Startup culture: insights for property management

We know property managers don’t have it easy. You’re expected to be constantly available, with endless dramas to troubleshoot and conflict to manage. So how can you and your team members thrive in this industry? At Kolmeo we think feeling joyful about your job comes from the culture you work in. As a tech startup we face our fair share of long days and tough challenges too. We’re really conscious about building a culture where people can bring their whole selves to what we do here.

Peta and Brock from our leadership team have put some thoughts down about what it takes to create a supportive, inclusive culture to bring out the passion in our people and build a business where everyone feels equally valued and rewarded. Mitch from the Kolmeo tech team also chips in, sharing the tech mindset, habits, and rituals property management teams could try out to boost productivity, reduce stress and get better outcomes.

Death by culture

If you work in any kind of service industry – or making and selling products for that matter – your goal is to do the very best you can for your customers. Which puts customers at the top of the pile right? Not according to Richard Branson, the Virgin boss famous for his many quotes about business and the workplace, including this one: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

This is why company culture matters. If you’ve got camaraderie and co-operation going on with your people, then the customer service kind of takes care of itself. When the workplace is less than harmonious, with everyone looking after number one, your team are all pulling in different directions. And that’s a killer for the customer experience.

Mitch Ellis, our Lead UX Engineer at Kolmeo sums it up. “If I feel like I’m actually making life better for customers, and everyone else in my team does too, then I take ownership of my work and want to build better things,” he says. “Otherwise I’m just building something for the sake of building it.”

All pulling together

Culture was definitely front and centre for Mitch when he landed a previous job in Singapore. “I made a list of culture-driven companies and that’s why I joined the team at TradeGecko,” he says. “I emailed the Chief Technology Officer and was invited to come in for a chat with the two brothers from New Zealand who started the business. They fostered this very people-focused culture that was committed to excellence in product design on behalf of the customer.”

“We’d work on product development on a quarterly basis, bringing the product, engineering and sales people together and sticking all these ideas on the wall from our customer helpdesk, ZenDesk tickets and more. Everyone took part in coming up with what to work on next and our goals were all driven by creating a better experience for the customer.”

Head of People and Culture for Kolmeo, Peta Sarlos, agrees that having a clear common purpose is the foundation of a culture that’s as creative as it is inclusive. “Everyone plays their part in building culture,” she says. “When I interview candidates, I’ll explain to them that my role is about supporting and championing Kolmeo culture. But I’ll also tell them it’s something we want everyone to contribute to.”

“Culture is like a relationship. And with so many people involved, it’s a complex one. You have to stay on top of any behaviours that are a mismatch with what you stand for. If you let it go, it becomes the new benchmark for what is acceptable.”

Flatter is better

Both Peta and Mitch are fans of a level playing field as a way to keep their work community united. But in startups, a flat company structure has also helped people work in a more flexible and creative way, which pays off big time for productivity and customer satisfaction.

“At Kolmeo our people feel the love straightaway,” says Peta. “From onboarding at the very beginning to getting a new release live, there is no us and them – everyone is important. We organise for new starters to catch-up with every member of the leadership team. And when it’s all hands on deck to get the platform live, we all do what it takes to make it happen, regardless of what our day-to-day role might be.”

Mitch reckons the innovation it takes to succeed as a startup is seriously stifled by work hierarchies. “If you don’t have access to the people who can be critical to collaboration and decision-making because they’re somehow separate to you, then your product and your business are not going to adapt in the way that they need to,” he says.

Work isn’t everything

Although someone like Mitch is passionate about tech and dedicated to building something amazing for his customer, work isn’t his entire existence. And at Kolmeo we really value people for their whole selves, not just the part of them that can write great code. When we’re in the midst of an intense tech sprint, having permission to be yourself and let off steam is essential for sustaining effort and keeping sanity intact.

As Rhys Standley from Just Property Management said when we caught up for our Agency of Change podcast, “real estate businesses expect people to come to work and treat it as their number one priority. And they need to come to terms with that not being the case.”

If Kolmeo people want to connect about exercise and pets or the many other things they might be thinking about while at work, we have slack channels for these interests. It’s just one way to let people know we’re all 100% OK that there’s plenty of stuff we all do other than work. It also reminds us that we’re all human, with many of the same interests, dreams and hang-ups. And this can be a great leveller when there’s a problem to share and resolve.

This is also about people having variety and balance in their working day. If work is dragging for them a little, there’s no harm in some light relief chatting on a slack channel about the hike they’re planning for next month. But a personal show and tell about what we all did on the weekend isn’t for everyone. So we also make it clear people only need to share as much as they feel comfortable with.

Remote-working reset

The slack banter has definitely come into its own since our team started working from home. But there are many things we’re missing from a culture perspective. We can’t just jump into a stand-up at the start of each day. Instead, we’re having to be a lot more deliberate and considered about the rituals we use to keep people connected and creative.

Something that’s made this even more of a challenge is how much our team has grown in the 12 months since the pandemic took hold. We’ve doubled in size and many employees, Mitch included, have only ever experienced Kolmeo as a virtual team member. While he doesn’t deny that it’s been harder to innovate from a distance, compared with huddles with fellow employees at the Hawker Centre HQ of TradeGecko, Mitch reckons we’re doing pretty well under the circumstances.

“You’re voice gets heard in this company,” says Mitch. “When you need to pivot processes and ideas because something isn’t working, everyone responds to the feedback by trying to learn from it and moving on to a new solution. And we’re definitely doing everything possible to keep us all connected and sane when we’re unable to be working together in the same space.”

Experiments in curiosity

This is perhaps one of the most valuable lessons property management could learn from startup culture. Rather than sticking to a certain way of doing things, there can be so much opportunity for making the experience better for everyone by changing to a startup frame of mind – nothing is sacred and everything can be improved.

With this attitude comes a curiosity to discover just where those improvements could happen. And there’s no better place to start finding out than to ask your customer. Being open to all feedback, and seeing it as a challenge to do something new rather than an attack on your team or service can do wonders for your appetite to adapt and improve.

If it feels like hard work to swim against the prevailing cultural tide, think about introducing some of the customs that make it so rewarding to work in startup mode. Since joining Kolmeo, Mitch has become a big fan of two of the routines we use to make sure everyone’s hard work gets noticed and rewarded.

“Kolmeo do our showcases incredibly well,” he says “We have this intense hour of fun and creativity that gives credit to every single stakeholder for getting the platform live. It’s driven by the people who built this great customer experience together and creates this chance for us all to celebrate what we do.”

“For our product engineering, we’re trying something new going forward. We’re now working with a new 6:2 model – spending six weeks dedicated to product development tasks and then two weeks for something you’ve been wanting to do that’s not a priority for the next release. That gives our engineers quite a bit of time to think and build in a more creative mode. We have an engineer who loves building tests, and his two weeks will be all about creating a whole test suite with dashboards. Another team member is getting into how we might present data visualisations. Others will spend their two weeks upskilling or jumping into another team to see what they can learn.”

In Mitch’s view, this is what working at a culture-first company like Kolmeo is all about. “Our engineering team spoke up about their need to have more time and space for these projects that they’re passionate about but are hard to make time for in the two-week sprint model we’d been following before,” he says. “We took on board the feedback and then we acted on it.”