How This Award-Winning Startup Brought Australian Values to the Midwest
Smokeball imported some of its culture from Down Under. With values such as “Be Frank,” employees are encouraged to be themselves. (Especially the one named Frank.)
Can you import a corporate culture? When Jane Oxley moved from Australia to Chicago to establish a little company that would sell software to help small law firms manage their time and documents, the Sydneysider was determined to infuse it with some Oz values. She aimed to keep it humble--and friendly. "In some worlds, people think that good guys finish last," Oxley said. "We wanted to prove that wrong."
Named after a curious 1891 British contract-law case over a flu remedy called the carbolic smoke ball, the company sells a revamped version of a case-management software that had been proven in Australia to save firms time by automating contracts and other documents. The team Oxley had worked with Down Under, along with CEO Hunter Steele, was accustomed to a laid-back office vibe, and long annual vacations -- the Australian norm. Policy could easily be exported. But there was something intangible: employees cared. They cared about each other, about doing fantastic work, and about the health of the company.
The Smokeball offices are lined with company core values.
Before she got off the plane in Chicago, Oxley knew she'd establish core values for Smokeball. The first: "Caring Is Not Optional."
The very afternoon Oxley landed in September of 2013, she interviewed a job candidate--and looked not only at experience and skill, but also at passion and helpfulness. Since, she's screened for it, consciously favoring candidates who are active in their communities, who volunteer their time or go out of their way to help others.
If it sounds fluffy, it's not exactly. Giving a damn about the bottom line is paramount. Smokeball, four year later, is 60 employees in Chicago, who work on the 27th floor of a building overlooking Lake Michigan. Its core values have grown to a slate of six, which hang on custom canvases on a flame-orange wall. First among equals is "Check Your Ego at the Door." It confirms a culture accepting of quirks and differences, and helps keep the sales team cooperative, rather than competitive.
Smokeball employees participate in office yoga.
"I've been at other companies where people think they are better than everyone else--especially in the sales environment," said Nick Turnbull, a 27-year-old sales operations employee, who sees Smokeball ego-abatement as both distinctly Midwestern, and influenced by the company's Australian roots. "We have each others' backs."
Part of Smokeball's identity is as a fast-growing software startup, though--and that's meant growing pains. Nearly three years ago, in a rash of client acquisitions and amid a hiring spree, some significant bugs in the company's core software meant customers were upset. Smokeball put the brakes on customer acquisition, and all sales, and hunkered down to fix the bugs. "You sometimes need to put all hands on deck to make sure you're tackling the problem at hand," Oxley says.
The Smokeball team celebrates after winning a Stevie Award.
What emerged from the near-disaster embodied another of the company's values: "If You See it, You Own It." It meant, essentially, in a small team, everyone can and should touch every aspect of the company--and if you spot an issue, whether it's a malfunctioning soap dispenser, or a significant bug in the code--you should jump in to fix it, or find someone who can.
Last year, someone proposed adding a new value. It would be a nod to corporate transparency, and the ability to speak one's mind. "If cracks are starting to appear in a process, you need to have a culture where people put their hand up and say, it's not working," Oxley says. But how could they express that in a single line?
Staffers needed look no further than the customer service desk, where a beloved employee, who'd interacted with most of Smokeball's more-than 1,000 clients over his three years with the company, sat. He has a booming voice--and likes using it.
"It's appreciated to be upfront and forthright in terms of comments and questions. You don't need to tiptoe around," said Frank Furjanic, the software support employee. "I think even if my name wasn't Frank I'd still be frank."
"Be Frank." They hung it on the wall.