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Building a culture that grows with the business: Lessons from Tibber

Sweden-based smart-energy company Tibber is on a mission to transform the way people buy and consume electricity. Since its founding in 2016, the company has helped hundreds of thousands of households lower their electricity consumption—and their energy bills—with its digital platform and technology. Tibber’s app gives customers power over their power, with the ability to make informed energy choices based on real-time visibility into energy prices and analytics on their own consumption. Its goal is to empower ten million Europeans to use energy more smartly by 2025.

After doubling in size over the past year, Tibber now has more than 300 employees and has operations in Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. McKinsey’s Siavash Habibi and Pablo Hernandez recently spoke with Richard Eklund, chief technology officer of Tibber, about how the company has navigated this period of hypergrowth while staying true to its purpose, culture, and values.

Key insight #1: Build a talent recruiting machine that can scale—and never lower the bar.

Siavash Habibi: How were you able to attract and recruit a high volume of engineering talent in the fiercest labor market we had seen in decades?

Richard Eklund: We experienced incredible growth over the past year. We tapped into our existing networks and relationships with a lot of success. Our product attracts extremely talented people, and as they use and love it, they see the value that we bring and want to work with us to make it better. Many of them are excited by the prospect and the challenge of solving a problem that no one has really solved before.

Our purpose is also a strong magnet for talent. So many of the candidates we meet, especially in engineering and tech, want their work to be tied to a larger purpose. At our core, I think all humans yearn for that. I feel we’ve arrived at an inflection point where purpose is becoming even more important than compensation.

Siavash Habibi: How do you recruit at the volume and the pace that you need to sustain the company’s growth?

Richard Eklund: Our recruitment system is a well-oiled machine, from sourcing to interviewing and all the way through onboarding. Even before we started hiring in large numbers, we had standardized the end-to-end process. It was the only way we could scale and still provide a cohesive and seamless candidate experience. This machine-like approach also makes the process more inclusive by reducing human bias. We try to treat everyone the same.

We also collect metrics to make sure we are hiring at the right pace. For example, we measure what we call “time to tenth commit”—or how long it takes an engineer to make their tenth commit into production. If this time increases, we know that we need to hit pause because we’re obviously not setting up our people for success. Just as too many cooks spoil the broth, adding engineers alone is rarely the solution to make development go faster. The solution is to provide a great developer experience that allows your software developers to actually be software developers rather than spending a large portion of their time on nondevelopment activities.

And no matter how much talent we need, we never lower the bar. I’d much rather take the hit on our hiring targets than cut corners when it comes to talent.

Key insight #2: Motivate employees with autonomy and mastery.

Pablo Hernandez: Let’s talk more about the employee experience. How do you create the organizational culture and environment that can allow your employees to thrive?

Richard Eklund: Motivation is extremely important at Tibber. We break down what’s important for motivation into purpose, mastery, and autonomy. Our entire organizational structure is based on the principle of autonomy. In product development and engineering, the squad is our most important organizational unit. A squad is basically a small start-up within the company—with the autonomy to make their own decisions—but backed up by all the support and the resources of the larger organization.

Pablo Hernandez: How does this high degree of autonomy work in practice, especially in a manager–employee relationship?

Richard Eklund: A lot of people believe that alignment and autonomy are on opposite ends of a scale, but that’s a false dichotomy. It’s actually the other way around. A manager’s job is to create alignment and clarity, which then creates the necessary conditions for autonomy. And autonomy is vitally important for retention and satisfaction. If employees don’t feel like they have the freedom to make decisions and take ownership of their work, they will not be motivated.

Pablo Hernandez: You mentioned mastery as a core value. Can you speak more about that?

Richard Eklund: Mastery is super important. You want to work with competent people. You want to feel challenged. You want to learn new things every day. We want to give our employees every opportunity to develop mastery as part of their jobs.

For example, in engineering, we have a “hot seat” system across all of our squads. The concept comes from my days of playing computer games. Before online multiplayer came about, my friend and I would take turns in a physical seat, a “hot seat,” to make our moves in the game. At Tibber, the intention is to create a system where you can embed yourself in another team for one or two days and then return to your home team. When you’re in the hot seat with another team, you will engage with new technologies, you will encounter new questions that you’ve never thought of, and you will be forced to learn something new. And that will improve your mastery at the end of the day. It’s a great way to challenge people and to retain them. It’s very motivating for our employees.

