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Building a company people want to work for

Author:
Alan Mosca
Posted:
24 June, 2021

This article is the second in our series on company building with nPlan. For part one, read Building a Product People Want .

Blame-free. Growth-minded. Radical candor. It’s rare to see an article on how to build a productive and supportive culture without encountering at least one of these buzzwords.

But when Alan Mosca came to Entrepreneur First to build his company, he was determined that these weren’t just going to be things his business said. They were going to be things his business did.

“I didn’t know what problem I was going to solve or what product I was going to build,” he recalls.

“But I knew what kind of culture my startup was going to have.”

Today, Alan is the CTO of nPlan, a startup bringing machine learning to construction. Built with co-founder Dev Amratia, the company helps contractors working on large scale projects accurately forecast timelines, risk and budgets.

Four years in, and with over 40 team members, Alan attributes some of the team’s greatest successes in growing their business, and their impressive record on diversity, to their positive working culture. 

While women make up only 19% of tech workers in the UK [1], and 13% of the construction workforce [2], they comprise over 40% of nPlan’s engineering team. Team members come from 17 different countries, speaking 19 different languages between them.

“We haven’t done anything deliberate, such as setting a hiring quota, to make our team diverse. 

I truly believe, and hope, this comes from an environment where everyone is heard and supported, which some other companies sadly might not provide.”

In this interview, Alan gives a behind-the-scenes look at nPlan’s working culture, and discusses how the company’s values contribute to an environment where employees can thrive. He then shares his tips on building a genuinely positive culture for your team – and ultimately, a company that people want to work for.

Values with value

You could argue Alan and Dev made the perfect team to build nPlan. Dev was an engineer with a background in construction and infrastructure projects. Alan brought the technical expertise, with a PhD in Machine Learning and experience in quantitative finance. 

However, when they met through Entrepreneur First, the foundation for their partnership was not an idea they could both execute. It was their vision for the kind of company they wanted to build.

The more the pair worked together at EF, the stronger this vision became. So when the time came to make their first hires, they were keen to maintain that positive environment. But more people required a more deliberate approach to company building. 

The pair therefore set about building their values.

“We started with 50 principles and 50 traits of the team we wanted to build. We refined them. Then we looked at which were actually true, and which were just aspirational. 

We then removed all the aspirational ones. We were then left with the values that were reflective of what life with nPlan was actually like.”

The team settled on three values that would form the foundation for the company’s culture:

1. Radical Truthfulness

‘Radical truthfulness’ comes from a mix of two frameworks; Radical Candor from Kim Scott, and Radical Transparency from Ray Dalio’s ‘Principles’.

“There are two dimensions to Radical Candor: challenging directly and caring personally,” explains Alan. 

“You should always challenge people because you care personally about them. That creates a very special type of environment which becomes almost entirely free from blame.

I’ve always felt blame driven cultures are counterproductive. Problems are hidden rather than addressed quickly. Instead, we encourage people to be honest, and create transparency across the line.”

The team have also taken a number of tools from ‘Principles’.

“We use ‘believability weighted opinions’: you should give everybody a voice, but their voice should be weighted by how much knowledge they have.

“We also foster an ‘idea meritocracy.’ I enjoy when people challenge what I’m saying. Even though we might end up in what looks like a very heated debate, we’re never fighting. It’s a passion for an idea. 

As long as it’s done within certain boundaries and certain sets of rules, it works out very well for the creation of optimal solutions.”

2. Aiming high and running fast

Dev and Alan laid the foundations for this value at Entrepreneur First, where they iterated as fast as possible to validate their startup ideas. They now bring this extreme productivity to the team at nPlan.

“We move as fast as possible, but we don’t do busy work.

We aim high, so we set ambitious goals, and run fast, so we’re maximizing the value of each minute of how we spend our time.”

This for them creates a rigorous focus, but also affects their business practice.

“A lot of the time we just leave low hanging fruit on the table because it’s not as valuable. They may be easy, but they don’t create value for the ultimate mission. So we have to have a very rigorous focus.”

3. Learning from everything

The team’s third value seems simple, but is nevertheless vital for them to continue setting records as a company.

