Nathan’s happy place
A lot of Boost’s success in the technology sector can be attributed to its ethos of freedom and democracy in its Wellington office. It’s one remarkable example that proves staff happiness and productivity really do go hand in hand. New Zealand is awash with tech developers striving to be ‘top dog’ in the particular niche […]
A lot of Boost’s success in the technology sector can be attributed to its ethos of freedom and democracy in its Wellington office. It’s one remarkable example that proves staff happiness and productivity really do go hand in hand.
New Zealand is awash with tech developers striving to be ‘top dog’ in the particular niche they operate within. Many climb to the top of the ladder while others struggle to reach the next rung, or even progress off the bottom rung.
Often it’s hard to pinpoint one single factor that is responsible for a tech-business’s success – however, in the case of Wellington app and website developer Boost, the most obvious success driver has been its focus on decentralised decision-making and encouraging happiness within the workplace.
Co-founder and CEO Nathan Donaldson makes no secret of the fact that his goal is to create the happiest and most productive workplace in New Zealand. And the evidence suggests he is already well on the way to achieving that goal.
[ To watch a video on Boost’s journey from building CD-ROMs to creating a unique purpose-led culture: click here ]
Launched in 2000 by Nathan, along with co-founder Tom Hovey (who subsequently exited in 2006), Boost has enjoyed steady growth since its inception. Nathan brought with him a background in teaching and design. The company initially produced CD ROMs and educational multimedia material – but as technology has increasingly become Internet and smartphone driven, the work has morphed through to the wide world of websites and mobile apps.
When asked by NZBusiness to name business milestones, Nathan says their business journey has been less about highs and lows, and more about consistency. “When I look back there have been times when we’ve done really cool stuff. But the [team] cultural changes have been the big shifts for us.
“When we built the leadership team that was really exciting – working through what would make that valuable to the business and make the business flourish.”
Nonetheless he is extremely proud of the awards Boost has received over the years. “One in particular was for a CD ROM we produced to teach writing in Te Reo for Maori students. That was really well received by the students and was the first resource, digital or otherwise, for teaching and writing Te Reo.”
It’s no secret that app and website development is an extremely competitive market. However, Nathan says their point of difference is the fact that they are driven by values and purpose – and their clients really appreciate it.
“When we are working with a client, we believe in their project; we want to achieve the impacts for them that they’re looking for. So the majority of our work is for organisations that are making New Zealand a better place. That’s what we believe in and our clients relate really well to that.”
He says they’ve been working with one particular client for 11 years. “That’s because we continue to invest in the people and the processes around those projects.”
On the other hand, they have turned down work because the potential client hasn’t met Boost’s purpose of making a lasting, positive impact.
“Our purpose and values have been driven by the team,” continues Nathan. “Working to understand our values was a process of looking around the business at the behaviours we saw – both positive and negative – and from those deducing what our core values are, not our aspirational values.
“Through that we’ve come to understand who we work best with and who we wouldn’t.”
The decision process
Boost has a philosophy of decentralised decision-making. Nathan says it stems from a number of different factors.
“Everything we do is informed by things we see that work really well out in the rest of the world. With decentralised decision-making we encourage [our] people closest to the information to make the decisions. That includes helping them understand which decisions they can make without any consultation with their team.”
He says as far as possible they give the team the opportunity to pick the projects they work on. “So we get together, outline the needs of the customer, and the needs of the organisation and then facilitate for them to self-organise into teams.
“We also use a ‘decision tree’,” he says. It’s an idea from Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations which divides decisions into four categories:
- Leaf decisions – made without telling anyone; just like you can pick a leaf off a tree.
- Branch decisions – once you’ve made the decision you let someone know you’ve made it.
- Trunk decisions – slightly more important; you decide what to do and talk to someone before you do it.
- Root decisions – the most important of all and they get consultation before the decision is made.
“Working with everyone to help them understand where the daily decisions they are making fit within the [overall] idea and the concept is really useful for minimising bureaucracy in the business,” says Nathan, “and give people the empowerment and autonomy they need.”
Boost currently has 25 staff, but no one has a manager or a boss, explains Nathan – rather, everyone has a coach. “The cynical take is that they are bosses, but by another name. However, it’s a different process where the coaches are really invested in the employee’s personal and professional growth and help them to be the best they can be.
“So it’s not a reporting line, it’s a supporting line.”
Boost has been a certified democratic workplace for the past seven years, adds Nathan, which means adhering to ten principles around freedom and democracy in the workplace – including fairness and dignity, decentralised decision-making, purpose and vision. “It’s about keeping all those values and principles top of mind when making decisions; so when we’re working together we are trying to move forward in all of those dimensions.”
He says Boost is subjected to an anonymous annual survey conducted by WorldBlu (www.worldblu.com) – an international certifying agency for democratic workplaces – to evaluate what needs to be worked on.
In a happy (work)place
It’s fair to say that many Kiwi business owners have no clue about their workers’ true happiness on the job. But at Boost they’ve run a monthly survey of their staff since 2015.
