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When start-ups scale up: Lessons on building up culture and talent

Building an innovative online financial-services company designed to operate across multiple borders is no easy feat, even in the nominally borderless European Union. Competing in multiple national markets requires partnerships, vision, a culture that encourages an entrepreneurial spirit, and the ability to attract and retain talent. Tamaz Georgadze, CEO and cofounder of Raisin, the first pan-European deposit marketplace, discusses his company’s journey with McKinsey’s Max Flötotto.

Key insight #1: Culture is crucial and must be reinforced as the company grows.

Max Flötotto: You literally started Raisin in a basement office with two former colleagues, Michael Stephan and Frank Freund. Apart from a clear plan to solve a problem, did you also have a clear vision of the culture you wanted to create?

Tamaz Georgadze: Yes, to some extent. All three of us knew the value of a defined, deliberate company culture. We also knew what we wanted more of: more entrepreneurial spirit, more individual freedom, and more fun, while creating industry-leading solutions.

We tried to transplant what we learned during our careers in terms of cohesiveness, client orientation, and commitment to the highest quality standards—along with the elements we wanted to infuse and emphasize in our organization.

Max Flötotto: How would you describe the culture you have built? Has it changed over time?

Tamaz Georgadze: Our culture is based on six clearly defined principles designed to create a work environment that enables us to attract and retain the right people. That means balancing performance with sustainability, learning a lot as we go, and trusting our employees by enabling them to think entrepreneurially, especially now that we’re so much bigger.

When you launch, it’s easy for everyone to huddle at the start of the day, remain directly connected to the company vision, and see the impact they’re having. As you grow, that becomes harder, so you need to find new ways of keeping people motivated and connected to the same vision.

For us, that meant developing leadership standards, having each team write up their quarterly objectives and key results, based on the needs of the company as a whole. It also included lots of ways to support employees’ growth as well as social engagement, like a company retreat, parties, and fun stuff like that.

Key insight #2 : Learn to put your ego aside and hire up.

Max Flötotto: Raisin has become quite a success, but there must surely have been some setbacks along the way. How did you deal with those situations?

Tamaz Georgadze: Yes, for sure. For instance, when we noticed at some points early on that employee attrition was going up, we stepped back and asked ourselves what makes people stay or leave. What we realized very clearly is that people are changing employers much more often than they did 20 or 30 years ago. People leave when they see their own learning curve and excitement subsiding over time.

So we decided to make sure our people grow and always feel valuable. For example, we set aside a considerable annual discretionary training budget for each employee, and they decide what and how they want to learn. Of course, investing in them also increases their market value. But we firmly believe—and can see from their feedback—that we’re increasing their engagement and loyalty to the company, not just their value to the outside market.

We’ve also learned to hire people who are better than we are. It’s always a temptation for managers to hire someone they feel safe with, someone they view as their equal or easy to manage. But as a company grows, it’s essential to get your ego out of the way and hire up. Given our size, hiring the right people is about the only leverage we have.

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Key insight #3 : Look within to spot and groom future leaders.

Max Flötotto: How do you think about grooming the next generation of leaders? Where do you find them, and how do you convince them to join Raisin?

Tamaz Georgadze: At first, we hired from our networks, including people we had worked with, our investors, bank clients, and, quite often, old personal friends. But now we have a vice president for talent and culture and a dedicated team responsible for company culture, development, hiring, and retention, so we’re always aware of where we can improve and make a difference. We do measure a lot, which is always a good starting point, and then act on our findings.

Attracting people isn’t that difficult. We have a good sales pitch with great numbers, growth stats, and some of the best investors out there. But keeping people, bringing the best of them to the company, and making sure that when it is time to leave they are proud to have been a part of Raisin—that’s a matter of giving them real development opportunities and chances for learning, networking, and growth.

We do a lot for the upcoming leaders at Raisin, of course. Developing our leadership standards was extremely important for us as we grew beyond the first 100 employees. We are proud of our annual talent program, with its targeted opportunities for the best-performing “Raisineers,” as we call them, whom we regard as our future leaders.

Key insight #4 : Top management needs to be accessible, on the front lines, and open to feedback.

Max Flötotto: What role does the senior leadership group play, and how do you role-model the behavior you want from your people?

Tamaz Georgadze: Feedback culture is a huge part of that, showing people that we believe it’s important and are ready and willing to hear their honest feedback. We promote an everyday, casual feedback culture that we intensively encourage. We also have 360-degree reviews for everyone in the organization—including top management—that we take very seriously.

We also believe in big, open offices, where all three founders as well as senior management sit next to their teams and are always available, involved, and present. The leadership team is quite often on the front lines. I spend a considerable part of my time with our existing and prospective bank partners, not only to contribute to the companies’ success but to learn their asks and constantly improve our solutions.

Key insight #5 : Partners and investors can help you improve your practices as well as your bottom line.

Max Flötotto: Could you envision a scenario in which getting support from a large established company would have been helpful? If so, what kind of help would you most have wanted?

Tamaz Georgadze: Actually, we do this constantly. We partner with large and established financial institutions to develop tailored solutions for them. Their requirements often help us to improve our offerings and make them more resilient.

Also, our investors Goldman Sachs and PayPal are very good sparring partners in the way they challenge our products and discuss potential ways to improve. At the same time, we have one big advantage compared with much larger firms: our focus and speed.

Max Flötotto: Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently in creating Raisin?

Tamaz Georgadze: In a fast-scaling start-up environment, you tend to punch above your weight. You spell out a grand vision and promise a product that will be ready in six months. What we did not do enough of was to hire ahead of the curve to satisfy the needs of a company and organization six or 12 months down the road. If you fail to plan in advance, then the hiring machine begins to run behind, not only in terms of numbers but also in terms of profiles and seniority.

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