Episode 74: How a Demand Generation Agency Scaled Its Company Culture With a Remote Workforce – Member Case with Bart Bartlett
The cultural fit of employees, clients, and potential acquirers are all critical to the success of the professional services firm. In this episode, Bart Bartlett, CEO at DemandZen, shares how he instills the core values of the firm within his remote team.
Greg Alexander [00:00:15] Welcome to the Boutique with Collective 54, a podcast for founders and leaders of boutique professional services firms. For those that don’t know us, Collective 54 is the first mastermind community to help you grow, scale, and exit your firm bigger and faster.
I’m the founder, Greg Alexander, and I’ll be your host today. And on this episode, we’re going to talk to Bart Bartlett from DemandZen. And today, I’m going to talk about culture fit. So, Bart, welcome to the show.
Bart Bartlett [00:00:45] Thank you, sir.
Greg Alexander [00:00:46] Good to see you. If you wouldn’t mind, introduce yourself and your firm and tell everybody what you do.
Bart Bartlett [00:00:55] Sure. So I’m Bart Bartlett, the CEO, and co-founder of DemandZen. We focus on the top of funnel demand generation for B2B tech companies and have done so in one form or another since about 2004.
Why Culture Fit is Important When Scaling a Business
Greg Alexander [00:01:08] Okay, fantastic. So today we’re going to talk about culture fit. And this is a very interesting subject because as a firm grows and scales, particularly at the exit, and if they’re going to merge with somebody, culture fit, underlining the word ‘fit’ becomes a really big deal. Now, why is that?
Well, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, somewhere between 70-90% of acquisitions fail. And they cite the reason why they fail is a misalignment of cultures. And then there has been quite a bit of research from the great consulting firm McKinsey on this very subject as well.
So we’re going to try to unpack this. And when we try to apply the word culture fit not only to an acquisition strategy, whether you’re the buyer or seller, but also on your journey up to that point through the growth and scale stage.
And I want to start Bart, I’m going to use the ten question checklist in the book here to guide our conversation. And I want to start with question number two, which is: Does the founder’s origin story shed a light on the boutique’s culture?
So I know a lot about your origin story, and I won’t ask you to recite it here because it’s a long and very interesting story. But let’s focus on whether or not it does shed a light on your culture. So describe DemandZen’s culture fit and tie it back to the origin story.
Bart Bartlett [00:02:31] Sure. So our culture is really driven by core values and I’m stepping on my words cause I’m not used to having it here, so. And we basically make those a part of the interview process, a part of the onboarding process. And I would say a part of the ongoing process. Right?
So we try and be values driven as an organization. Iin terms of how that came from our origin, DemandZen basically we merged two other companies. And it’s been almost eight years ago now. And at that point we had about seven people. And after about six months, we basically just surveyed everyone and said, “what’s important to you both personally and professionally?”
And we synthesize that into our core values, and then we just try and run the business in line with those values, whether it be recruiting or how we interact with customers or the clients that we think we can do the best work for versus clients that we may need to let go. Right. It’s all just sort of values-led.
Greg Alexander [00:03:36] Okay. And eight years ago, you merged two companies, still a small firm at that point, seven people. Again, what are you guys out now in terms of number of employees?
Bart Bartlett [00:03:46] We’re at about seventy-five employees.
Greg Alexander [00:03:48] Okay. So a ten X scale in approximately seven, eight years. And so the culture is going to get challenged when you go through that type of growth. Let’s first talk about when you brought those two companies together.
Was there a culture fit when you merged them or did the culture need to be adapted to merge the two companies together?
How DemandZen Built a Culture For a Remote Workforce
Bart Bartlett [00:04:09] So in this particular case, I worked with the prior company as a client across three different startups. So I was pretty familiar with the organization that I was merging into. And on my side, it was just me and an employee, right? So it wasn’t a large company per say. Yeah. And there were maybe five people in the prior company when we merged. So I would say we were reasonably familiar with each other.
Greg Alexander [00:04:36] Okay. So it was an easy fit because you’d had a prior working relationship. Okay, great. So then everything’s values-driven, which I love. Maybe share a few examples of what your values are now.
Bart Bartlett [00:04:49] Sure. So first and foremost, we’re results-driven just as a performance-based marketing agency, we have to be. But we also focus on solving problems. That’s essentially what we do for clients is help them solve their demand generation challenges.
But we also just when we talk to our employees, we’ve been a remote organization for a long time. So we just explain that if you can figure something out for yourself, you know, just Google it. Spend a couple of minutes trying to understand it, and figure it out that that process is a lot more efficient for the business.
