BVNK, the company I founded, has been in formal operation for over two years now. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from books, articles and other companies as I have made key decisions in what BVNK should look like and how it should feel. Starting any company is a really interesting journey, and for the most part (especially for the things that really matter like culture) there are no rules, only general guidelines.
In looking for these guidelines I read deeply and broadly, and look at other companies who have achieved success as well as those who have failed. Two companies stand out for different reasons: Visa and Basecamp.
I’ve been fascinated with Visa as a company for many years now, and that only increased when consulted there for a few years helping to get pilots in to production. The organisation itself is interesting: how it is positioned in relation to other companies, as well as where it ended up compared to the ideals of its founder Dee Hock. The structure of the organisation is the biggest reason for its success, being member owned with voting power split accordingly. Without the buy-in from the many, many organisations involved in Visa it would be nowhere today - in fact it probably wouldn’t exist.*
Taking a step back and looking at the company itself, it is hugely successful and one of the most profitable companies on earth on a per-employee basis. Profit margins of over 50% from powering a substantial portion of worldwide transactions with innovation built at its core - a great model to follow. Visa has ambition as a driving force, and it’s only through this ambition that it has achieved the huge success it enjoys today.
On the other side, I admire companies like Basecamp which I’ve described as “a very successful lifestyle business”. The founders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, are hugely talented in their own rights which has no doubt played a part in the success of their company. However, their uncompromising focus on work-life balance is antithetical to the “growth at all costs” mantra out of Silicon Valley and pushed by many VCs. How can you possibly have any decent success when actively turning away customers, having four days work a week at certain times of the year, and by giving employees loads of leave? In spite or because of this focus, Basecamp are a very successful company with fifty or so employees and estimated revenues around $50m per year.**
I think there is a balance between the Visa companies and the Basecamp companies: being super ambitious while still maintaining a balance. Where this middle ends up is something I put a lot of focus on at BVNK. We are selling core banking software to banks (a hard thing in a hard thing) and I believe we can and will take significant marketshare in the years ahead. By maintaining a focus on balance while also focusing on the ambition, we will land in a sweet spot that is better for the company, for our team and for our clients.
I’m really looking forward to reading Ben Horowitz’s new book What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture which goes in to more detail on culture.
* This is detailed in One From Many. At the time, NBI (pre-Visa) had an absurdly short amount of time to get all the signatures required from 3,000 institutions to kick the project off. They managed that, and many other challenges, to eventually become Visa.
** A great read on this topic is their book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.