How Customers Can Shape Company Culture: Q&A with Wave’s Ashira Gobrin
Wave’s SVP People & Culture discusses the role customers play in the fintech startup’s culture and why it invests heavily in developing employees.
Ashira Gobrin is the SVP, People & Culture at Wave, a fast-growing Toronto-based fintech startup whose financial service software products for accounting, invoicing, payments, payroll, and lending are designed specifically for businesses with nine employees or less. We got on the phone to discuss how Wave’s culture is shaped by its small business customers, what its intensive interview process looks like, and why employee development is one of the most important investments a growing company can make.
“We make a concerted effort to maintain one voice, and not talk to our own people differently than we do our customers.”
How do Wave’s small business customers influence the company culture and employee experience?
Wave was founded around the idea that most small business owners don’t really know a lot about finance. Managing the books, submitting payroll, remitting taxes: that’s not why they got into business. So though we’re dealing B2B, actually the B’s we’re dealing with are really more like consumers. They’re individual people running businesses.
That influences a lot of the way we think and behave. For example, the tone we use to communicate is more friendly and less businessy. We don’t use complicated finance language, and we try to simplify things. Not because our customers aren’t intelligent, but because they’re not finance experts. They don’t need to be finance experts. So, for example, if you look at our Terms of Service, you’ll notice there’s legal language on the left-hand side and a very friendly, humorous description of the legal language on the right-hand side.
We treat our employees the same way. We make a concerted effort to maintain one voice, and not talk to our own people differently than we do our customers. So, we’ve done the same legal language/simplified description side-by-side with our employment contracts. Because very often, new employees are coming to us right out of school. Likely, they’ve never seen a contract and don’t really understand what they’re signing. And we don’t want anyone to sign something that they don’t understand. It’s a sense of humble, humorous, and smart communication we have because that’s who we are. And we treat everybody the same – customers and employees.
How do you keep customers front and center for employees, even when they might not interact with them directly?
Everybody has access to the support queue. Our product managers and engineers spend a lot of time looking at what people are reporting as issues, complaints, and technical difficulties, so that they’re actually able to hear it in the words of the customer. And we do customer interviews constantly.
Also, once a month we do what we call “customer days”. Everybody stops the regular work that they’re doing. We select projects that are specifically focused on reducing customer pain and everyone gets into small teams to work on those projects for a few hours. We get a lot of things done – improvements that maybe aren’t as big or strategic to the product as our ongoing projects, but that really do help the customer. So people get to be exposed to customer problems and mindsets, and they get to do something that actually really helps people.
What traits do you look for in candidates when you’re recruiting?
We’re looking for people with an entrepreneurial spirit, because the things we’re doing have never been done before. We’re dealing with challenges that are very real and very big. We need people to be creative, while at the same time keeping on top of the complexities that part of financial services: privacy, security, money movement, and compliance.
We’re also looking for people who can empathize with our customers. We really, really need our staff to feel the pain of the customers we’re trying to serve. They don’t have to have small business experience themselves, but they have to be able to relate to that experience.
How do you interview and assess candidates for those traits?
We have quite an intense recruiting process. We do a three-part interview: one hour focused on competency and technical skills, one hour focused on teamwork and collaboration, and a third hour focused on culture fit.
Competency is relatively easy to test; with engineers there’s a coding challenge, with designers there’s a portfolio review, and with product managers we do a whiteboarding strategy-session. For teamwork and collaboration, we’ll build off of what we’ve done in the technical interview, or we’ll do some brainstorming in front of a whiteboard, working a problem through. To assess culture fit, we really just sit and have a conversation with them. It’s less about “this is the formula that makes a good Waver,” and more about “this is the kind of person who is going to thrive in our organization.” We’re looking to find out: do you put the team first? Do you empathize with the customer?
Through the three interviews, the candidate meets a minimum of six people: two different people in each one. All of those six people, plus the hiring manager, plus myself or the talent acquisition manager, will have a say in the assessment of how the interviews went, and whether we should hire the candidate or not. They don’t have to be a rockstar in all three interviews. We just have to get a really good feeling that we can work with them, that they are able to take feedback, that they can take what we give them and come back with something better.
“Just like we try to be creative with the way we build our products, we try to be creative with the way we build our people.”
Does Wave’s fast growth, and the uncertainties and changes that come with it, pose any challenges to hiring great people and helping employees perform at their best?
Absolutely. That challenge is the reason I’ve got work to do! [laughs] My experience is in high-scale companies. Wave’s employees are my customers, so to speak. I empathize tremendously with what it’s like, for example, to manage a team for the first time, or to be the most senior person in a role and hear that somebody more senior is going to be brought in. Or, what it’s like to learn your team is being split in half and the responsibilities divided up. These changes can bring out all kinds of insecurities, defensive behaviors, and emotions that we really don’t want in our people. We want our people to feel successful and part of something that’s big, has purpose and meaning, and offers lots of opportunity.
So we invest heavily in development. More than any other place I’ve ever worked in. We invest in every single person for technical excellence, skill development, character development, personal development, and leadership development – so they have the skills and tools they need when they face challenges.
We have a mentorship program which pairs people up. Not just senior people with junior people, but anybody who’s got a skill to share with somebody who wants to learn it. About 60 percent of the organization participates on a regular basis in the 12-week mentoring rotations. And, as another example, I just ran a workshop on leadership development through self-portrait photography. We had a really unbelievable photographer teach some really great photography skills. It sparked very deep and meaningful conversations about putting yourself out there, creating a piece of art about you, presenting it to the group, getting feedback. The transformation we saw in the people who participated … Some of the stories bring tears to my eyes.
Just like we try to be creative with the way we build our products, we try to be creative with the way we build our people. We are trying to make sure we give them skills they wouldn’t necessarily get anywhere else.
What one piece of advice would you offer talent leaders who are looking to make their organization an employer of choice?
The bottom line is, you never lose by developing your talent. You invest in people and they grow, and you’re only going to benefit. It takes a really heroic CEO to stand there and say, “I’m investing in my product, and I’m investing in my people in equal quantities.” It is probably the investment with the largest ROI – while it doesn’t seem to be revenue generating, and it’s not bringing in clients, it’s developing future leaders and helping people be the best that they can be. At the end of the day, it really, really does have an impact on the bottom line.
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