In 2009, I founded Collective Bias, an influencer marketing company based in Bentonville, Arkansas. My vision was to develop a solution for brands and retailers to leverage the power of online influencers, but more importantly, to build a company with a great culture. I knew what I wanted and remained focused throughout our transitions as a company.
I'm proud of the culture we've built - one that includes passionate, hardworking people who care about one another and their work - and I'm often asked about how to replicate it. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. It's not something you buy or enforce, and it doesn't just happen. You have to be intentional about it; establish who it is you want to be, or more importantly, know who you don't want to be, and be deliberate about it. It's about hiring people that believe in the same core values and being open to the fact that the culture will continue to evolve.
Like any startup, we've gone through our fair share of growing pains, which can take a toll on a company's culture. Recently, Inmar, a data technology company, acquired us. Their culture is very similar to ours - exactly what we were looking for in a partner. We've been successful in taking steps to ensure culture remains priority and I am confident that this transition will benefit both organizations' culture.
Some things to keep in mind when protecting company culture during tough transitions:
Establish Core Values Early On
You started a company, but what type of company do you want to be? How do you want your employees to feel about working there? One of the first things we did as a company was establish core values. When I say "we", I don't mean just the leadership team. I mean the entire company, which for us was a small group at the time. This is important to define early so you are all on the same page. Remember, as the company evolves, so do the core values and the culture. Establish them early, but be flexible and re-evaluate them as a group.
It Takes a Village
Maintaining a culture is hard work, especially through transitions like an acquisition. Culture is not the sole responsibility of any one person or a team. Every team member has a responsibility to uphold the core values and to positively contribute to the culture. After all, people make a company culture. We use our core values as the baseline and structure for our interview process and conduct performance reviews that evaluate each employee on how they meet each of the core values. Finally, we make it easy for everyone to remember and live by these core values every day by displaying them in each of our conference rooms.
Find a Culture Match
When we embarked on the acquisition process, we searched for partners who made sense from a business and product standpoint, but most importantly, were a culture fit. Our company culture and core values were always part of our presentations and we didn't want a partner who didn't understand or wanted to change it. If you're in this growth phase, and culture is important to you, remember you're in control. It's your responsibility to protect your culture, make it a priority, and let that be known. Alternatively, if don't have a good culture but want one, you can look for it in a partner.
After our acquisition was complete, we talked at length about the integration thoughtfully, not only from a business standpoint, but also from a cultural standpoint. Just because our cultures were similar, it didn't mean we could let things fall into place. Inmar designated an Integration Lead, whose sole job is to coordinate a seamless integration, and designated integration partners on both sides.
David Mounts, Chairman and CEO of Inmar, says, "The work to facilitate a successful integration should begin before the acquisition occurs." Mounts says that making decisions solely from the perspective of the acquiring company is a huge mistake, as is waiting until things are figured out rather than integrating teams early in the process. Much can go wrong with acquisitions, but a thoughtful approach to integration keeps both organizations happier and more productive.
Listen and Communicate Transparently
This is one of our core values and one we take very seriously. Our CEO holds a monthly meeting to update the entire company on its financials, executive leadership goals, and allows time for functional teams to give updates. We announced our desire to sell or find investment early on in the process in one of these meetings and our recent acquisition was announced to the company, our clients, and our influencer community a few weeks before it was final. In keeping with this core value, we felt it was important to give a heads up so no one was caught off guard. Our acquirer, Inmar, did the same. Once everything was final and public, Inmar's CEO and a few team members flew to our HQ office and each of our satellite offices to introduce themselves, give an overview of Inmar, and discuss what to expect in the next 18 months.
Even though Inmar's culture is similar to ours, they still want to hear from the Collective Bias team on what culture means to us. For example, they've recently sent a survey to our team to understand how we think about and define our culture.
I'm very proud of the strong, distinct, and fun culture we've built, evolved, and maintained at Collective Bias. Growth is great, but definitely presents its challenges. Keep your company culture a priority, especially during the transitions, and everyone wins.