coffee shop culture image via

How to create the right start-up culture and coffee shop innovation

Truth be told, I started this post, first by creating the right imagery. It was important to tell you what I was thinking when talking about the inspiration for this post.

The story of the ordering tea in a coffee shop

The story began in a Sunday afternoon bus back from Yusmarg to Srinagar. My friend and a few others had gone for a school camping trip and stayed together in tents and experienced eggs boiled in kettles directly on campfire for the first time. While in the bus, we saw a newspaper, and the headline read (in Hindi): Aaj kal Sunday ka mazaa hi nahin raha meaning Sundays these days have lost their charm referring to national TV programming in India on Sunday mornings. For some unknown reason my friend asked: what does it mean? I explained. In that moment as a 7 year old, I felt a flurry of emotions: pride (that I was able to explain it), confusion (how did she not find it easy), and a weird awkward feeling (why did she not get it). She “hmmmed” and ended the question after a few interactions. I felt left out. I was unable to analyze it then, but I remember it now.

It really wasn't as much my own genius brain- but stemmed purely from the fact that whenever I found a new word and asked my mother “what does it mean”- instead of giving me the precise, dictionary meaning, she would tell me a sentence, a story, to explain it in context. I remembered those stories and created more. And, even as a child, I found out that there were a few places where my stories thrived and there were places made of groups of others who would always end up looking away. All these eyes have added me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Hi5 in the last decade, and make me think of the authenticity of connections. Especially in my younger years, I found plenty eyes that would look away.

But, it was much later, that I realized this: it wasn't my stories or the blatant disinterest in their eyes. It was just that I was ordering tea in a coffee shop.

Seeking the coffee shop (culture) that sells tea

Recently, @newscred ran a Twitter chat, the topic was: how do you create a culture of content in your organization? I've worked for nearly a decade now. I've been through 3 university degrees, and everywhere no matter what anyone says, I've understood one thing: one of the biggest impediments to successful project executions is not the technology, tools or anything fancy, but the people and their work culture. One of my favorite, Content Marketing practitioners said the following:

@BrennerMichael A8: Culture starts with who you hire, promote and fire. Followed by goals and measures that reflect customer-centricity #ThinkContent

It doesn't matter whether it is a culture of content or a culture of the morning chai. My takeaway was this: creating a culture meant, hiring the right culture types in the first place. And this lead to the next question: how do you find this special coffee shop which sells tea? What should your hiring philosophy be?

Creating the coffee shop (culture) that sells tea

Everyone has a different take on the same things. And today I spoke with Toby Ruckert, CEO, Unified Inbox. He reflected:

We are present in 4 locations world-wide. I do not want to hire more than 20–50 people in each office. Crossing 100 people in an office means they no longer know each other by name. It creates the need for processes. There is no private productivity gain. With processes in place, a certain part of life dies.

Considering it is a company creating simpler communication, focused heavily on solving for increasing our productivity, I marveled at the simplicity and the depth of this thought. He is a Schwab after all, they tend to have these small hidden champions (another 10 posts due on this ;)). Hidden champions in Schwabenland have the most unique hiring philosophy: hire local, focus on loyalty, really know the people who work for you to ensure an authentic connection. These are companies where a couple of generations or more may work with the same family enterprise. With Unified Inbox, Toby is not creating a family enterprise, but a regular start-up. Although, this conversation about personalizing workforce, knowing people by name, and almost creating a small buzz culture, also reminded me of the hiring philosophy of the region at large. The culture of putting people before the process (although Germans naturally love process ☺).

The Unified Inbox website, tries to further articulate this coffee shop culture, focusing on what they’re solving for (productivity) and not on the processes. In fact they make it sound like a coffee shop with a great selection of other adds-ons referring to the start-up culture. Personally, I love the emphasis on “beach”, “no offices” among others ☺. Makes me imagine this: You own this coffee shop, go find your tea flavor. If it’s great, come back and tell us. Apart from their copywriter, I also like the far-sighted employer branding. (#mustdowhenyouownastartupcompany)

You can see from our photos that we have no fixed office times, in fact, we have no offices. We work from home, a cafe, the hotel lobby, on the beach, in a co-working space, our friends office or whichever place is the one that makes us most productive. (Unified Inbox, website, accessed 16 Sept, 2014)

Today, Toby announced the acquisition of SocialGrow another start-up co-founded by @kenherron. I know Ken from Twitter and also as an expert that I spoke to while working on my thesis (Content Marketing for small enterprises and Start-ups). The greatest thing about Ken is that he is immensely responsive. There is no such pretense of a founder or a being a big guy. He respects your time, responds quick, and is extremely smart and nice.

I have a feeling that no matter the reputation companies tend to have with mergers, this team’s going to be just fine- culturally. After all, whoever said creating that coffee shop which sells tea wasn't fun!

@upasnakakroo writes usually on her blog at Someplace Else- Her main interests are the impact of technology on culture and finding stories. She stumbled upon a fantastic half hour of Monday morning conversations with Toby Ruckert, the CEO of Unified Inbox which was the key inspiration for this post. The main reason she chose to speak with Toby was that he’s creating something she’s been struggling with forever- simple communication. More on the communication aspect here on her blog.