Company Culture

Culturally fit: How Zoona built a company around values

Published on May 29th, 2017

Startups always have a lot of balls in the air between funding, driving new business, developing products from scratch, and finding the right people to work with. When all hands are on deck it’s easy to let go of the things that are less obvious components of business success, such as company culture. Putting culture up front is paramount, however, especially for a growing team. It’s a tough thing to control - businesses are more curators than creators when it comes to culture - but “getting it right” can make or break the organisation.

AlphaCode member Zoona is all about culture and spends a lot of time and energy making sure its values are a part of everything it does. The company’s Cape Town headquarters is a hive of activity and oozes culture from every corner, starting in the reception area where a full-time barrister offers coffee to visitors but is also taking notes about potential new hires. For Zoona, culture begins with customers and meets you at the proverbial door to the business.

Zoona is all about creating opportunities in Africa. The company provides technology, capital, and business support to emerging entrepreneurs in Africa, enabling them to start their own businesses as Zoona agents.

To date, Zoona has enabled 1500 entrepreneurs to start their own Zoona businesses, created 2500 jobs, and processed over $1 billion in mobile money transactions, which form the core of its business.

Co-founder and Chief People Office of Zoona, Brad Magrath explains that why and how the Zoona team works are the engines of its culture.

“Aligning people to customers is critical,” he says. But it all begins with finding the right people; something Zoona spends a lot of time and energy on. It’s not unusual for Zoona staff to go through ten or more interviews before being hired, for example.

“We’d rather miss out on hiring 15 good people than hire 1 bad one,” says Magrath.

Hiring is challenging at the best of times, but for a rapidly growing startup the costs of hiring the wrong people can cripple the business, so what should founders be looking for in potential new talent?

“We assume the skillset as a basic, and then it becomes about founder stuff,” says Magrath, referring to the company’s internal system of ‘Founderisms’ that are listed on a dedicated wall at the office, and also published in a book that gets handed out to new hires and anyone else who is interested.

These can be seen as Zoona’s core values. Things like ‘Keep it simple’, ‘Perfection is the enemy of done’ and other cultural mantras are not just said, but explained and playfully illustrated so that there is no doubt about what they mean. Making sure staff understand and align with these values begins in the interviewing process.

“We also outsource reference checks to an external party for objectivity. We’re always looking for truth,” says Magrath.

“We make it hard to get in the door because it’s harder to get someone out if we have to.”

Magrath says that culture also needs to be real and authentic.

“It’s something that gets forged in the toughest of times,” he says.

“People see how leadership behaves under stress. Culture is the quietest not the loudest voice in the room, and action speaks louder than words.”

Zoona also doesn’t believe in job titles or offices, but rather sees those things as something to have fun with, and the office serves as much as a cultural artefact as anything else.

“In our mind, you start working with us in the first interview. There’s an intensive onboarding and constant check-ins in the first two, seven, sixty, and ninety days after joining. For example, on the thirtieth day you write a letter to the CEO with learnings, ideas, etcetera,” says Magrath.

All of this is in the interests of best serving Zoona’s massive and growing customer base. The business expends a lot of time and energy in making sure its staff are in contact with customers. There are field trips to countries Zoona operates in, it brings customers into the office for members and makes everyone in the company spend some time answering customer calls.

“Whenever you move to revenue and away from the customer it comes back to bite you,” says Magrath.

Another important piece of the Zoona culture puzzle in diversity.

“Diversity is strength, but you have to be deliberate about it and go out of your comfort zone,” says Magrath.

To this end, Zoona sets specific goals around the diversity of the team and has beaten its biggest ones, for example having more than 50% of the company made up of women and people of colour.

Put it all together and Zoona has spent a decade building a robust culture that has carried it through the highs and lows that await any new business. Ask any Zoona team member what makes the company tick and you’ll find a tight alignment around values - something that isn’t seen as imposed upon staff, but rather part of a mindset they already had.