An interview the co-founders of Hubble, Tushar Agarwal and Tom Watson.
How Hubble uses swearing and esoteric references to tech culture in their job ads and job descriptions to self-qualify candidates out
How Hubble are building the next Paypal mafia and emphasise “Friends first, colleagues second” in their team
Why Hubble walk new joiners through the monthly board pack
In 2009, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings published a 124-page slide deck outlining how Netflix approaches hiring, firing and rewarding employees. The depth of insight into the inner workings of a high growth tech company’s culture was unprecedented, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has since said the SlideShare “may well be the most important document ever to come out of the Valley.” There are clearly very good reasons why 15+ million people have viewed the Netflix Culture document and millions have read and shared the Zappos Culture Book and the HubSpot Culture Code (2.9m).
These documents have started a conversation amongst CEOs and founders of companies who want to be able to differentiate themselves from the competition and build out truly great businesses: What are our values and what is our company’s culture? How do we embed, reinforce and live our core values? How do we create a workplace where people can make a difference and self-actualise? How do we build the capability to attract and retain the A+ talent that is the lifeblood of our company?
What these documents do is open the kimono and define in great detail exactly what it means to be a Netflix, Zappos or HubSpot employee. As an employee, you know what is expected from you and what the upside is, as a potential employee you know, before you’ve even been for a single interview, whether this is the right environment for you or not.
The billion dollar companies listed below have invested in defining their CulturalDNA, their mission, vision, values and purpose. How many company's statements can you recognise? Which do you think is the most effective? Does your company’s mission statement deliver the same resonance that AirBnB’s or Tesla’s does?
The ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars
We are on the face of the earth to make great products
Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone
To provide the best customer service possible.
To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful
To make your working life simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.
To make the world more open and connected
To make the world Inbound. We want to transform how organizations attract, engage and delight their customers.
To be Earth's most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online
To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy
Help people discover the things they love and inspire them to go do those things in real life
Freedom & Responsibility
I sat down with Tushar Agarwal and Tom Watson, the co-founders of Hubble, to find out how they have used their culture and values to grow from 8 to 18 employees in the past 3 months. Hubble is an online marketplace to match those looking to rent office space with those who have it. Simple. The company focuses on co-working, shared offices and private serviced offices within specific hubs in London, that are perfect for high growth startups.
How did the Hubble culture develop?
TA & TW
We sat down very early on in the business and had a conversation about the culture we were looking to build and the fact that we wanted entrepreneurship to be a significant part of our culture. We didn’t initially write our thoughts down because our culture and values were understood amongst us as founders and the first team members we brought on board. This worked well up to the point that the team had grown to about 8 people. Then as we started expanding our team we realized that we needed to start to really do something about codifying our culture.
We have raised an investment round and in the last three months we have grown the team from 8 to18 people. We have, on average, added one new person every two weeks and two more people will be joining the team in the next two months, so by January we will be 20 in total. Looking back now we realize just how helpful and valuable it was to have invested the time in defining our company’s mission, vision, values and purpose, when we did.
Why was that?
TA & TW
We started to feel the pain of rapidly scaling up the team as we kicked into hiring mode. We could see that we needed to clarify the culture for the new team members in order to make sure that everyone was on the same page and to bond the team together. We could see for example, that there were times when new team members were confused as how to make the right decision or what tone to use when talking to customers – how much to give versus holding their position. Going through the culture and values definition process helped make it clear to the team what our expectations were, what they were empowered to do, and how they should handle challenging or difficult situations.
How did you go about defining the culture?
TA & TW
We wanted the team to add value, shape and define the culture with us. We had a number of discussions with the team sharing thoughts and ideas. We used different thought provoking exercises to get the team thinking about the culture in different ways: for example we asked every team member to write down in their own words what they thought the business did. We then used the answers they gave us to explore the nuances of what they wrote and clarify our position. We then got them thinking about the business in a different way asking them abstract questions such as if Hubble was an animal, what animal would it be and why. We brainstormed the positive and negative words that are associated with the commercial property business and how we resonated or not with those words. The various techniques helped us clarify Mission, Vision, Values, Position and Purpose.
