Strategy: Wish list

Why Wishabi’s growth-focused philosophy is a perfect fit

At Wishabi, employee engagement isn’t just a piece of the employment relationship; it defines the company as a whole. That’s because the Toronto based tech business puts employee growth at the heart of its company culture. Employees aren’t just hired to fill a job. They’re hired to build that position and develop it right from Day 1.

“We have a very creative team atmosphere that’s high performance and very growth-centric,” explains David Au-Yeung, co-founder, chief people officer and managing director of engineering with Wishabi. “We’re all about coaching, growing people within the organization and understanding, on an individual level, what [role] they want to grow into. So instead of creating a role and trying to fill 15 people in the same slot, we’re trying to figure out with the individual where they want to be in the next year, the next two years.”

That focus on growth is the primary component of the company’s recruitment and performance management processes. In addition to regular 360-degree performance reviews, Wishabi offers one-on-one mentorship programs where employees meet with coaches on a weekly to monthly basis (depending on the employee’s tenure). While these meetings are primarily for employee development, they also offer a direct and immediate line to employees’ attitudes, opportunities and frustrations.

“It’s not a time when people talk about their day-to-day work. It’s a time to discover where the growth vectors are,” says Au-Yeung. “We’re very hands-on in our coaching. And when we know that something is wrong, we try to solve it quickly. Then, as a team, we can look for patterns of repeated issues.”

Defining DNA
Wishabi’s business is the flyer industry: it converts traditional print sales circulars into digital offerings. The company got its start in 2007 as the brainchild of four former classmates from the University of Waterloo, all highly experienced in the software engineering industry. Since then, the organization has grown steadily, doubling in size year over year. Today, Wishabi employs around 120 people and continues to tailor its recruitment efforts as the number of staff members increases.

“You can look at recruiting two ways,” says Au-Yeung. “One is resourcing, which is just adding bodies to do the work. Or, how we look at it is, everyone who comes in is an asset. The most important thing for the success of a company is its people.

We felt it was critical for us to identify how we’re going to hire. How are we going to quantify culture fit? Culture fit is not about someone who you can hang out and have a drink with after work. It’s good to be friends—and we are all friends—but the way people work has to be very aligned with our team and how we work.”

Like many young startups, Wishabi has a casual work environment with perks such as flexible hours, on-site games, free lunches on Fridays and the ability to work from home ad hoc. But Au-Yeung says, while these perks create a fun vibe, they are only one aspect of an effective workplace.

“We’re a tech company. A lot of tech companies, on the surface level, do a lot of similar things: we have ping pong, we have foosball, we have video games. But that, to me, is not culture. Culture is about the principles your company is based on and a unified team working toward a common goal. It’s about creating a high-trust environment. So we’ve identified the core DNA of our company: what makes the people great at Wishabi? Who are these types of people?”

To define such employees and the company DNA, Wishabi’s executive team identified six principles that represent the organization’s culture and belief system: hunger for personal and business success; humility paired with confidence; intelligence and adaptability to change; a team-centric attitude; an entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to tackle a new space; and an “other-centric” perspective that values investing time in one another.

These principles not only help Wishabi establish its brand identity, they’re also ingrained in the company’s professional development and recruitment processes. Coaching sessions touch on them, and interviews for new hires include principles-focused testing. Candidates go through various rounds of interviews, with each one incorporating a cultural fit test. The interviewer submits evaluation feedback forms to management at each stage so the hiring decision can be data-driven. “We don’t want it to be a gut feeling,” Au-Yeung explains.

Identifying company culture via specific principles is critical for training and professional development, he says. “Culture has to be in context, and feedback has to always be grounded back to a guiding principle. That’s how people learn. Otherwise, the scenario changes, and someone makes the same mistake again—whereas if you manage and coach based on principles, they can better apply what they’ve learned.”

Au-Yeung also points out it’s important to think non-traditionally when it comes to career advancement. While the traditional corporate model is to advance by becoming a manager, not all employees are well suited to managing others. Opportunities for advancement need to be tailored to a person’s skill set, or you risk losing the employee.

No. 1 for Camaraderie
In 2013, Wishabi received the Best Workplaces in Canada award. But it was receiving the special Camaraderie Excellence Award that really showed the fruits of its labour with respect to employee engagement. Wishabi scored 100% in many aspects of camaraderie on the employee-completed survey— evidence that its efforts to craft a co-operative, like-minded workforce have been successful.

“Culturally, everyone—in terms of how they want to work—is very similar. They’re very hungry, very entrepreneurial high-performing people,” explains Au-Yeung. “Once you start compromising on performance and culture fit, just trying to fit them into the team, it doesn’t really work. It’s not effective.”

The company also has an extremely low voluntary turnover rate: 5% from September 2013 to September 2014. If an employee resigns, the management team uses the resignation as a case study to assess what the company could have done better, if anything, to keep the employee from leaving.

As Wishabi continues to grow, its highly personalized management and coaching style will require some shifts— whether that means hiring more coaches, helping current employees move into coaching roles or other strategies. But Au-Yeung is adamant the company’s individualized approach and dedication to culture fit will remain. The reason: while foosball tables and Friday lunches may be novelties, the human desire to improve and succeed is innate.

“Nothing is perfect—we understand that,” says Au-Yeung. “Even if you’re really good, at most times, you’re going to be eight out of 10. There are always ways to improve. That’s how we’ve done it building our software, and that’s how we’re doing it with the management of the team.”


David Au-Yeung discusses the fast moving future of technology

How does the changing and competitive nature of the digital industry affect the way you run your business?

Wishabi is at the forefront of our industry, and we need to continually innovate. This means we need our team to be agile with an entrepreneurial spirit—folks who will embrace change and love to reinvent. Transparency is key across the business. You need to empower your team with real-time information so they can make the best decisions, especially when the industry is changing so quickly.

What are some of the biggest challenges of starting up a technology company?

In the world of tech, it all comes down to execution. You can have a grand vision about your product, but it’s really about how well you can execute and gain critical mass. [You have to] create something that is disruptive and truly differentiate to raise the barrier to entry.

What trends or ideas should tech businesses have on their radar today?

People expect technology to be everywhere— from mobile to wearables. It’s all about a technology solution that solves everyday problems. Create something that solves the pain for the everyday consumer, and you’ll have a winning business.

Tammy Burns is a writer and editor in based in Toronto.

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