Greg Alexander [00:05:22] Yeah. Sometimes I’m fascinated by the concept that you were remote before all of us were forced to become remote and you ten X’d your employee headcount being remote.
I hear from members at times that cultures fall away or fall apart when trying to scale a business as much as you have remotely. And you clearly are proof that that’s not true. Did you have to do anything differently given the remote nature of your workforce?
Bart Bartlett [00:05:47] Well, I would view it more as I’m proof that you can make every possible mistake in the book and survive it while scaling culture and a business. So, you know, we had to learn to do a lot of this stuff via trial and error.
There’s a lot of ways you can support disseminating culture remotely. Right. So one, you know, we get on the phone, the senior team gets on the phone with new hires as part of their onboarding process and says, these are our values. This is the story. This is where each of the values comes from and why we think it’s important to the business. You know, we effectively have to prioritize communicating around our values.
We also use a micro bonus platform called Bonusly so that anyone in the company can give anyone else a bonus in line with core values at any time. So if you think about it, it’s like a network effect.
So the more employees you have, the more micro bonus thing you’re doing in line with core values. And then that all goes into a Slack channel. So yeah, so our core values are basically emphasized by our employees all day, every day.
Greg Alexander [00:06:54] Okay. So I want to make sure I understand that because that’s an innovative way of driving values into the business constantly. So let’s say you and I are employees together at DemandZen. I notice you living the values in some way. You did something that was evidence to me you were living the values. So through Bonusly, I nominate you for a bonus. I award you a bonus. How does it work?
Bart Bartlett [00:07:15] You award a bonus. You would say, “I’m giving Bart ten Bonusly points.” We call them Zen bucks, I think. And you know, so you get ten Zen bucks for awesome performance or, you know, essentially solving problems or being flexible.
Greg Alexander [00:07:32] That’s really cool.
Bart Bartlett [00:07:33] Yeah.
Greg Alexander [00:07:35] What I like about that is its bottoms up as opposed to top-down. It’s the employees reinforcing the values themselves as opposed to being told to do so by the leadership team. Interesting.
Bart Bartlett [00:07:44] Well, yeah, we effectively try and come from both directions. Right. Like, I realize it was really important for us to communicate the values as part of the onboarding. So I knew it was in recruiting and I knew it was in training. But essentially, as you come to the end of your first week in training, you’re talking to the three senior managers of the company about the core values and where they came from.
Greg Alexander [00:08:04] And when you’re in a job interview and you’re assessing someone’s fit, their cultural fit. You know, they’re going to come into the company and fit in and be able to live our values. It’s a tough thing to do in a job interview, but clearly you’re doing it. So how do you incorporate your values into your screening process?
How to Incorporate Culture Fit and Company Values into the Interview Process?
Bart Bartlett [00:08:24] Well, I would say we do it to the best of our abilities, right? So we communicate the values early and often. We talk about how they’re expressed in the business. And I would say we also try and sort of challenge people a little bit through the interview process to just see if they’re going to fit.
Greg Alexander [00:08:45] Yeah, you know, in my old firm, we had a very, very thick culture. And at times it was a strength of the times and other times, it was a weakness. We would attempt to do what you’re doing, which is screen for values and cultural fit during the interview process.
But sometimes we’d make a mistake and a new employee would join. And then the system just rejected the new employee. Like within the first thirty or forty-five days. It was just obvious to everybody, including the new employee, that it wasn’t a good fit. And we had a lot of infant mortality.
And I look back on it now and I’m glad because it actually helped us. But at the time it was very painful and it caused a lot of grief because we were growing quickly and we needed capable staff to do the work. Are you experiencing something similar to that?
Bart Bartlett [00:09:30] Oh yeah, absolutely. I wouldn’t say it happens that often, but there are definitely situations where we have employees and we’re like, you know, they’re a decent employee, they’re a good person, not a cultural fit. And sometimes it’s hard, right?
Like you just, you know that they can’t stay with the organization. I mean, what we try and do is give them coaching and kind of show them where some of the gaps are and then, you know, see if they can make that adjustment. It’s very difficult, right?
It’s like to some extent, a lot of these things are driven by personality and just that is their approach to communication and it’s hard for tigers to change their stripes when they don’t necessarily want to.
Greg Alexander [00:10:13] So even if someone is productive, and a good person and all that…I mean, has no ethical challenges, but if they’re not a cultural fit, then you part ways with them anyways, even though they can do the job.
Bart Bartlett [00:10:25] Yeah.
Greg Alexander [00:10:26] Yeah. Interesting. That’s a strong commitment to the culture fit. I applaud you for that. Okay. So as you scaled from your seven people to your seventy plus people and you scaled the culture, sometimes I see a few things at work there.