We decided to position ourselves differently from the traditional commercial property industry where nobody really cares about the people who pay the rent, the customer (tenant). From our experience of dealing with the property industry there is no empathy with the customer, the traditional process of finding office space is often a very poor experience for the end user because the brokers and agents have all the power and they don’t care. Their role is to market the property for the landlords, who inherently hold all the power.
Our USP is that we are flipping that relationship around for the customer. We are the antithesis of the property industry and we are fighting for the customer against the commercial property industry. After working with the team we then sat down and pulled it all together and presented the mission, vision, values and purpose to the team.
Mission: To be the most trusted platform in the world to effectively match you to your perfect space. We empower you buy using technology to reduce wasted time; data to reduce risk; and we fully align ourselves with you to get the best deal. We look after you from your first office to your late.
Vision: To create a world where going to work makes you happy
Position: Alongside the tenants who are forgotten in favour of the landlords
Values: The 3E’s – Empowerment, Empathy and Experience. We believe that empathy (putting ourselves in your shoes), enables us to create great experiences (that feel persona, relevant and delightful), which enables us to empower success (in finding the right environment that leads to a successful business).
Purpose: To empower your success by placing you in the right work environment, anywhere in the world, from idea to IPO.
What did you do during the hiring process to successfully expand your team so quickly?
TA & TW
In our first hiring round, we communicate and share the inherent core beliefs and values of the business early on in the interview process – actually at job description stage. Where job descriptions usually qualify candidates into the role we actually designed the job descriptions to self qualify candidates out of process. We were looking for a specific type of person who could handle the challenges of a start-up environment and would naturally and automatically get who we are and what we stand for. So we used swearing in the text and esoteric references to tech culture. The candidates we wanted to hire understood the references we made and weren’t put off by the swearing. They got it. The challenge with recruiting is you get a ton of poor quality applications and we used this as a hack to encourage self-qualification out and in. For the next round, we were looking for experts in their field and used a similar method of using role specific jargon, as well as the esoteric company culture stuff we had used before.
We are proud of the team that we have built. They are all very different people and personalities but they get on very well. We have this grandiose idea of creating the next Paypal mafia out of Hubble and our approach involves looking to hire future founders. We see the people we have hired as founding members of the team not employees. We see them working and succeeding with us and then going on to start their own businesses in the future. They are owner entrepreneurs already and that is the mind-set we want at Hubble. We also messaged this in our job description and it further helped qualify candidates out.
What have been the challenges you faced staffing up so quickly?
TA & TW
In the early stages the team consisted of all men and one of the points that came up from our culture discussion was that we needed to have a more balanced and diverse company. We have changed that since, of our team of eighteen, five are female.
The original Hubble boy band - how things have changed...
Only one out of eighteen in our team has worked in the property industry and our team is split 50:50 into tech and non-tech - we’ll try and retain this ratio for as long as possible.
Sales have been the hardest to hire for. We have deliberately avoided hiring from the commercial property industry, apart from sales. Neither of us has a sales background so we had to rely on advisors to help with the interview process. We wanted to hire someone who either had the relevant commercial property experience and network, but hadn’t been in it long enough to have been indoctrinated or tainted by the industry, or we wanted to hire someone who had a lot of experience and realised what the problems were and wanted to change the industry or had even tried to change the industry.
Through trial and error we have come to realise that operations is a key area for us, so we have hired a COO who will start with us in January. We know that it appears to be an odd hire for a typical company at this stage of a start-up, however it makes a lot of sense for Hubble. We are automating a complicated process and we have found that every time we make an internal operational improvement we see significant business value, which results from that improvement. We had a situation where the transaction numbers were flat but all the other numbers were improving so we sat down with the customer success and product teams and conducted a full audit of the processes, tasks, systems etc. We then mapped out the ideal process assuming we had no financial or other constraints. We then looked at what tools we could build internally and what software we could buy off the shelf to improve the processes; essentially we were aiming for a situation where the customer success team would have better communication with the customer and therefore be able to spend more time offering great service to the customer. We doubled our numbers the next month. Having an operations person who, can focus on this, will free us up to focus on product and commercial/funding etc.
