Darshan Kaler is the co-founder and CEO of Tradable Bits since August 2010, with 10 years as tech partner with Spotify, Facebook, etc. The company is the only fan-based marketing platform to discover, personalize and maximize fan experiences for music, sports and entertainment industries. Tradable Bits platform is reshaping and delivering results 10x better than the leading industry benchmarks.
How do you define culture at the highest level? Would that definition change when we are talking about an organization? If so, how?
Culture has a lot to do with language and how we interact with each other. For me culture is understanding how you need to be respectful with your staff and your clients. Language becomes an interesting way to guide your principles in culture. Culture is not defined by telling people what the culture is. Culture is a jambalaya of people together that make up a culture. Every person we bring into the team is dramatically going to change the culture of the company. The sounding boards is the essence of the team.
Culture comes from the top. If you have a terrible boss, it will eventually trickle down and everyone will treat each other poorly. That’s why it’s important. It’s kind of like being a parent. When your kids are inside your home you’ve built your own culture. Companies are like families although it may be a lot harder with a very large organization, but if you can replicate some good things, some core values to carry through (come up with five), then it carries you through. For example, in our company, we have five pillars of activity. For me, the most important is Trust. I must trust the team and the team must trust me. Innovation is another key pillar for us.
Flexibility – work-life balance, when you get older your work-life balance is very different than you imagine it in your twenties. It’s important to help others
understand what that is. It’s also important to highlight how flexible we are, with staff or clients.
Education – we are all about learning. You need to be learning every week and every month whether it’s about our clients’ problems or our own we need to learn to overcome those things. How can you innovate? Necessity is the mother of all invention.
Teamwork – even though we think differently it’s important that we are there to help one another. When my new staff come I tell them that a challenge isn’t enough. You shouldn’t be asking people what you should be doing next or they do the work for you. In the first two to three weeks. About a month and a half in you become more productive. Then after six months, you start to realize how you add to the culture and to the future, to the organization getting better, and so on years after years
If you could create the ideal organizational culture with no restrictions like time or cost what are the first three things that come to mind for you?
- If cost and time are not an issue team events are amazing. I would take everyone and go to Tofino and whether they like surfing or not everyone gets to surf. Find something that is challenging and put everyone in a challenging state to work towards it. When you are removed from your day-to-day environment to build bonds you create friendships and workplace culture is a very different scenario.
- I would ‘flat line’ everyone’s salary. I would make sure everyone makes, saves, and has enough money and everyone knows what everyone makes. One may wonder why, but if you have the right culture and everyone is making the same then everyone is going to work really well. If I had a magic wand to change things that’s what I’d do.
- The last thing would be, in a good company it’s like an extended family. Just like my brothers if they are interested in my birthdays and everything that we normally do for a family member we’d do for our teammates. For someone in their twenties, we might want someone to go to Australia and work and expand in that region at the same time. This is no different to…maybe if you had all the money and time, what I would do for my nieces and nephews.
I find when I ask someone what they really want to do and how I can help them get there most people are genuinely scared because they don’t think I will agree with what they are trying to do. If it benefits you and the company, it’s a win-win. For example, one of our team members came from overseas and worked with us for a couple of years. They wanted to work here and stay here so we helped them in getting established locally. Then, he wanted to help his mom by building and running an e-commerce store. We were able to accommodate that employee’s needs to make it possible and he’s still with us years later, as of today. Another employee wanted to go back home for family, and they also wanted to start their own company. They couldn’t employee them from afar, but they committed to being their first customer. It’s not as hard as you think, alignment is possible. Companies tend to get rigid in terms of what they consider a workforce to be. The reasons that people leave is that their life distracts them from their work
When you think of poor organizational culture what are the first three things that come to mind?
I remember sitting working for a multibillion-dollar public company and the CEO didn’t care for anybody. This was during the dotcom bubble. A lot of companies were destroyed. The company had about a year’s runway left after the bubble and they had to cut 50% of their staff even though they had an operational business. When you cut 50% of your staff you must cut down entire departments. This leader’s model was based on the forward potential trauma of the bubble, some people having jobs and others not having jobs. Those that kept have survivors’ guilt and those gone are SOL. That same year the company brought in about $300M in revenue and I was asked to cancel Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. In January, the CEO was like great we did it now how are we going to get more blood from stone? As executives we received bonuses, and staff got nothing. I tendered my resignation the following week. Compensation didn’t matter. I was sick and unhappy, and I wasn’t making people happy. I took lots of time off and moved to Vancouver and decided I was going to do what I want.