Legends, cultural legends. So people that were on the journey and they become role models that others look to. And also artifacts, you know, things that are present, that are almost physical reminders of what the culture is. Now that might not be the case with you, given the fact that you’re remote. But let’s talk about each one of those. Do you have kind of DemandZen legends, you know, people that others look up to?
Legends and Artifacts: Why They Are Important for Culture Fit
Bart Bartlett [00:11:08] I would say we do. But they’re more among the employee population. Right. Like we’ve got senior callers who’ve been with us for six or seven years. And so a lot of that experience comes from, I would say the senior team members. So we sort of have probably fewer founder-led legends. We probably do have more artifacts than you would otherwise expect.
Greg Alexander [00:11:34] So tell me a little bit about that.
Bart Bartlett [00:11:37] So we I mean, we realized that to make core values effective, they need to be sort of obvious and repetitive. So there’s DemandZen core value coffee mugs, there’s the DemandZen core value t-shirt, there’s the DemandZen core values screensaver and.
Greg Alexander [00:11:56] And you found those things to work.
Bart Bartlett [00:12:00] Well, you know, it’s like marketing, right? We make the impressions. I don’t know if we can truly measure their effects, but yeah, I’d say most people in the company have a pretty idea what our core values are.
Greg Alexander [00:12:11] Yeah, for sure. And they’re proud to wear the DemandZen t-shirts and drink out of the DemandZen coffee cups and all that. And it’s in you know, it’s a great example. It’s never one thing, you know, it’s the, it’s the accumulation of many, many things that reinforce a culture.
Okay, very cool. Let’s extend culture. I guess this would be my last line of questioning if I’m moving down the checklist here. Now, extend the culture fit to clients. Are there, is it obvious that there are certain clients that are going to be good clients because they align with your values and your culture? And is that part of how you select clients?
Is Company Culture Important When Selecting Clients For a Professional Services Firm?
Bart Bartlett [00:12:46] Well, I would say it’s a part of how we choose which clients we want to retain and renew.
Greg Alexander [00:12:53] Interesting. Right.
Bart Bartlett [00:12:54] And it’s a complicated dance. So essentially, you know, we have clients who do not communicate effectively.
Greg Alexander [00:13:03] Yeah.
Bart Bartlett [00:13:04] And they may be super vehement about how they communicate and how they approach us. Right. But that might not be a fit for just how we do business. And so with those clients, you know, it’s challenging.
One of our cultural values is being open and honest. So we try and ask the right questions and present alternatives in working with clients. But if they just won’t bite on any of that, they’re probably not a good fit for us.
Greg Alexander [00:13:36] And it makes it tough to be successful in that setting. I mean, you guys do things a certain way and not that you’re not flexible, but like a basic requirement is communication. And if the client’s not going to communicate, it makes it really hard for you to do your job. Yeah, that’s interesting. Have you ever fired a client because of that?
Bart Bartlett [00:13:59] Yes.
Greg Alexander [00:14:00] Wow. That takes a lot of courage.
Bart Bartlett [00:14:03] Well, we kind of just have to do it right. Like, if you don’t, if you have clients that are continuously challenging and how they interface with your team, at some point, you got to make a choice. Right.
And we deal with a lot of early-stage startups, right? Yep. So there’s a lot of founders. There are a lot of senior team members who feel incredibly strongly and passionate about what they do. And, you know, I tell people DemandZen is my startup, right. I’m pretty familiar with that mindset.
But you have to be able to express it in a way that’s healthy for your partners. And if it’s not, then then we just have a choice to make. Right? Do I want to keep the employees who I think are really good at what they do? Or this client who is being an ass?
Greg Alexander [00:14:47] Yeah. Yeah. Because the employees that are on that client are having a miserable experience. And if you don’t do something about it, you’re going to lose them. Right? Yeah.
Yeah. That’s great advice. Well, listen, I think we’re at the time window where we try to keep these things short. But today we talked about cultural fit with Bart Bartlett from the DemandZen. And Bart, you’re a great member. I love having you in the group. You shared lots of wisdom with us today. I appreciate it very much.
Bart Bartlett [00:15:11] Thank you for having me. Greg Alexander [00:15:11] All right. Okay. For those that are listening to this, if you want to learn more about this subject, culture fit, and others, you can pick up our book, The Boutique: How to Start, Scale, and Sell A Professional Services Firm, which I’m proud to say just became an Amazon bestseller in our niche. And if you’re interested in joining our mastermind community, visit us at Collective54.com. Thanks again, Bart. Take care. Cheers.