What I learnt at Pulilab HQ: No BS!

Back in June (How is it August?!) I joined the Yes for Europe crew for their 5th European Youth Entrepreneurship Conference. It took place in beautiful Budapest, Hungary and I had such a ball I've written a few posts on the trip since I got back.

As a part of the Conference, we were able to visit a few of Hungary's most successful tech start-ups. My favourite visit was our last to the HQ of Creative Software & Digital Media agency Pulilab.

Co-founders Christian & Torben took the time to share their start-up story with us. And it goes something like this: Two Danes from the same tiny town in Denmark randomly met each other in a bar in Budapest. Taking it as a sign from the gods and set about working out how they could work together. The idea of Pulilab; a creative software agency; was then born in 2011.

 Unlike Prezi and Ustream, Pulilab has to date received no external funding or investment.

And they have no interest in receiving external funding any time soon either. It's refreshing and unusual to hear this nowadays. It feels like tech start-ups currently operate in an investment-led space. If you aren't preparing to secure investment, what are you really doing in tech?!

Christian explained their position:

"People start up businesses for different reasons, we aren't in this to make loads of money and then exit. We're in this to have fun, do great work and build a sustainable business we love."

This resonates with me and the journey I'm on with A Life Less Ordinary Wanted. Since launch in 2014 I've totally bootstrapped the business. Despite many recommendations to seek external investment, I've wanted to remain 100% in control. As David McQueen says, real business is about getting your skin in the game.

Torben shared that running a start up is an emotional rollercoaster:

"it's key to make room to fail because it's going to happen anyway. So it's best to prepare for it and be open to it because Failure is where innovation happens."

The guys shared that they've intentionally built a strong results-focused culture:

"Remove bureaucracy & unnecessary formalities.  Focus on outputs, increase freedom & let people work in the way that works for them- they are adults".

Staff feel free to be creative and manage their own schedule. It should be no surprise that if you give people the freedom to have fun and be autonomous the result is great work. Why don't more companies do this?!

Torben shared that they know their company culture is a key to their continued success and needs protecting. This means that they have a 'hire slow, fire fast' policy to make sure new staff are a good fit. They've chosen to let super talented people go before the end of their probation period to preserve their secret sauce. One of their few rules is "Don't hire assholes":

" 'cos if you're going to spend up to 12 hours a day with someone you need to get on with them."

This is cautious attitude to hiring is paying off. Pulilab is now a team of 40 world class developers & innovators representing 10 nationalities. The crew are creating award winning products like Vizador and working with international clients.

There is a real sense of curiosity and play in the office. This isn't surprising given there is a lab in the basement complete with a pool table. And whenever you need a break from work you can try your hand at building drones for fun! Torben and Christian are currently working on building a drone to fly cans of beer from one of their houses to the other.

This was by far my favourite start-up visit during the conference.

Meeting the Founders and hearing their experiences of building the business first-hand was inspiring. I love that they've been running for five years without external investment and that this isn't a success metric for them.

I also enjoyed hearing how aware they are that values and culture are crucial to their success. And that they know they need to be lived out daily by everyone to continue to count and contribute.

Clear, relevant values and a collective understanding of how to get things done are two of Pulilab's greatest assets. Talent seems to comes third. Though their team are first class.

With many of the larger corporates that I've supported, the values are tucked away in the staff handbook or framed on the office wall. Rarely are they an intrinsic part of daily office life or conversations. Many staff are unaware of what their company (or personal) values are at all. This can cause many challenges for staff and leadership, and if this resonates with you at all, get in touch to see how we can help you with clarifying your values and company culture.

The company culture that they have built at Pulilab shares similarities with ours at A Life Less Ordinary Wanted. This is what we want for both ourselves and our clients:

Less rules, more freedom, less bureaucracy, more creativity.

The three tech start-ups we visited in Budapest (Prezi Ustream and Pulilab) all had different start-up stories. The ideas came from different places (though two started in a pub!) and the founders have different motivations to succeed. Each of their approaches and paths to success are unique.

Yet there is kinship between all three of them when it comes to the values they promote and uphold in the way that they work.

Autonomy, courage, creativity, challenge and curiosity all feature in the conversations we had.

The company culture that each business has been crafted also shares similarities:

- Failure friendly attitudes makes room for innovation, growth and trying new things

- Permission to challenge up creates a sense of collective responsbility for success and strengthens the sense of community

- Focus on mastery & outputs and letting go of bureaucracy & hierarchy give employees autonomy & freedom to choose how, where and when to work

This non-hierarchial, collectivist business approach is more impressive when you consider Hungary's long-term love affair with paternalism.

So what's next for the tech superstars in Budapest?

All three start-ups told us that their major challenge is now finding and retaining great talent. Particularly given the increasingly competitive job market in Budapest. Many foriegn companies are moving in as Budapest becomes known as a tech hot spot with low cost, high quality talent.

We've redesigned induction processes for the likes of Michael Kors and created values-based recruitment processes for clients so if you need support with developing any new personell processes and want to make them a little Less Ordinary, please do get in touch.

Another challenge all three share is a need to protect their culture as they grow and expand.

This becomes a more complex challenge when you've been acquired by a large corporation with a diffferent culture- take Ustream who were acquired by IBM in January.

More pressure is of course added when you are answerable to external investors with a clear focus on getting a return - as Prezi are experiencing right now. Investors want answers!

This is why I gravitate towards the self-sufficiency that Christian and Torben champion at Pulilab. There are now external investors, there is no massive mothership. It's just them and their team. Making the rules, having fun and getting great work done.

Now that sounds like my kind of party!

I left Budapest reflecting on the culture that I am creating at A Life Less Ordinary Wanted. And of course the work we do in supporting our clients with identifyng their core values and improving and clarifing their own cultures.

Currently I am the only full time member of staff and we have a growing team of part time associates. I am aware that my personal values of freedom, creativity and self expression influence our 'way of doing things'.

We're only a few years old and so we often work remotely. We Skype and when we need to meet we do so at co-working spaces such as Impact Hub Brixton, or the IoD and at all sorts of coffee shops.

We have a big vision and a loose plan on how we are going to get there. Though this plan is getting firmed up a little thanks to Hatch and the work I am doing on the #hatchincubator programme!

All team members have full autonomy over how they deliver their work - we each know best how we prefer to operate and that we don't all work in the same way.

We have plenty of room for failure and are building a solution-focused culture. It's less about who's fault it is and it's more about what we can do to move forward, fix things and improve. Assertively and collectively.

With our current micro team we are building the culture and ways of working that we love & are proud of. We are scaling slowly.

As we do this we gain clarity on our USPs and are working out how to ensure we deliver meaningful, high-impact work for our corporate clients. Whilst we support positive social change projects along the way - a key part of our mission.

So here's to that. And here's to me (or our future CEO) sharing the A Life Less Ordinary Wanted success (and failure!) stories to eager young entrepreneurs in five years time!

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