What are the best things you do to translate the organizational vision for your team?
Empowering people is so much more important especially with a small team like ours. The team wanted me to do a regular CEO update. They wanted to send the reports to me and have me do the presentation. I didn’t want that. I will do the strategic updates every 3 months, but that’s all. The leaders in our departments needed to lead those updates. If everyone feels like they are empowered I can disappear for a month, and it should be ok. If they treat the company as their own it’s a game changer.
What do you do to make them feel ownership?
Our finances are transparent, and our team can access the financials to understand where the company is at. Bring them and make them a part of it. They can see the money and, for instance, I told them, due to the pandemic, we have an 18 months window, if we make zero money in this period, then we are done. The options were: shut down the office and take the money that’s in the bank or we bet on our clients and we doubled down and raised everyone’s salary because our business is picking up post-pandemic.
You are someone who leads naturally with their own culture. How and when do you begin to document and communicate that culture? When did you know it was time to “write it down”?
I think it’s the size of the company. When I couldn’t talk to everyone every day that’s when I realized we needed to formalize some structure around our culture. It was when our team was about 10 people. Not too much to force the culture, but having at least one or two FaceTime a week.
As you see new organizations growing rapidly what’s the one piece of advice, you’d provide to entrepreneurs to keep their teams together as they grow?
You need ambassadors, you need champions.
Seeing the Olympics was really an amazing experience. The fact that when I was with Bell there were 10 of us that were core teams. We basically started the Olympic team for Bell and brought in a whole bunch of Bell resources in as we ramped up. We grew from 10 to 5000-7000 people. It’s not like 3 years before that there were 10 of us then 100 and then 5000-7000 in the last few months. How the hell do you onboard that many people? With the understanding of how you want the game to be managed and people to act, behave and represent themselves. Imagine if you had a company grew from 10 people to 100 to 50x that. You got to do things differently, and you do lose a lot of the culture but you don’t lose the essence of something. We had a defining vision: “Flawless games”. If someone felt that there was no flaw in how service was provided, and they felt like it was painless then we did our job. Simplifying your goal so that it can orient everyone and everyone’s actions behind a singular vision.
Sometimes organizational culture isn’t a good fit between employees and companies. What advice would you give others to help them figure that out for themselves?
You can’t avoid a culture mismatch. We’ve made many mistakes from interviewing people in 30-45 minutes, it’s impossible to understand if someone is telling the truth about what they can do and what they are and what they wish they were. For us, it’s simple little questions that help the most. When I do an interview, I want to know how honest people are with themselves, so that they are honest with us. As if they aren’t honest with themselves how can they be honest with us. I ask questions like “What is it that people don’t like about you?” For those with really strong self-awareness and confidence it’s easy for them to answer a question like that. For others we will know in 5-10 minutes if the interview will continue. If someone lacks self-awareness in any way you aren’t going to do well in an ecosystem like this.
Recently two companies (Coinbase and Basecamp) made public announcements regarding their desire and initiative to not weigh in political and sensitive topics. This is being seen from two extremes as either a smart move or a cowardly move.
How do you think organizations can navigate the increasingly challenging world where taking a side on an issue may alienate the opposing group? How do you see these moves by these organizations?
The reality is that a corporation is relatively different from a company like ours. If leadership is identifying the culture, the fact that you are hiding from any of these things that surround you and not commenting positively or negatively is not only cowardness, it is a killer of your culture. Your employees live in the same society, and it reflects what the ownership believes in. It is what the executives, the owners, believe in.
In my company my founder and I exist on different areas of the political spectrum and we have to take a position. Sometimes our business politics factors in our decisions and those decisions reflect what they think is right. In the end, it’s about the way you represent yourself and the way you act/speak on behalf of your company. Muting it is the first step to killing culture.
As human beings the only thing we have for sure is opinions and if we can’t represent what we believe to be true, we are lost.
The reactiveness of a company on some things require action while others do not. Action is needed when it’s not something we do every day.
Tell us about a time when you were able to create and build culture successfully? What was the hardest part of it?