We did make one poor hire, which was our mistake, as we didn’t qualify the candidate against our values thoroughly enough. It was clear to the whole team that that person didn’t embody the culture of the company. When they left it didn’t feel like there was a gaping hole in the company, even though the role had to be filled. We have been working on our values based hiring process and our communication around hiring, has also improved, since that happened.
How has the team gelled in the last few months?
TA & TW
The team really gets on well. It wasn’t by design but we have the happy circumstance where most of the team are into live music or play an instrument. The team goes to live gigs together, and we decided to encourage this appreciation of music by offering a perk of paying for their Spotify or Apple Premium Music services.
We’ve had a quote on our team page which says “Friends first, colleagues second” and we really emphasise this to the whole team. Fortunately, it has seemed to have worked. Discussions in the office are informal, fun and our team members regularly socialise outside of work hours because they get along as friends. We anonymously surveyed our team using Motivii and over 95% say that they consider their team as “friends.”
This is further cemented by our notorious Team Away days every 8 weeks which require everyone in the business to contribute to overall strategy and direction, get to know each other better (professionally and personally), play some games (from cheesy team-building, to board games to ultimate frisbee in the park) and then we end with a big party at the end of the day.
How do you deal with onboarding of new team members?
TA & TW
We use CharlieHR for the onboarding process, which has been a huge help. During a new joiner’s first day one or both of us will review the Hubble culture deck discussing our plan and vision for the company for the next quarter, 1 year and 5 years. We have a quarter-by-quarter plan of where we want to get to and how we are going to get there, which we discuss and share with them. We give our employees access to this so they can refer back to the document when they need to. One of the team members volunteered to be the internal HR to deal with any issues and to reinforce the company values. So the new joiner has someone they can speak to about any of the company processes and procedures.
One of our values is empowerment, so we try to give people responsibility for decision making very early. Within 5 days of hiring our new sales person we asked her to hire a junior salesperson. It was fascinating to see how she shortlisted the candidates based on how they matched our values.
We create experiences for our team to visit different office space environments as soon as possible after they join us. This gives them a chance to explore our client’s offices and experience the customer’s space first hand, giving them first-hand knowledge, embedding empathy in the team and getting them excited about what we are doing. In the beginning when we first started the business we literally moved from office space to co-working space across London, which helped build up our own intuitive experience and understanding of the market.
We are fully transparent and share the board pack with the team. We walk through it with them as if we are talking to the board. In this way the new joiners have complete insight into the business within the first month of their joining the company.
What has the impact been of having a clearly defined culture?
TA & TW
The first area where it has had a clear impact is on the speed of decision-making. The team is empowered to make decisions and we are able to make better decisions quicker. The decisions we make are based against our values. We actually aim to build the 3Es - Empowerment, Empathy and Experience - into our processes and the product. We have a product spec in addition to our KPIs, which asks the question "does this feature match with 1 or more of our values?" Our NPS survey feedback is significantly better in comparison to the rest of the commercial property industry. We have won a lot of goodwill by empowering customers who tell us that they are glad we exist because we show live pricing in a sector where it’s normally hidden. Empowerment is giving the customer as much relevant data as possible to make the right decision. For our customer’s having all the data at their fingertips results in transparency and means they can do more themselves and make better decisions. When our customer service reps deal with customers we discourage the hard sell. We will help them get through their problem point whether it’s with us or without us and this empathetic approach also generates goodwill for the company.
