When Ali Asaria founded Well.ca in Guelph, Ont., he emphasized the development of a rich company culture over everything else.
"I wanted a great place to work, so great that people want to come to work on Monday," he says.
As a foundation for the culture, he articulated seven key values, hanging up in every room of the business. He promoted a family feel, and was a strong believer in the need for everyone to be in a single location to foster culture. Everyone knew everyone else; intentionally, there were no cubicles, so everyone could even see everyone else.
Locating all employees in Guelph worked well – until the company started to rapidly grow. First, Mr. Asaria had to hire more software developers, and there just weren't enough in the city. Then, he needed staff with sophisticated merchandising and marketing experience, and they were hard to move from Toronto.
"I realized I had two priorities that clashed," he says. "I had to maintain a wonderful culture with homogeneous values, and that's easier to accomplish in one location. But I had to be able to hire the top people in key areas, and they didn't want to move or commute."
How could he achieve both objectives?
Well.ca is Canada's largest online health, beauty and baby product store. Mr. Asaria, a software developer by training, founded the company in 2008 in a closet at the back of his father's pharmacy in Guelph. He built a website to sell items from his father's store online, and was soon busy enough to hire someone to help man the phones and pack the orders.
When the company grew too big for the closet, he rented an apartment where he lived and worked. It was the ideal space to build the culture he wanted.
"The apartment had a big open kitchen, and we cooked together and ate together. It felt like we were a family," he recalls.
"It was also a big help in recruiting. People wanted to be part of a big family where people were smiling and enjoying their jobs."
When Mr. Asaria realized he needed to find software developers outside Guelph, he looked in nearby Waterloo. By this time, the company was housed in a larger space and expected hires to drive in from Waterloo. But nobody liked the commute; some felt that even a 20-minute drive each way was too long and some didn't even own a car. As well, employees tended to work at home for the day if, say, they had a doctor's appointment.
Letting people work from home wasn't the solution, though, because the company was using agile software development techniques that require cohesive development teams and close face-to-face contact for frequent progress reports.
It made sense to set up a satellite office for the software developers in Waterloo, but how could Mr. Asaria ensure that the Well.ca culture could be established and maintained there?
Well.ca's 80 employees are now spread in three offices – in Guelph, Waterloo and Toronto – and Mr. Asaria has been successful in recruiting the talent he needs while preserving a great culture.
Why did it work? He credits several reasons
The first satellite office, in Waterloo, was relatively straightforward to set up. "It was a mature team," he explains. "There are now 12 software developers there, but there were initially six people who had worked together before. They knew each other well and could self-manage, so there was very little oversight."
The second satellite office, in Toronto, took more thought. It consisted of a small group of people who had not worked together before. "I didn't want the office to be five people in a closed room with a copy machine and little else. That would just be too lonely," Mr. Asaria says.
So, he found shared space at the Centre for Social Innovation, which provides workspace for a variety of innovative organizations.
As well, the company's executives move around. Mr. Asaria spends two days a week in Guelph, two in Waterloo and one in Toronto, while the company's chief operating officer spends most of his time in Toronto, but a day or two a week in Guelph.
Once a week, senior employees from each group spend a day in Guelph discussing strategic and operational issues in person, and the following day they go back to their groups and report on discussions.
"This communication is important so that people in different offices don't start to feel disconnected," Mr. Asaria says.
In addition, once each month, all employees get together for a company-wide meeting so that everyone gets to know everyone else. They frequently have team-building exercises or sports activities to help make personal connections.
Along the way, the company has not been strict about forcing one particular culture. "Don't focus on the culture, focus on your core values," Mr. Asaria says. "These values may be manifested in different ways in different offices. For example, our Waterloo office reflects the interests of the software developers there, with video games and a ping-pong table. But our people in Toronto are much more into food and fashion and like to go out for lunch. We embrace this diversity and think it makes for a richer culture for Well."
Maintaining multiple offices costs more, as do practices aimed at maintaining the culture, such as transporting people to other cities for meetings.But these additional costs have helped make it possible for Well.ca to grow quickly.
The company's growth was recognized when it was named to the Profit Hot 50, a list of the fastest-growing Canadian companies. Well.ca is currently enjoying double-digit sales growth every month. Such a high level of growth has been made possible at least partly because Mr. Asaria took a chance in opening satellite offices to attract the talent he needed, but insisted on maintaining his focus on company culture and keeping Well.ca a fun place to work.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Your Business website.
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