It’s a very simple question on how happy you are at work on a scale of 1-10,” says Nathan.
“When we plot that data out over the years we can see a steady incremental rise to the point where we are averaging about 9.3 out of ten.”
That number is automatically placed on the Boost website, he says. “So at any time anyone can see how happy our people are, and in their work.
“Happiness and productivity go hand in hand – you can’t be productive without being happy and you can’t be happy without being productive.”
Nathan’s goal is to create the happiest and most productive workplace in New Zealand. “I believe happiness and productivity go hand in hand – you can’t be productive without being happy and you can’t be happy without being productive.”
While the happiness question goes out once a month, in the intervening weeks Boost staff are asked all sorts of other questions, such as: How’s the management team doing? Do you feel valued at work? Would you recommend the company? What sort of animal would you be and why?
“So we collect feedback every week as well as through the coaches. Feedback through the coaches gets sent to the ‘navigators’ – our leadership team or ‘servant leaders’. Then one of the navigators is tasked with closing the loop on that feedback to make sure it gets actioned,” explains Nathan.
He sees his job is to grow the business navigators – to invest in them, not only on technical skills but also on a personal level.
The navigators exist for service to the business, he says, rather than status. “So when you’re on the navigator team it’s an addition to your day job. There is no extra money but there is an opportunity for more personal growth. That is the trade-off. It’s more work and more personal growth.
“We have to strive to be better people and my job is to make sure the navigators have the tools and the learning they need to do that. So that means a lot of work on soft skills; how we interact together, build trust, maintain trust, and hold ourselves accountable.”
For the navigators personal growth is essential, he emphasises. “Each year we set a theme. Last year’s theme was accountability, and that drove all of our learning – our soft skills of how to hold someone accountable, and how to do it with love and kindness.”
Other businesses can learn a lot from Boost’s culture of workplace happiness and productivity, believes Nathan. “The key is that we try to work with human nature, rather than against it. So rather than deciding what people can do and how they do it, we move those decisions to the people themselves. I think that’s had the biggest impact for us as a business.
“Just in the same way that you can’t decide how fast your car can go, you accept the performance that it provides, we have to do that with team members as well. And that is the key to be able to work at a sustainable pace and ensure that you don’t burn out people.”
Keep love in your heart and in all of your conversations, he says – “whether that be with your team, your suppliers, or your customers.
“Interacting or holding that position of kindness and love is essential to having fruitful relationships and helps build those strong bonds you need in business.”
On track for growth
All this focus on worker happiness and building a team culture is clearly having a positive impact on the business. Nathan says they’ve built a roadmap for where they want Boost to be by 2026 – and that is $10 million in revenue, 50 employees, a 50:50 male-female ratio, a CEO chosen by the team; and wholly employee owned (see sidebox).
“Ideally, what we’re working towards is having co-CEOs, male and female, elected by the team.”
Looking back, Nathan believes one of the biggest business lessons he has learnt is to enjoy both ups and downs. “Think of it as more of a rollercoaster where both parts of the ride [are equally important].
“Business is not a straight line to success and if you invest too much in the ups or too much in the downs, it can be difficult to stick with it long term.
“So finding a way to enjoy the fear and move past it is critical.”
The genesis for employee ownership
Nathan Donaldson travelled to Fort Collins in Colorado in 2011 to visit New Belgium Brewery – a WorldBlu company and one of the first craft breweries in the US. Several years ago the company was sold to its employees.
“It was a revelation for me going out there and seeing so many fully-engaged employees going out to work every day,” recalls Nathan. ‘I did a tour with one of the key people involved in employee-board relationships – so representing the employees at a governance level – and hearing his story was super inspirational.
“That’s really where employee ownership for Boost has been driven from, that idea that people who work in the business should have a stake in the business and benefit from it. I think it will become a competitive advantage for the business and it will live on, certainly [improving] my ability to sustain the business,” says Nathan.
“The key for us is our purpose around making a positive, lasting impact. Everybody has to leave the business at some stage, and I want to make sure that Boost can continue to make a positive impact after I’m gone.”
Apprentice, journeyman and master
Boost is all about doing things differently, to achieve the ultimate goal of a happy and productive workplace. Nathan Donaldson explains that this is about understanding how peoples’ careers progress.
“We see everyone as having two tracks in their career – the professional technical skills they need, but also the soft skills. So we work to put those things alongside each other and although the software development industry has a system of ‘junior, intermediate and senior’, we never really felt like that was the journey our people were on.
“So we’ve worked towards having an idea around ‘apprenticeship, journeyman and master’. We help our team to understand what it means to be an apprentice – someone who works under supervision and is starting to get the technical and people skills they need.
“A ‘journeyman’ is someone who can work without supervision; who is a trusted set of hands and is able to work really well with other people on projects, but is perhaps not ready to lead others.
“Then there is the ‘master’. Someone who could, if they wanted to, strike out on their own and build their own company. [The master] has everything they need to work with clients and team members, as well as mentor junior members of the team and ensure they have the resources they need to be successful.”
This story was first published in the June 2019 issue of NZBusiness.