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How changing the internal culture of Airbnb, Pinterest and Uber netted Culture Amp $6.3m

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The decision led him to launch Culture Amp, which has offices in San Francisco and Melbourne, in 2011. The business is designed to combine psychology, engineering and user experience for fellow companies, enabling them to truly understand how their employees are feeling via tailored surveys, which allows them to respond to that accordingly and adapt the workplace.

Culture Amp secured a $6.3m Series A round from Felicis Ventures, Index Ventures and Blackbird Ventures on 4 March, which will see Felicis’ MD Wesley Chan, who also founded Google Analytics, join Culture Amp’s board.

Real Business spoke to Elzinga about the journey and how the business has managed to secure big name clients including Airbnb, Uber, Pandora, Adobe and Pinterest as clients.

What was the company mission in the beginning, and has it changed since then? 

When I first started the company, all I knew was that I wanted to build a software business. I was running a visual effects company working for Hollywood – creating computer generated imagery for Harry Potter, Superman, Batman and those sorts of films – and I used to joke that as a CEO I was a glorified psychiatrist.

That led to me deciding to build a software company in the organisational development space – one that was driven by a desire to use technology as a lever to improve how people ran their companies. It wasn’t until several years later, and two product pivots, that we formalised what had been their since the beginning “that we believe that the world should be a better place to work”.

How exactly does your technology work? 

At it’s heart it is a survey and analytics platform for people & culture. It allows people to build on best practice approaches to setting up surveys across the full employee lifecycle –engagement, onboard, offboard, manager effectiveness etc – and then collates all the data to go from understanding to acting.

The magic sauce, if you will, is the analytics engine, which uses advanced statistical techniques to not only tell you how you are going, but what you need to do to go better. 

Does a business have to be a certain size for the service to be beneficial? 

The need to find a simple, fast and effective way to “get the pulse of your culture” tends to kick in between 50 and 100 employees but we have clients with less than that as well.

You have a number of high profile tech companies among clients, including Uber, Airbnb and Pinterest – is the US tech industry your main focus? 

It was the market that we got our initial traction, which is not surprising given the rate of growth and the incredible demand for talent. Now we are finding we are getting great traction in industries like retail, media and finance as well – anywhere people understand that their culture often is their brand.

It hasn’t hurt that Silicon Valley has become the aspirational centre for people trying to create truly innovative companies. The world is watching, and borrowing, a lot of what they are doing. 

The founders of Uber and Airbnb made the Forbes billionaires list this year – what will you do to make it there with Culture Amp? 

Honestly we are not focussed on being on any founders rich list, although down the track I’d take an enormous amount of satisfaction in seeing some of our early employees do really, really well financially. 

What drove us to take the investment was a desire to help more companies, more quickly. The way we look at it every company that has more than 100 people could use help in identifying where to grow and build their culture – and we want to help all of them.

Can a strong company culture help bridge the skills gap?

Absolutely. One of the key findings we have seen is that it is actually companies’ commitment to the development and growth of their people that best predicts how engaged their staff are. Building a culture of growth and development is critical. And this is not simply skills training – this is helping people identify a long path of growth and allowing them to belong to something bigger and more encompassing than just working for a particular company. 

What sort of changes have companies made internally following survey results?

Many. Every company’s path is different and part of what we thinks sets us apart from others is that we don’t use a one size fits all approach. We have a set of validated and carefully constructed templates that people can start from but then they can customise and extend to suit their specific circumstance.

Oftentimes the results are a reminder to leadership that people need them to communicate more, or that recent changes have taken the focus away from what is important. We’ve seen companies take the results and use them to make big changes to the way the company is run, how they handle training, and which managers are effective – and which aren’t.

What do you do to ensure your team is happy, and how do you retain staff?

One of the things that we like to remind people is that “happiness” can be a bit of a misnomer. We want people to be happy generally but that in itself does not create a great culture – instead we seek to measure a broader set of things often referred to as engagement i.e. is the organisation doing things to make it a place where staff feel like they want to go above and beyond?

You’re planning to spend some of the $6.3m on advancing the technology – what features can be expected in the future? 

We are a product company, so a lot of this investment is going to go to continuing to build on what we can do with the analytics side of things. We have an incredible resource in the data we have and we have some really exciting features in development that are focussed on helping people make sense of comparative data.

Simplicity and speed are mantras for us, so we aren’t content to just throw a lot of data at users – it has to be focussed and it has to help them make better decisions.

Sales and marketing is also a focus to achieve scale, so what are your targets in terms of the size and reach you’re aiming for this year?

We are aiming to get to 1,000 plus clients in the next 12 to 18 months. That is five times growth on where we are now. 

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