Against the Odds

How a Two-Year-Old Startup Became a Top Employer in Canada

Connected became a top employer nationwide in the span of two years. Here’s how we did it — and how you can too.

By Ally Contardi

According to Mashable, 25% of startups fail in their first year of business. By year two, another 36% fall off the charts. Connected’s story is different. Not only did we speed past the two-year mark last August, but we have grown to work with some of the world’s biggest brands, employ close to 100 people, and establish ourselves as one of the best places to work in Canada. Officially.

Just this week, Connected was chosen as one of Canada’s Top Small & Medium Employers for 2017, making us the youngest company in the history of the award to win (tied with one other company). Aside from being a cause for celebration, winning Canada’s SME award proved to us that even on a short timeline and with real financial restrictions (no external funding!), employer excellence is possible. Not just for us, but for all organizations. As the Director of Finance and Operations, I’d like to offer my take on how we rapidly became a top employer so that you can too.

Even on a short timeline and with real financial restrictions, employer excellence is possible. Not just for us, but for all organizations.

1. Rigorous commitment to learning

Now more than ever, employees rank professional development as one of the most important facets of their work. Fostering a learning environment not only enhances the skillsets of your employees, but gives instructors a deeper knowledge of their subject. At Connected, we took this wisdom to heart and strove to create the ultimate learning environment. (Hat tip to our team’s alma maters — in particular Xtreme Labs, Thoughtworks and Pivotal — for showing us the way here.) From Pair Programming to Professional Development (PD) Sessions, Lunch & Learns to Demos, there is ample opportunity at Connected for people to teach and learn from one another.

A learning environment not only enhances the skillsets of your employees, but gives instructors a deeper knowledge of their subject.

2. Putting kindness first

A team of high-performing individuals is fairly easy to build in Toronto’s booming tech market; a team of high-performing individuals that put kindness first is a rarity.

Choosing to make kindness one of our top hiring priorities directly helped foster a healthy office culture. Innovation is a collaborative effort, so it is crucial that our employees feel comfortable critiquing each other’s work in the name of providing more value. By looking for kindness in our recruits, we built an environment where people put their egos aside in order to pursue not who is right, but what is right.

It is also important to remember that when designing and building products, empathy for the end user is key. That’s what kindness is all about, so selecting for it not only helps us communicate better as a team, but directly helps us build better products.

Regardless of the product or service you provide, selecting for kindness stands to benefit your communication flow and, by extension, your output.

When designing and building products, empathy for the end user is key. That’s what kindness is all about.

3. Team empowerment

Empowering employees to meaningfully contribute to their work environment, rather than have that environment imposed upon them, is paramount. One of the measures we took to foster this empowerment was the implementation of 90-Day Improvement Plans — regular surveys that crowdsource feedback from employees on Connected’s culture challenges, process inefficiencies, and organizational gaps. Each time we issue the survey, we subsequently compile, anonymize and share the list of issues company-wide, encouraging individuals to either own the resolution to an issue or act as support on a resolution. Almost without exception, employees stepped up to provide their thoughts and create an action plan to resolve tension points and create improvements. A 90-Day Plan not only helps refine a company’s identity and daily rhythm on an ongoing basis, but does so in a way that creatively involves every member, showing them that their opinions count.

Another technique to promote team empowerment is a quick-fix email address that employees can message any time of the day to provide feedback about something that needs to be improved. When we implemented this practice, we found that issues ranged anywhere from office temperature to the request for a process that would help streamline learnings across projects. A dedicated electronic suggestion box is a powerful tool that gives the executive team an open line of communication with employees to understand how to create the best work environment for their people.

Finally, for those cases where employees don’t feel comfortable providing feedback out in the open, they may opt to provide it anonymously. To that end, we issue a quarterly Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) survey, which specifically asks each team member how likely they are to recommend Connected as a place to work and to provide feedback on how it could be improved.

Empowering your employees to define workplace culture and operations through frequent surveys and check-ins is the quickest way to show them their opinions count — because they do.

Empowering your employees through frequent surveys and check-ins is the quickest way to show them their opinions count — because they do.

4. Taking fun seriously

Since the company’s inception in 2014, Connected has prided itself on creating fun and unique traditions that we continue to uphold even as we scale. One of these traditions is our annual camping trip. Every September, we rent out a summer camp in Algonquin Park for two nights to enjoy some time to disconnect with our employees. Unplugging for a few days in nature is a bonding experience like no other, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.

