Case study: Building culture at a global start-up

Hiring people who exhibit selflessness and respect, and encouraging more personal modes of communication between international colleagues, have helped Pocketmath build a strong cultural identity

Locations: Singapore, Australia, the UK and US

Employees: 80

Number in HR team: 4

Case study focus: Building a distinctive culture at a growing, geographically disparate company

The company

Pocketmath was founded in 2011 by a Singaporean and two US founders. The adtech start-up was officially launched in 2013. It allows advertisers to buy smartphone and tablet ad impressions within apps, games, and mobile websites in real-time. Pocketmath’s operational HQ, including the engineering and product team and support functions, is located in Singapore, with around 80% of its 80 staff located here. It also has sales offices in the UK, US and Australia.

The challenge

That the world is getting smaller can’t be denied when you consider all the technologies now out there to aid communication with, and better knowledge of, other countries. But for a great many organisations, it is also getting bigger. To stay competitive and truly take advantage of all opportunities available to them, selling their products overseas – or at the very least engaging with an international trading community and talent pool – has become increasingly important.

When adtech start-up Pocketmath launched in 2013 there was no question that success would only be delivered by engaging a range of global markets with its digital product. But this presents an HR challenge: how to ensure a globally disparate team are all engaged with one distinctive company culture.

The method

HR director at Pocketmath Perlyn Per likens the importance of culture to “a Dragon Boat race” where “people listen to the drummer and are all motivated together by the same thing". “It drives engagement, it drives motivation,” she says, adding: “That’s what drives the success of a business; you come together because you have similar dreams and goals.”

Ensuring the right cultural fit in employees is 80% about the hiring process in a growing company like Pocketmath, says Per. The most important value companies of this size need in employees is selflessness and kindness she says.

“It’s the most important quality because it’s one of those things that comes in at a time when you’re facing a crisis,” she says. “That’s needed for a company of our growth speed. We’re expanding but we’re not so big that all systems are locked down, so there will be conflict. How you conduct yourself will be important at that moment because that will impact everyone else.”

Interviewing new employees is about gaining “a sense of how employees will behave when they’re at their worst”, by getting a sense of their personal motivations and qualities. Per's favourite interview questions are: “If you didn’t have to work for money what would you do?” and “What is the kindest deed you’ve ever done?”

She also uses the salary negotiation process to spot certain behaviours: “I want to see how this person can tactfully negotiate for themselves in terms of their communication,” she says.

In terms of ensuring the company’s values are adopted by all colleagues worldwide, most important is effective communication and relationship building. Email communication is strongly discouraged even where it would be “easy to say ‘they’re overseas in a different time zone I’ll just email’”, says Per, because it is “very impersonal.”

“We say ‘get on a call and speak with the person.’ Today we have the technology, it’s not difficult or expensive,” says Per, adding that an internal chat tool aids this more personal, speedy communication style.

This is supported by overseas colleagues being frequently brought over to Singapore –including one to two week’s onboarding when they first join – and Pocketmath’s CEO making regular visits to the US, UK and Australia.

The emphasis is on colleagues getting to know each other as people, which supports the flexible working culture needed when working across time zones. “Sometimes this does take sacrifices to wake up early or stay up to take a call,” says Per, explaining that this means colleagues have to know about, and be respectful of, each others’ routines. “People know ‘don’t call Perlyn between 8-10pm as that’s the time she is trying to put her children to bed’,” says Per.

The result

This emphasis on a culture of being considerate and selfless, and connecting more personally with overseas colleagues, has contributed strongly to Pocketmath’s growth since it launched, says Per. The company is 2.5 times the size it was in August 2014. It has increased it revenue from three digits to seven between 2011-2014, and its current retention rate stands at 88%.

Per stresses that there are still many challenges to tackle, and that cultural values may need to evolve as the company grows. “Certain people fit better together and that’s important but in a bigger company that may not be a priority because maybe you have more sophisticated systems for working together,” says Per. “But when you’re a start-up you don’t have the luxury of systems to manage conflict, for example.”