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Key insight #3: Anchor on culture and shared values for stability, especially when expanding to new markets.

Siavash Habibi: With so many new people coming on board, how do you maintain the unique culture you’ve built at Tibber?

Richard Eklund: I think it comes down to our shared values—identifying them, articulating them, and living them every day. We don’t have fancy words on the walls. It’s more important that our leaders model the behaviors and the culture we want to instill. Otherwise, it’s easy to lose that common thread when we’re recruiting so quickly.

Siavash Habibi: I imagine this is particularly challenging when you are expanding to new markets and setting up local teams in different countries. How do you approach that?

Richard Eklund: Tibber recently opened an engineering hub in Berlin, and we sent our leaders, including me, to live and work there. My family and I moved to Berlin while we built out our team. That’s worked out for us in terms of keeping our culture strong.

But it’s more than just the culture. When you enter a new market, you need to understand the nuances and the complications. For example, the German energy market is very different in terms of standardization, smart metering, and electric-vehicle penetration, among other things. As an engineer, if you don’t have firsthand experience with the pain points, you’re going to have a much harder time finding the right solutions to fix them. If you don’t understand where it hurts, then you can’t capture the opportunity. This is especially true when expanding to new markets.

Key insight #4: Optimize for speed—and build in the right guardrails.

Pablo Hernandez: What are the key components that have enabled Tibber to grow so quickly?

Richard Eklund: There is no magic bullet when it comes to building tech companies or building great products. The only thing you can truly trust is speed. So that’s what we optimize for: speed of delivery, speed of decision making, and speed of learning.

But there is another side to the coin, too. We need to make sure certain things don’t get lost when we’re moving quickly. For example, we realized that we need to spend more effort on cross-pollination and knowledge sharing across teams. Otherwise, there may be conflicts or duplication of work. You run the risk of reinventing the wheel, especially when you have engineers who like to build new tech.

In addition to sharing our learnings, we also built in the ritual of retrospectives at the end of each project. We make a lot of mistakes, and we need to make sure that we learn from them. Whenever there is an incident—if something in our server burns or a team deploys code that is not behaving in the way it’s expected to behave—then we run a postmortem to determine what happened and what we will fix to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Pablo Hernandez: Is there anything else you do to manage the trade-offs of optimizing for speed?

Richard Eklund: As a leadership team, we decided to carve out time to talk honestly with our teams about our mission and our goals and how we can best support the team to help them achieve their objectives. We call these one-on-one conversations “taps,” as in taps on the shoulder. Every person on the leadership team does one every week, and it takes us a quarter to get through all the teams. But it’s important to take this time to understand what’s working well and what we can do better and to hear this from our development teams.

Key insight #5: Strike a balance between innovation and standardization.

Siavash Habibi: What kind of challenges have you faced as you scale up your engineering team?

Richard Eklund: As we grow, we are bringing in a lot of engineers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives as well as different opinions when it comes to coding software, patterns, and languages. It’s easy to get into a situation where you have a bunch of tools to solve the same problem, and you end up with a suboptimal tech stack and legacy.

To avoid this, we developed an engineering system that creates a degree of standardization while still enabling innovation and autonomy. When an engineer is trying to determine what tool to use to solve a problem, the decision falls into one of three buckets—each with a different elasticity of responsibility, ownership, and time.

The first bucket is what we call “squad local.” As a team, you can choose to use a certain software or a certain tool, but you have to take full responsibility without any additional support. The second bucket is what we call the “golden path,” where you are supported with monitoring, deployment, and pipelines. Last, there is the “this is the way” bucket. For these decisions, we have to follow a prescribed way of doing things. For example, we host everything on our cloud service provider, and that’s not up for debate. We do revisit these kinds of decisions on a regular cadence, but we can’t afford to challenge them every month. That would be a waste of time. We need to create the space for innovation, but we also need to standardize so we can all move in the same direction.

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