Empathy is very important to us. When we started the business we didn’t have a web site. We literally did everything manually for our customers and then over time we looked at which parts of the process we could automate that would not take away from a positive and empathetic customer experience. There is no point in automating to the detriment of the customer. We have once or twice automated too much, but when we do we revert back to the manual solution. The secret sauce of building a tech company in a sector that has been service heavy for such a long time, is using technology to build an experience superior to using a human, this is the only way they will come over to using us.
What’s different about Hubble?
TA & TW
The property industry is traditionally focused around the people – the brokers and sales agents and their relationships, and technology development is usually outsourced and approached as an after thought. We are different in that we are using technology in order to disrupt the commercial property sector, specifically from the perspective of the tenant. Our ratio of tech to non-tech people is 50:50, we don’t value sales and marketing above product development and we aim to keep it that way. We see our investment in technology as a significant asset and differentiator in the commercial property sector. In tech there is more license and freedom to be creative and improve the experience.
We believe we can significantly impact a company’s chances of success by placing it in the optimum work environment, which enables it to fulfil its potential. We use data to reduce the risk of a poor match, technology to create an incredible experience that is faster and more trustworthy than using a human and we only bring in our own advisors where they have the time and capacity to do what humans do best: offer creative solutions, build relationships and negotiate with third parties.
How do you approach work/life balance in the company?
TA & TW
We are in a marathon not a sprint so we believe that it is good for the company to have an appreciation of work/life balance. We care about the happiness of our people and we respect the need for balance in their lives. We find that investing time on building and embedding the culture results in more confident happier people and that is what we are looking to build at Hubble.
How do you approach decision making at Hubble?
TA & TW
We believe that a hierarchical structure adds certainty to the business. At the same time there is no top down decision making at Hubble. Our team members are accountable and empowered to make decisions using our values as the basis for those decisions and we promote open and regular feedback up and down the communication chain. It’s important for us to remember that the team are closer to the customers than we are and, when we are involved in the decision making process, it is our job to go through the team suggestions and make a decision based on how the suggestions fit in to the development of the product and the company.
Despite this, every quarter we decide what the top 2 or 3 problems are for the company and we split the company into autonomous teams to focus specifically on those problem areas, where each team is multi-disciplinary and contains product, tech, marketing, sales & ops people. The objectives of the teams can be anything really quantifiable like product conversion rates, revenue or less set in stone such as brand and improving operations. Every quarter, these teams are disbanded and new teams forms depending on the new problems.
What additional culture and team building activities do you do?
TA & TW
We come from the perspective that spending time talking and thinking about our culture as an important investment in the future of the business. Our culture is evolving and we are continuing to iterate on our values and give importance to embedding them into the business. We regularly hold a culture presentation session with the team, which is all about an aspect of the culture that we, as a team need to be acting on or thinking about.
We take the whole team away every 6-8 weeks for a day to discuss strategy and other business challenges. This is a cultural and social team building session, which we do in different offices across London.
We also have regular 1-1 check in meetings every 2 weeks and we use the OKR framework for performance evaluation. The 1-1 check-ins are the equivalent of a safe space where we get to know the team on a personal level both inside and outside of work. By doing the check-ins, which last anything from 10-30 minutes it becomes less about fighting fires and more about preventing fires. Management can get access to relevant info quicker, pick up on things early and change workflows early. As founders we used to do check-ins with everyone in the team, but now the managers do that. We rotate who does the check-ins amongst the management team.
We used to combine the OKR reviews with the check in meetings but then decided to split them up, as it was more effective to be focused on one or the other.
We surveyed the team asking them what additional perks they wanted from the company. Based on the feedback we bought a stationary cupboard (they asked for it) and now offer health insurance, Perkbox, Beers on Friday, unlimited Kindle purchases, Spotify & Apple premium packages, noise cancelling headphones and we will get dinner and Uber if the team work late. We will cover 50% of the bill if you go out with 2 or more colleagues company. In the future we will continue to survey the team and deliver what we feel really work and can help the team live our vision of “love where you work”.