Startup Advice

“How can we help you get your next job?”: Empathy and experimentation rule Envato and Culture Amp’s winning startup cultures

Lana Busby /

startup cultures

Envato’s Amber Johnson (centre) and Culture Amp’s Christian Miran (right) joined Carly Greenwood (SmartCompany) and Gareth Jekel (Performia) in Melbourne to discuss how they promote a positive startup culture.

The secrets to creating a winning startup culture? Recognise and hire the right people then bestow them with enough trust and challenges to fuel their personal growth.

Speaking at SmartCompany’s breakfast briefing in Melbourne last week about how to attract and retain winning talent, Envato’s HR manager Amber Johnson and Culture Amp’s director of people practices Christian Miran revealed their tried-and-tested strategies to promote inclusive and innovative startup environments.

Be mindful of your blind spots

When it comes to hiring a suitable fit for your startup, both Miran and Johnson explain it is important to not only cast a wide net with recruitment but to also be mindful of unconscious bias, particularly when it comes to word-of-mouth recommendations.

“I was reflecting on a situation where my boss sent me someone [from a previous role] and I met with them and they looked exactly like the mould of my boss and I,” said Miran.

“Because I was so enthusiastic about the fact they were like me, I hired them without actually testing their ability. Being objective as you go through the [hiring] process is really important.”

Johnson agreed it is important to not just seek people with opposite skills but to aim for  achieving “a balanced team”.

“Something that is important is broadening where you do hire from. That’s really important to us [at Envato], that you do have diverse-thinking group of people,” said Johnson.

Miran believes the key to hiring success through referrals is to make sure your staff are on the same page regarding the ethos of your startup.

“One of the ways we’ve done that at Culture Amp is through sharing our values and getting people to tell stories about our values. That’s really helped people understand – this is what it actually takes to work here.”

Keep it real (but keep it kind)

Forget luring people in with perks. With Envato being consistently recognised as an employer of choice, Johnson explains how staff satisfaction and retention stems from simply demonstrating honesty and empathy with employees.

“We do have that cool stuff, like bean bags and pool tables, street art. But that’s not the thing that keeps employees. It’s really bringing it back down to basics,” she said.

“A lot of our benefits and the way we work builds off creating that trusting environment. That’s really important to us, that people can bring their whole selves to work,” said Johnson.

Johnson says direct and continuous feedback is crucial to building trust and rapport but its delivery must be positive: “How do I be kind to this person and be respectful but still be really honest?”

Similarly, Miran strongly advocates for transparency and a compassionate stance when giving feedback, emphasising the need to frame difficult appraisals in a constructive manner.

“The idea that people can’t grow and develop isn’t the way we like to think. Research and science shows people can actually adapt and change, it’s really a question of how much investment can you make,” said Miran.

“If you’re being honest and say ‘I don’t have the time to get you there’, that’s a much better way of positioning it, rather than saying ‘you can’t do that job’ because that takes a real dent in someone’s personal view of themselves. It’s a completely different psyche.”

Creativity counts when developing your people

Linked to their cultural focus on authenticity, both Envato and Culture Amp aim to instill staff with a sense of meaning in their work and display a willingness to approach personal development with a fresh perspective.

Envato famously allows staff a ‘work from anywhere’ entitlement which means they can work up to three months every year in a different country, thanks to a flexible working setup.

Johnson also recounts an innovative experiment within the company that involved several staff each trialling a more senior role for a few months, while the founder was on holiday.

“A whole group of people actually stepped up into each other’s roles to cover that … we had six different people have the opportunity to do the job higher than them for three months,” explained Johnson.

“It was a really interesting experiment, we hadn’t done it before but it was actually a great development and learning opportunity.”

Miran’s unusually honest approach in discussing Culture Amp staff’s ongoing goals has contributed to a culture where employees feel valued and meaningfully challenged.

“We try to find those opportunities to really push people out of their comfort zone. When people actually start at Culture Amp, one of the first conversations we’re having with them is ‘how can we help you get your next job?’,” said Miran.

“We’re not asking people to stay with us forever. I think that idea is now gone, that you’ll stay with one company [long-term]. So we ask, what are things you need, and how do we help you to do that? … We’ve got a huge orientation on growth and development.”

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Lana Busby

Lana Busby is SmartCompany's content coordinator/producer.

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