How to make your startup a great place to work

- April 29, 2021 5 MIN READ
Dominic Pym
Dom Pym, founder of Ferocia and Up.
As the founder of more than a dozen businesses over 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of bringing together, and then working with, some of the world’s most talented people.

Both as a founder and leader, you have a wonderful and enormous responsibility to shape a work environment where those people can flourish. Creating something into which phenomenal people will choose to invest their time, energy and creativity – without burning out – is no small feat. I take this very seriously and over the years, have come up with a few non-negotiables when it comes to creating a great place to work.

The essentials: wellbeing, trust and flexibility

Transparency and trust is key to great customer experience and also to internal culture. I firmly believe that culture and the ‘work family’ that we’ve created – the way that we bounce off each other, the way we collaborate and help each other – is the reason for our success to date.

If you really commit to giving your team what they need to live happy, healthy work lives, the rewards in terms of engagement, productivity and creativity are exponential. I think leaders who nickel and dime their employees, and watch the clock to make sure they’re getting ‘value’, are hurting their business as well as their employees. We provide good salaries, a physical trainer, all the training resources the team needs, and autonomy to shape their work and the way they get it done.

It’s our policy to support and trust every team member – and with 78% staff retention over a full 9 years since incorporation, our team has shown their commitment to us. They choose to stay, because they can and do work at the very highest levels, prioritise their families, and if they need time off, take it.

For example, at Ferocia we offer unmetered leave, and the average employee takes around five weeks, plus time when they need it to take care of themselves and their families. True flexibility looks different to everyone. It might mean leaving for the school pickup every day, taking an afternoon off to maintain good mental health, or building your work schedule around study commitments.

All of these examples (from within our team), demonstrate the benefits that flow on from first establishing trust. You can work with your team to prioritise their mental health, promote sustainable working norms, and encourage smarter working practices.


Get laser focused on your unifying purpose.

Forget those posters on your boardroom wall. Your organisation’s core ‘purpose’ is more than words picked by leaders – it’s the foundation stone for a strong and collaborative culture. It’s what the team works hard for and celebrates, what happens when things get hard, and what keeps everyone pulling in the same direction.

Up exists to take people from a place where money is a cause of stress and anxiety to a happier place where they feel empowered and in control of their finances. We achieve growth and impact by growing the bank of the future together with our customers. We celebrate the wins, but our purpose defines us in hard times, too.

For example, most of our 370,000+ customers are young Australians, many of them casual retail and/or hospitality workers – and so when COVID-19 began, they were amongst the hardest hit. Our most important goal during that time was to be there for our customers experiencing hardship, and to make sure they had the tools and knowledge to get in control of their finances and make every dollar work for them. The whole team rallied behind our mission, drawing energy and focus from it. People in other companies might have lacked motivation: we were coming to work because people needed us (even if “work” was at home). We could see clearly what projects needed to be shelved for a while, and which needed to be brought forward – like our new budgeting tools. We all understood why and we got to work.

This is the power of a unifying purpose. It gives you clarity for decision-making. It empowers your team to move the business forward with the end goal clearly in sight.


Prioritise and reward learning and development

If you want trust from your team, you need to routinely demonstrate that you’re investing in them.

Learning is a key priority for us, and we know different people prefer to learn in different ways. Providing a variety of learning opportunities and formats is essential to ensuring the whole team can improve their skills and feel a sense of accomplishment and growth.

For social learners, self-directed collaborative projects and regular all-hands Demo sessions are the perfect learning platform. At Up, our regular Friday Demo is a favourite way to learn and grow. We get together each week to share short, fun presentations on everything from how a recent software problem was solved, to how we’re talking to our customers, whether a velociraptor could theoretically open a door, or how we’d design a beer that captures the spirit of our brand. There is no barrier to entry and presenting in any domain, at any level, is celebrated. Demo is fun, social and keeps us engaged – always celebrating one another, learning from one another, and looking for the next collaborative win.

For more formal learners, your team might benefit from a library of paid training subscriptions, online courses or a dedicated budget to attend overseas and domestic conferences. We make sure all of these are available.

For group development – or simply when morale needs a boost – collaborative and creative activities like team sprints or Hack Days are ideal. Hack Days at Up are another company highlight, giving any team member license to experiment – together or alone – and to work on something new that needs a lot of self-directed, ‘mucking about’ learning that quite likely won’t produce a direct financial outcome for the company.

And importantly, we learn better when we see that learning is never finished. Our leaders, many of whom are recognised domain experts, make a point to share where they are learning and ask for input into work in progress. Actively demonstrating that you’re always learning, always failing, even when you’re at the top of your game, is crucial.


Measure and direct resources to areas for improvement

Ferocia – the team behind Up – was recently named as one of Australia’s best places to work in technology. As a leader, better than the award itself was knowing that our team members themselves nominated the company, and voluntarily went through a deep survey process. They wanted to celebrate our strengths and what we do well from a culture perspective, but also, critically, to learn where we can improve as a team.

Part of having a culture that is built on trust and encourages learning and development is acknowledging that there’s always room for improvement. Measurement and feedback – in many forms – are essential for a healthy culture. Just as every team member reviews public customer reviews (we watch in real time as our work helps the next generation of Australians swap anxiety for financial calm), everyone in the team engages in feedback cycles like Stop Start Keep.

It’s essential that feedback and measurement occur at all levels of the organisation. Our leadership team are some of the first to engage in our organisation-wide group feedback processes. Seeing leaders demonstrate true vulnerability and openness to criticism is very powerful. If your team can see leaders actively allowing people to see their authentic, vulnerable selves and inviting them to share feedback and identify avenues for growth and improvement, they will also feel safe and able to participate in those same processes.

While it’s amazing to be recognised as a Great Place to Work, we’re by no means finished. Just as we iterate and reflect on software, and change as we grow, we’re also facing new challenges as the team grows and navigates new, hybrid ways of working. Shared team lunches and recruiting from our inner circle of friends, for example, were critical to us in the early days but don’t scale – so we’re testing what’s next. We look forward to building the next chapter together with the team.

* Dom Pym has co-founded several businesses, including Australian technology company, Ferocia and Australia’s leading digital bank, Up. His career spans 20+ years in software, web and mobile development from startups to global enterprises. He also co-founded Pin Payments (Australia’s first all-in-one online payments platform) which was acquired in 2020.