And then, of course, there’s the weekly rhythm of Friday Socials and the daily rhythm of games. At any time of the day, you will find a group of people shooting darts while they debate which tech stack they should use for a project, or engaged in a heated pool tournament. After work hours (if you aren’t on one of our soccer or volleyball teams) employees hang around to cheer on their favourite sports teams, play ping-pong, or unwind with colleagues over beers and board games.

Fun doesn’t have to be expensive. No matter your company’s budget, a little goes a long way to help your team unwind, socialize, and build deep foundations for a strong team. We recommend you take fun seriously.

A little goes a long way to help your team unwind, socialize, and build deep foundations for a strong team.

5. Prioritizing benefits

Offering quality benefits is an employer tactic you’re no doubt familiar with, but I thought I’d share some specifics to show how we were able to make it a priority given our financial limitations.

In 2016, we underwent an analysis of Canada’s Top 100 Employers and benchmarked their policies and practices to better understand the landscape of great workplaces. Benefit by benefit, policy by policy, we compared ourselves to the list to see how we measured up. This process helped us discover specifically how we needed to improve if we wanted to walk the walk. After running models and determining what was feasible at that stage of the business, we quickly implemented the following improvements:

  • Increasing benefits coverage from 50% to 80% (100% for prescription drugs)
  • Extending maternity coverage (17 weeks paid at 70% of salary)
  • Providing paid parental leave
  • An annual $1000 Education Credit
  • An annual $200 Fitness Credit

Since these initial improvements (and since winning the award), we have also:

  • Increased vacation time to 4 weeks
  • Doubled our referral bonus to $4,000

6. Commitment to regular salary review

Most startups begin by paying their employees below market rates, and few of them ever move beyond that. This can be demoralizing. Yet the usual gesture of randomly reviewing salary without consistent performance standards is just as bad, since it sends mixed messages and erodes trust.

Inspired by practices put in place by Facebook’s Molly Graham, we made the commitment to review employee compensation every six months with the goal of bringing remuneration more in line with performance and market rates. This biannual cadence not only demonstrates commitment to our employees’ growth, but allows managers to batch comp discussions into two periods during the year instead of what’s typically a disruptive and haphazard process. Fixed, dedicated review periods allow employees to focus on their work without them worrying that others are in constant negotiations and that they should be too.

Fixed, dedicated review periods allow employees to focus on their work without them worrying that others are in constant negotiations and that they should be too.

7. Making time for non-billable work

Needless to say, R&D is a great way to build the right capabilities and stay on top of the latest technologies. But there’s another reason it’s important: R&D engages your team with fun, challenging projects.

Being 100% employee-owned with no external funding, however, we needed to determine if this kind of non-billable experimentation was feasible. The starting point for us was to look at industry benchmarks such as SPI Research’s Professional Services Maturity Benchmark. Comparing the data and conducting internal budgeting exercises, it was determined that allocating 25% of our billable employees’ time to internal R&D projects was both manageable and desirable, so we gave ourselves a (billable) utilization target of 75%. Making time for different and unfamiliar work is a great way to pique the curiosity of your team. Crunch the numbers and see if you can make it work too.

R&D is a great way to engage your team with fun, challenging projects. Crunch the numbers and see if you can make it work.

Creating one of the best work environments in Canada without external funding has been quite the operational challenge, not to say a financial one. But by inventing, revising, or borrowing these seven techniques, we were able to achieve award-winning results in the span of two years. Our hope is that, by sharing them here, it will help other startups do the same. Because if we can do it, so can you.

Have we got it all figured out? By no means. But true to the Connected way, we’re learning all the time.

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Ally is the Director of Finance and Operations at Connected Lab. With over six years of experience in sales, finance, and operations, Ally made her start in tech during the rise of mobile. Her background in the industry is unique, ranging from sourcing and managing million-dollar partnerships with Fortune 500 companies to implementing operational frameworks for rapidly growing startups. Ally holds an HBA from Richard Ivey Business School.


Connected Lab is a product innovation and delivery firm. Our mission is to build better products. We are digital natives and have helped ship some of the most disruptive products of the last decade.