make available to them. Level 5 is all about the individuals in your teams’ ability to realise their full potential. The people you hire will want to make an impact, create a legacy and do something that makes a difference outside of themselves and the company. It helps tremendously if your employees feel that they are making a difference in the world based on being a part of the future that your company is defining. Alicia is focused on building a company and a culture that encourages external community involvement and giving back to the wider community.
Skimlinks invites people into the office talks to give talks on publishing industry, data science, and leadership, and arranges and hosts industry speaking events to position the company as the leader in its field. The team voted on a company charity, and now hosts regular fund-raising initiatives for the chosen charity.
It is the CEO and senior leadership team’s role to create a comfortable work environment of purpose, freedom and creativity, where work is meaningful, and excellence can be achieved; an environment where qualities like creativity, integrity, courage, trust, optimism, continuous learning and teamwork flourish, so that their team members can progress up the Start-up Hierarchy of Needs pyramid.
People join companies not to conform but to become more individual - to self actualise. Alicia and her Skimlinks team are creating an environment where any of her team members are able to self actualise. This is a powerful message when attracting new A+ team members. Candidates are bombarded with 1000s of job opportunities that all look the same and Skimlinks are in the enviable situation of being able to differentiate themselves and attract the best candidates in the market, that match their CulturalDNA.
Skimlinks are in the enviable situation of being able to differentiate themselves and attract the best candidates in the market, that match their CulturalDNA.
Examples of inexpensive start-up perks you will find at companies like Printastic, StreetBees, Runway East, Space Ape Games, 23snaps and Duel:
Unlimited training budget. Every person who wants to get training needs to find the course and write a business case for is (a little P&L) and if it's justified, the company will pay for it
If anyone throws a party in their place and invite colleagues, we pay for the drinks.
Wednesday lunches and Friday drinks with the full team
Taking everyone to a company holiday every summer for 4 days
Free/half price gym membership at Virgin and many others (which in Moorgate is £50 off a month, paying it back in itsefl)
A free cinema ticket at vue/cineworld & a free starbucks every week
40% off BA flights to Europe a few times a year
A free health assessment and health check up once a year