 “People talk a lot about growth mindsets. This is definitely about looking for ways to develop yourself and look for ways to become better – but it’s also about learning lessons,” explains Alan.

“Anytime something goes wrong, we spend a disproportionate amount of time retrospecting things, making sure that we are learning whatever valuable lesson there is. Again, this contributes to a culture of no blame.”

Combined and practiced, nPlan’s core values lay the foundation for a workforce that values and respects each other; champions open and honest debate; works fast; and learns from its mistakes – the sort of workplace most founders and employees aspire to.

While different companies will define different values, and will have their own ways of approaching culture building, Alan believes there’s no reason why all companies shouldn’t have the same end result.

“There’s no reason why building a positive culture should be hard”, says Alan. “You have to start in the right place, and the right place is at the top.”

Having been through the experience himself, Alan shares his three tips for founders who want to walk the walk when it comes to creating a supportive and productive environment.

Alan’s advice for founders

Don’t just define your values as a marketing gimmick - live them

Alan observes that companies will often select values that ‘sound good,’ rather than those that are reflective of the actual culture. To him, this is counterproductive.

“For example, you often see ‘diversity’ as a company value”, says Alan

“But you don’t get diversity just by saying you value it – you achieve it through an environment where people are supported and heard. If a company advertises ‘diversity’ as one of its values, you should be asking what they’re doing to realise it.”

You’ll recall that when Alan and Dev defined their values, they removed any ‘aspirational’ traits to ensure that the company they built was reflective of how they worked. In order to maintain this, they ensure they are also true of anyone they bring on board.

We don’t just have a culture – we live our culture. We make it clear when we hire people that being part of this company means, in one way or another, this culture resonates with you.

Regardless of your company values, if you’re aiming for this kind of culture, you need to make sure your values are true, and align with the people you’re hiring.”

Reflect your values in your company policies

Alan and Dev’s emphasis on their values doesn’t stop at their hiring practices. It also lies in the practical aspects of how they run their company.

“For example, we had a notion that if you hire someone, and give them a lot of responsibility, then you should also trust them. 

In practice, this means we don’t micromanage; we don’t count the number of days holiday our team take; and we allow the team to work remotely and with flexible hours. 

We felt there was a dissonance between giving someone access to the company’s entire resources and data, and asking them to increase our value, and counting all of these things.”

As a consequence, Alan believes an emphasis on caring and valuing individuals’ contributions shines through. “It’s a sign of respect and trust – which increases our team’s personal investment in the company’s success.”

Show that you care from Day -1

Alan argues that getting the little things right, even as early as a job interview, is what organically builds out a strong, dedicated and diverse team.

“Aside from our values, we have a culture of caring personally about each other. That shines through during interviews. We don’t waste people’s time, we treat them respectfully, and take extra effort to be timely and transparent. 

These are potential new colleagues, so you care personally about them as well – which in turn attracts people who also care. It creates an accommodating environment that people want to work in.”

Beyond an interview at nPlan, you’ll find a deliberate focus on employee inclusivity and wellbeing. The team hold a monthly ‘Women of nPlan’ event, where the company’s female employees get together to discuss topics central to being a woman in tech – with men invited and encouraged to listen in. 

The company also provides a large variety of resources for mental health, including designated mental health first-aiders, and runs a large number of out-of-work activities that employees are encouraged to take part in.

“We believe these things help us unite as a team, and forge deep relationships with one another.”

Alan is certain that the methodology for building nPlan’s culture – living your values, aligning your policies and showing that you care – has been conducive in building an environment that is productive, supportive and inclusive. 

“I wanted to build a company that I personally would want to work for, and a culture I’d want to work in. That’s what’s happened.

From Day 1, we wanted to build an organisation that was based on truthfulness and transparency; from when Dev and I decided to work together, to the culture we maintain today, to even the product that we built, given we focus on bringing truth to construction.”

The team is growing fast – having doubled in the last four months – and Alan is excited for what this new expansion will bring for the company.

“We have a team that’s inquisitive, pushes boundaries, and is passionate about empowering others. It’s been exhilarating – and the same should be true for any founder when they’re building out their company.”

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