Developing the Best Company Culture in SaaS
Great developers build great SaaS products. And a great company culture builds great developers. That’s what we believe at LearnUpon. After landing in Dublin for LearnUpon’s summer party, I spoke to the development team about the secret to loving life at work. Our talented gang of developers and designers talk about being agile, CEO pranks, and how to instantly spot the right fit for your company culture.
How to develop a great SaaS culture remotely
One glance at LearnUpon’s development team reveals a remarkably strong bond. As Vladimir tells me, “Aside from all of the work-related stuff, the guys are just really cool. It’s such a friendly atmosphere.” What you quickly spot are real and deep friendships that developed incredibly quickly. Based in Belgrade in Serbia, the team has almost doubled in size over the last year and describe themselves as a family of friends who happen to love their work.
LearnUpon’s founders, Brendan and Des, met and launched the start up in Dublin. When family brought CTO Des to Belgrade, it turned out to be a great move for the fledgling company. From the start, technology made collaboration across the continent easy. Tools like Skype, and later Slack, allowed LearnUpon’s first members to collaborate almost as if they were in the same office. Des and Brendan knew they could work together effectively but how to scale a young company’s culture in multiple locations was a new problem.
When I meet the Belgrade team, it’s clear that succeeded extremely well. From their first trip to Dublin, the dev team recognized the same people and dynamic they already knew at home. While the Belgrade team is focused and close knit, they collaborate closely with the customer support and customer success teams elsewhere in LearnUpon. Their bi-annual trips to Dublin have been a secret ingredient in helping everyone to work towards the same goal. As Petar explains:
There’s nothing we can’t do over Skype and Slack but it’s great to come to Dublin and put faces to names. It makes conversations easier later when we work together. We really know each other. When I first met Brendan, it was so good to see how similar the culture in Dublin was.
The lesson for remote teams is to meet up every once in a while – and have lots of fun!
Scaling a flat company culture
When the guys speak of themselves as a family, at times that’s been almost literally true. The office in Belgrade struggles to keep up with the expanding team, while Susan who heads up Operations secures the right home. The temporary squeeze is a result of how quickly LearnUpon has grown. At the beginning, Des worked alone in his family apartment, his desk the kitchen table. His daughter slept beside him as he coded the first iteration of LearnUpon’s LMS.
The first official office squeezed in developer after developer, until a whole team covering front- and back-end, QA and design, worked from a few small rooms. While extra space is needed, they will be sad to leave the place they became a team of the most dedicated and talented developers working in eLearning. And while the team has expanded quickly, they insist little has changed. Working closely has allowed them to retain the culture they value so much. Alex knows exactly where it starts:
Des is the most important influence in our office in Belgrade. He’s the leader and sets the tone. He knows exactly what kind of environment he wants to work in and the culture he wants his company to have. That’s why he allows us to be ourselves at work. Everyone does their best because it’s where they want to be and what they want to be doing.
While the spirit of friendship trickles down from Brendan and Des, the company’s structure is unusually flat. Vladimir adds:
Of course Des is officially the boss and an amazing CTO for LearnUpon. He leads and gives us direction. But we’re treated like everyone is equal and on the same level. We never hear, “Why are you late?!”, “Why are you leaving now?”, “You have to come in tomorrow!” If we choose to work outside our normal hours, Des thanks us, every time.
That flatness extends to decision-making. While the ultimate call will inevitably lie with Des or Cathal, our Head of Engineering, everyone’s voice is heard and everyone contributes to the future of the platform. Rather than seniority or hierarchy, decisions are made based on the approach that best serves the company’s users and customers.
What it takes to fit the culture
You have to love your work. If you’re coming to work to watch the clock and pass the time, this environment won’t work.
The team’s process is lean and agile. They adapt to new challenges very quickly. The values they hire for allow them to shift and focus, with ego and attitude left at the door. The entire development process is driven by the goal of delivering an even better experience to learners and admins. To Vladimir, everything adapts to serve that:
Our vision of the right solution changes all the time. At the start, we spend a lot of time synthesizing customer feedback and research into designing a great solution. Then when we start programming, we sometimes see we can do it an even better way. So we adapt. From design to development, we change path once we recognize a better solution. If we code something that isn’t simple enough for users, Alex will spot that immediately. He will draw something more user-friendly and we’ll go back to code that. Nothing is rigid until we see how it works for users.
The team is driven by a shared ambition to continue perfecting the best cloud LMS. Their priorities here are as clear as everywhere else: security comes first. Petar explains:
A lot of developers like to work with shiny new objects. But our development team is very mature. We won’t use a technology until it’s been proven and tested. We need to deliver that uptime guarantee. Some people could be a good fit but want to work with brand new risky technologies. That won’t work. Stability, security, focus, those things matter most to us.
In terms of development experience, the team is certainly mature. But it’s also full of pranksters. The guys tell me how they stayed late one evening to configure a plugin that filled Vladimir’s screen with literal bugs. I hear CEO Brendan even pranked the Belgrade team but I’m told that anecdote is off the record.
Yet what it reveals is very clear – a team of the most focused and talented professionals find lots of time to have fun, just as their CEO and CTO would want it.