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Business strategy

Mr Yum founder Kim Teo on why you shouldn’t take culture for granted – especially during a pandemic

- October 25, 2021 4 MIN READ
Mr Yum co-founders Kerry Osborn, Kim Teo (centre) and Adrian Osman
It’s been quite a year for us at Mr Yum. Some would call it crazy, but in the vein of our company mantra “think 10x”, we launched into the US and UK simultaneously earlier this year. 

I remember getting on what was essentially a one-way plane from Australia to Los Angeles in late February. I looked over at my co-founder and partner, Adrian, and we just nervously laughed.

At the time, LA had only just started to cool down from being politically, and literally, on fire. We weren’t vaccinated at this point (now fully vaccinated) and Covid cases were in the tens of thousands per day, which felt alien to us Aussies at the time. 

We were also conscious that it’s not typically a common sense thing for an early-stage company to launch into two massive international markets at the same time. Sounds like a great way of imploding a company.

We knew by getting on that flight that we’d look back at this as either one of the best strategic moves we’d made in the company or, more likely, the stupidest thing we’d done to date.

Our justification, outside of a healthy level of naivety, was that this pandemic has so drastically changed the mindset and adoption of technology for the hospitality and entertainment industries globally.

Mr Yum CEO and co-founder Kim Teo

As the northern hemisphere reopened for summer, we saw this rare window of opportunity to leverage our learnings from Australia, which had reopened six months earlier, and apply these to bigger, international markets that were reopening with similar industry restrictions and challenges.

Relievingly, the big bet has worked out.

In the past 12 months our team has quadrupled, with more than 50 people joining in the past six months alone, now over 100 full time. We have team members spread across Australia (Melbourne HQ, Sydney and Brisbane), the US (Los Angeles), the UK (London), South Africa (Cape Town) and the Philippines.

I’ve had the privilege of being in many cities across the US and Europe this year and have learned how intrinsically similar the industries we serve are globally – we’ve never been more excited and bullish about building something as impactful and long-lasting as what Shopify has created in retail.
Growing globally during a pandemic with closed borders and ever-changing restrictions has kept us on our toes, to say the least. 

Business is about people, so most of my learnings about scale are directly linked to team and culture – here’s a handful of my biggest learnings this year:

 

Invest in your values and mantras (earlier than we did)

The glue that held everything together in our team culture is a strong set of company mantras – “Here to Serve”, “Numbers over Hype” and “Run Towards the Fire”, along with “Think 10x”.

These are our company’s guiding principles and help to inform individual and collective decisions. Admittedly, we took far too long to establish these mantras – the impact we’ve seen them make on our team’s alignment is pretty remarkable.

If you’re reading this and have an early-stage company, I urge you to invest the time in this now as the payoff is huge.

 

There’s no shortcut for finding amazing leaders

Entrepreneurial, high-growth startup environments come with constant rapid change and uncertainty. This means you need resilient, empathetic and inclusive leaders to coach, give feedback, help our team prioritise and build trust.

When you get this right, you’re laying a foundation for scale that makes life so much easier for you down the road.

For example, growing our team from 10-30 staff was so much harder than from 30 to 100+ because of the heavy investment we made into finding the best leaders.

 

There’s no such thing as overkill in communicating where you’re going

Having an explicit plan on what the business is striving to achieve and the why – then articulating this clearly and often, is vital at every stage of the journey.

I’ve regularly taken the plan I have in my head for granted, assuming our team are mind-readers. There really isn’t a ceiling to how much you can reinforce the path ahead.

And equally important is how you communicate what you’re not doing.

As the Mr Yum brand grows, there are too many opportunities to say ‘yes’ to all of them.

New products, regions, partners, customer segments. We spend equal amounts of time talking about the things we are choosing to be world class at as the things we’re deciding not to.

 

Formalise your approach to recognition

Clear, two-way and open communication channels are key – but this is especially important for companies operating across multiple continents and timezones.

We have fostered a strong culture of peer-to-peer recognition, primarily focused on an informal #high-fives Slack channel that anybody can use to publicly shout out colleagues. Not a day goes by where someone isn’t “high-fived” for going above and beyond.

This is complemented by a more formal quarterly recognition program known internally as “The Yummies”, which align with Mr Yum’s mantras.

Get on the front foot with mental health support

Recognising the pressures of startup / scale-up environments, as well as the unique challenges of the pandemic, we have reinforced our no-questions-asked policy for team members choosing to take a mental health day.

We have also partnered with the startup Frankie Health, offering team members access to a “mental health sidekick” providing digital exercises and the ability to connect with local therapists and counsellors, at no cost to the employees.

 

Trust your team

If you don’t trust them, why did you hire them?

We offer a flexible, remote-friendly working environment with leave options and day-to-day work times to suit individual routines.
Our team members are encouraged to work in whatever way suits them, whether that’s remote or in-office. The majority of Mr Yum’s product and development team works remotely full-time. It’s about the what, not the where.

Trust is about more than flexibility though – you also have to get out of their way.

My overriding philosophy? Hire really smart people and get out of their way as much as possible. Be clear on the objective, then leave space for them to figure out how to get there – and make mistakes along the way.

This has been especially obvious for me this year, having been out of Australia since late February.

Our Australian team has been crushing it with Adrian and I quite literally out of the way. One of the ironic benefits of not being able to get back to Australia in 2021.

  • Kim Teo is the CEO and co-founder of Mr Yum