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Matt Friesen, CEO and co-founder of the fashion website Wantering, is pictured in New York City, where the company has an office. (Eric Thayer For The Globe and Mail)
Matt Friesen, CEO and co-founder of the fashion website Wantering, is pictured in New York City, where the company has an office. (Eric Thayer For The Globe and Mail)

THE CHALLENGE

Vancouver fashion startup struts into the U.S. in a big way Add to ...

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Matt Friesen may be in the fashion business, but he doesn’t underestimate the importance of corporate culture.

He is a co-founder and chief executive officer of Wantering, a fashion-product search engine based in Vancouver. The site lets users browse and shop with ease at more than 125 retailers, Mr. Friesen explains. Wantering is designed to give shoppers a good sense of what’s available across the Web, he says, something that’s hard to grasp by visiting individual online stores. Meanwhile, social-media sharing sites such as Pinterest show things that aren’t necessarily available for purchase.

“We’re trying to make it really, really easy for you to shop the entire Web and have it tailored so it fits your unique taste,” he says.

Investors are betting on Mr. Friesen and his fellow co-founders, Nick Cairns, Nicholas Molnar and Leora Kadisha. Wantering launched in late 2011 after raising money from friends, family and Vancouver angel investor Mike Edwards. The company has since gathered an additional $1.5-million from the likes of BDC Venture Capital and Vancouver-based Yaletown Venture Partners.

Today the company has an audience of nearly one million and has opened a New York office.

In June, Wantering acquired StyledOn, a Los Angeles-based fashion social network. The two companies soon launched the Wantering Insider Network, which they describe as an invite-only community of fashion and style bloggers; besides gaining access to Wantering’s audience, members can earn money for their blogs and partner with fashion brands. Meanwhile, StyledOn produces editorial content and handles most of the social media duties.

Wantering now has seven employees in Vancouver, four in New York – where Mr. Friesen spends most of his time – and two in Los Angeles.

Still in the startup phase, the company must find a way to instill a common culture. “Merging two completely discrete teams into one cohesive unit takes some challenges,” Mr. Friesen says. “It’s further exacerbated by the fact that we’re all in so many different locations.”

Tech-driven Wantering uses data and analytics to measure its success and improve itself, Mr. Friesen says. “We have that real startup culture baked into our group and our team,” he adds. “We just assume that everyone thinks and operates the same way. And that’s obviously not the case; unless you have that culture around you and you can embrace it, it doesn’t come naturally.”

As part of the effort to relay this culture, Wantering has sent its entire marketing team from Vancouver to L.A. to spend time with the group there. Mr. Friesen wonders whether the L.A. and New York staff would benefit by following Vancouver’s lead and having lunch together at the office every day.

“It’s a really good bonding experience, and so that creates a bit of a family atmosphere and a team atmosphere,” he says. “That’s something that’s hard to replicate across multiple cities.”

The Challenge: How can Wantering build a strong, cohesive culture that spans multiple locations?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Glenn Nishimura, principal and chief people strategist, Nishimura Consulting, Toronto

Having lunch together every day is not a bad idea. But it’s important to think about what the objective is and not worry so much about the activity.

Ask the employees. Say, “Here’s our objective: We want to create more of a family atmosphere. Give me some ideas.” It always fits better and lasts longer if you get employee input. If it’s more of a management directive that comes down from Mount Sinai like Moses with the tablets, there’s a chance it won’t stick.

It may end up very different in New York than it does in Los Angeles. They might not do a lunch at all; they might do something else. But as long as it meets the objective of creating a tight-knit, cohesive atmosphere and culture, that’s good.

Communication is going to be critical. How are people going to communicate? If they’re not sitting next to each other or in the next room, there isn’t the kind of serendipity that happens when people meet in the kitchen or at the water cooler.

Technology can help overcome some of those communication barriers. But the one thing I would recommend is not to rely too much on that technology.

Once a year, maybe more if you’ve got more money and time, bring the whole team together. Bring the people from New York to L.A., bring the people from L.A. to Vancouver, or meet in another city.

There’s no substitute for a real-world connection, for shaking someone’s hand, getting to know them, talking about their families. Those sorts of conversations help bond people and help create more of that family unit and cohesive culture.

Ryan Williams, partner, Tekara Organizational Effectiveness Inc., Vancouver

One of the challenges the founders have is to look at the businesses and not identify the differences between New York and L.A. but the similarities, especially the similarities that speak to the culture that they want to produce, that they think will drive the business.

If you have four founders and nine employees, you should probably do a workshop-style thing where you bring the whole group together and take them through some exercises to identify commonalities. When you’re talking about a small group, you can have a nice, deep conversation. Within an hour and a half or two hours, you can get from beginning to end.

They probably want to slow down before they speed up, because there may be things in the L.A. culture that they want to borrow, adapt or bake into their own culture to help them grow again. And that L.A. culture, you might want it to reflect the founding group more. Really defining who you need to be will help you understand which of both can come in and add value.

From a change-management perspective, if you can create curiosity on both sides, people will adjust themselves. If you create a system of “We’re dominant and you came in; you now have to become like us,” they become more resistant. Then they’ll actually define their culture more separately. They won’t integrate; they’ll do the opposite.

Jack Newton, CEO and co-founder, Themis Solutions Inc., developer of Clio software for law-practice and legal-case management, Vancouver

We just celebrated our sixth anniversary. We’ve got three offices: our headquarters in Vancouver, an office in Toronto and an office in Dublin, Ireland, as well as some remote employees scattered across Canada.

As you start to span multiple locations, try to codify your culture and values – and give employees and prospective employees a solid, clear and ideally written description of what exactly your values are and what some important aspects of your culture might be.

We’re now over 130 people, and in trying to codify our values and the important aspects of our culture, we realized that Clio means different things to different people on staff. We made it a very collaborative process to try to build out our values and to codify them.

That process took several months. But once we landed on it and were able to clearly articulate what we viewed as the consensus, everybody looked at it and started nodding and saying, “Yeah, that’s Clio.”

In establishing common threads across your employees and the culture and value systems that might exist in each of your offices, you’re not necessarily trying to enforce total homogeneity. We embrace those differences but say, “These are the shared, unassailable values.” Every office is bound to have a different culture, a different feel to a certain extent, but it should still feel like Clio.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Seek employee input

By asking staff how to build a strong culture, you’ll help ensure buy-in.

Codify your culture and values

Articulating those things will give clarity to employees and prospective hires.

Look for similarities between locations

Besides identifying what all three have in common, consider what they can learn from each other.

Facing a challenge? If your company could use expert help, please contact us at smallbusiness@globeandmail.com.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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