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Bak USA Chief People Officer Eva Bak maps out five ways to keep a company culture alive and well.

Eva Bak smiles with Bak USA’s 2016 “Best Place to Work” Award.

In January 2015, Bak USA opened the doors of its social enterprise in downtown Buffalo. With just a handful of employees, a healthy contribution from a local investor, and a brand-new perspective on the future of technology, Bak USA planted its flag in Western New York’s start-up community.

“No one believed we could do it,” says Bak USA’s president, Ulla Bak. “But we are building computers in the United States.”

Two years later, Bak USA is still a humble organization with ambitious dreams. The only difference? We’ve expanded from an immediate family to a considerable enterprise.

Bak USA will surge into 2017 with a 71-person workforce, likely adding more employees in the new year. The challenge, then, is to maintain our company culture while experiencing exponential growth.

 

“You have to blend flexibility with a sort of stubborn effort to preserve the culture that you have defined.”

 

I spoke with Bak USA’s chief people officer, Eva Bak, to discuss the ways in which Bak USA will aim to maintain our quirky start-up vibe moving forward. According to Eva, here’s what you can do to preserve your small business values when your business scales up.

1. Define your company culture.

“The most important thing to concentrate on when experiencing a lot of change and wanting to preserve the culture is to value and define the culture,” says Eva. “It’s also the most difficult, because you can’t preserve something if you don’t know what it is.”

Eva and Ulla Bak get down to business at Bak USA in downtown Buffalo.

Before you can preserve your start-up values, you need to know what they represent. It seems obvious, but it’s easier said than done. What defines your company culture? What are your values? What do you hope to represent day in and day out? These ideals are likely to be defined by leadership teams, communicated by human resources, and reinforced by marketing efforts.

“The culture is personified by everyone who works together to establish and express our identity—who we are.”

And who is Bak USA, exactly?

“We are a family, for sure,” Eva explains. “It’s also part of our company culture to be constantly learning, to have fun and to celebrate wins, and to be passionate about Buffalo.”

2. Be flexible.

“You have to blend flexibility with a sort of stubborn effort to preserve the culture that you have defined.”

At the early stages of a start-up, it is common for individuals to wear “many hats,” where one person takes on a wide variety of responsibilities all at the same time.

“You do it out of survival mode,” explains Eva. “It’s funny because when you wear five different hats—one’s blue, one’s yellow, red, and so on—you’re wearing them all at once. And then someone else comes in wearing a red hat, so you technically don’t need to wear it anymore, but out of habit you still put on the red hat.”

When the company grows and your responsibilities shift, it may become more difficult to define who does what and when.

 

“The culture is personified by everyone who works together to establish and express our identity—who we are.”

 

When you and your co-workers are flexible—when you’re willing to initiate or accept changes, you help create a culture of mutual respect and understanding.

At Bak USA, it seems like someone new is starting every week. As a result, responsibilities are shifting and space is getting tight. How has our workforce responded?

“By being super resilient,” says Eva. “When we expand, there is limited space. So when everyone has to move a desk or workspace for the third time, you still see smiles and patience. I would say we are a very resilient group.”

 3. Hire employees who “get it.”

As you expand your hiring efforts, what do you look for in an ideal candidate? Before you make someone an offer, determine that his or her personality, attitude, and energy match match up with those cultural elements you have already defined.

“All of our employees are curious and open for adventure,” Eva says. “A lot of people who join us are looking to achieve something more than just earning that paycheck. Maybe they were stuck in a job where they felt good about their title, but they didn’t feel good about themselves when they went to work in the morning. They weren’t excited. A lot of people come here seeking excitement.”

A team of builders express themselves at Bak USA in 2015.

What should your employees, co-workers, or colleagues expect out of a day in the life at your company? How would they describe what your business does in their own words?

The answer isn’t to collect people who all think and act the exact same way. The solution is making sure that your start-up characteristics resonate through each employee in their own unique way.

By doing so, growth can be a shared experience.

“I do think that everyone who is hired here contributes to the culture,” explains Eva. “If I really go down into detail—every single person who has joined so far has added a little piece of themselves to our energy and attitude. And I think that’s really positive, because we have to grow the same way the culture was formed in the first place—by the contribution of the people who were here, not by one person who dictated it.”

4. Handle struggles head on.

“When there is conflict, we deal with it right away. We don’t treat it in that corporate way of, ‘Oh, let’s first have these people talk about it, and then have these people talk about it…’ No. There is nothing bureaucratic about it.”

It will become more challenging to reinforce the familial feel of your workplace as your business grows, but a key to preserving the culture will be transparency.

There’s nothing worse for morale than leaving your work-life in limbo. How can you succeed if your employees don’t know where they stand at any given moment?

Regardless of the circumstance, all employees must understand their positions with the company. And not to sound grim, but if you don’t know you’ve got a problem until you’re locked out of the building or your computer won’t boot up, guess what? You’ve been victimized by a disagreeable company culture.

 

“At the beginning you’re sort of winging it. But now that you’re scaling up, you need to clearly define who you are, what you do, and how you do it.”

 

That sounds intense, but I bet you know someone who knows someone who’s experienced some such situation firsthand. To avoid these scenarios, keep the lines of communication open as often as possible.

5. Write it down.

“As you grow it becomes necessary to document and streamline processes—to start to make things more formal,” Eva says. “At the beginning you’re sort of winging it. But now that you’re scaling up, you need to clearly define who you are, what you do, and how you do it.”

For example, the Bak USA tone, voice, and personality is made clear almost immediately in our offer letter to successful job applicants. That same energy is then carried on throughout all other communication efforts moving forward.

Bak USA builders celebrate another great day at work in 2016.

Are you employing a person (or people) who can capture your company’s voice? If not, the messages you send out into the world may be contradictory, clunky, or flat-out incorrect, thereby muddying up those start-up qualities that make you great.

Of course, content may come from different departments, and that complicates communications. To preserve the perspectives you worked so hard to define early on, you must establish a universal voice, document your policies and procedures, and communicate your vision and mission consistently across all platforms.

Once you have determined a strong and steady method for your messaging, you will be prepared to preserve the values of your start-up as your company continues to grow.

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James A. Colombo III

To learn more about Bak USA, visit bakusa.com.

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