People & Human Resources, Startup News & Analysis

Why Ben Pfisterer wants to keep a “scrappy” startup culture in Square’s Aussie offices

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Square's Australian country manager Ben Pfisterer. Source: Supplied.

Square's Australian country manager Ben Pfisterer. Source: Supplied.

He might be running the Aussie arm of a multi-billion dollar company, but Ben Pfisterer, head of Asia Pacific and Australian country manager at Square, says there’s still a startup mentality in the Melbourne office, and he hopes to keep it that way.

Square, the payments platform for small businesses founded by Twitter legend Jack Dorsey, is only nine years old and still has a “direct connection back to the startup days,” Pfisterer told StartupSmart last week at the Disruptive Innovation Summit in Sydney.

However, with a “couple of thousand” people working for the company globally, and a market cap of $US26.9 billion ($36.57 billion), there’s also a recognition that the business is scaling fast.

“A lot of the things that made you successful as a startup are very hard to continue to replicate when you get to that scale,” Pfisterer said.

Square rolled out its debit and credit card reader in Australia in March 2016. Since then, the Melbourne office has grown from its original core team of four or five to 40 or 50 people, and has “still very much got that startup culture,” said Pfisterer.

In May this year, on a visit to Melbourne to mark two years of processing payments in Australia, Dorsey announced Square will open a new engineering hub in the city and hiring Australian engineers is a “big part of our growth strategy”.

“We’re here and hiring amazing tech talent,” Dorsey said.

Pfisterer tells StartupSmart hiring the right people is imperative to maintaining the startup culture. The Australian Square team has “that scrappy, hard working ethic”, he said.

“If we’re going to succeed it’s down to all of us as individuals, and we’re too small to start having too many layers or having too much hierarchy or politics.”

Hiring in Australia is different to hiring in the US, said Pfisterer. In San Francisco, Square will see applicants with experience working at the likes of Facebook, Google and Pinterest. In Melbourne, that’s significantly less likely.

“Here, it’s about finding people from different backgrounds who have that real common drive — that humility and intellect — to actually add value to the company,” Pfisterer said.

It’s part of a “dark science” of building a startup culture that will serve the company well in the long term, “but it’s generally working”, he added.

Pfisterer’s focus is on “making sure we constantly get the right people in and keep the common threads of why we’re there”.

That said, he’s is not a fan of implementing specific culture codes.

“I’ve seen them implemented badly,” he said.

If a company’s culture is broken, introducing a list of tenets to work from “is not enough … you can’t just put those in”, he said.

“Culture is not a company, it’s a combination of human beings interacting, and how they work together. It’s about hiring people who are humble, talented, driven and just buy into what we do.”

It might be easy to assume launching Square — which turned over $US2.2 billion ($2.99 billion) in revenue last year — in Australia would be significantly easier than starting a local business from scratch. And Pfisterer said it does help, but it’s not enough.

“It gives you a massive advantage, no doubt, and it’s a huge asset, but you have to get the right people in, you have to build the culture, you have to get the strategy right,” he said.

“You have every obstacle you have starting any business.”

Although Square’s mandate is to make products that are as simple to use as possible, it’s “actually a relatively complicated business”, Pfisterer said. It involves hardware, software, and the complications that come with financial services.

“Setting all that up can take time, and you can get it wrong,” he said.

However, those challenges “bonded our core team together”, he added.

“And we’re only getting started.”

StartupSmart attended the Disruptive Innovation Summit 2018 as a guest of the event.

NOW READ: Jack Dorsey explains how ‘mindset over matter’ made Square a success

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a reporter at StartupSmart.

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