Company culture in digital businesses has become a hot topic over recent years, as tech companies get larger and more complicated. We hear from Lea Hartkopf, Head of Marketing of Busuu, on the company’s culture.

Culture is now the subject of much online buzz in the tech industry. Here at busuu, we appreciate why this is; successful culture will make a team go that all-important extra mile just as easily as a poisonous culture will rot a company from the inside.

Looking at startups, the common assumption is that the search for funding and growth is the main hurdle on the way to success. However, finding the right people and harnessing the right potential are often equal preoccupations in a startup.

This is where culture comes in, a key that further unlocks the potential of human capital. According to Bernhard Niesner, busuu’s CEO and Co-founder, ‘The success of a startup is defined by its ability to innovate and its speed of execution; at busuu we believe that culture is the main driver to creating exactly that capability.’


Selecting core values

At busuu, culture – at its base – is the shared values and beliefs lived by the entire company. busuu’s core values (easily remembered with the acronym TEACH) are as follows:

  • Trust: Trust & be trusted
  • Efficiency: Create results that matter
  • Ambition: Go the extra mile
  • Curiosity: Learn & share
  • Happiness: Love what you do

These values are very important to Bernhard personally and they were carefully chosen on the basis that they will help busuu to succeed long term. He explains that, ‘if one has this opportunity to create a company, it should be done in a way that feels right to that person. It’s probably similar to being a chef, you will want to cook something you like to eat as well!’


Culture: setting it up for success

The values must form the foundation on which the behaviours that hold the company up are built. The behaviours are formed over time through reward (when the behaviour is value-reinforcing) and feedback (when the behaviour is value-corroding).

The various ways in which value-reinforcing behaviour is encouraged at busuu include:

  1. Hiring for culture fit: A last check during the hiring process which ensures that the candidate fits busuu’s culture.
  2. Performance reviews: Performance reviews at busuu take into account typical measures such as performance against OKRs (example churn rate, revenue, etc.) AND performance in terms of personal adherence to company values. In other words, the performance reviewers ask themselves: Is the individual maintaining the values personally and encouraging value-reinforcing behaviour across their team?
  3. Value training: Corinna Stuck, busuu’s Culture Manager, is currently developing culture deep dives that include value training in order to scale the company culture while the team is growing.
  4. Company wide employee survey: Every quarter, we send out an anonymous survey to ask employees about their satisfaction and make suggestions on how we can further improve our culture.
  5. Company events: At busuu Corinna, our Culture Manager, organises a variety of cool events e.g.:  Quarterly non box-standard team events, Hackdays, Lunch & Learn, pop-up team breakfasts and an annual weekend abroad.


For more on culture management, read our Culture Manager’s blog post.


An effective Culture Manager is also a facilitator

Here at busuu, our Culture Manager ensures that all these mechanisms are running smoothly. So how does one person effectively implement the above-mentioned values and reinforce culture? The answer – according to Corinna – is that one person cannot. One person facilitates culture-building and many do the building together.

The position of ‘Culture Manager’ is not found in most companies but this position is a crucial part of the company’s direction and success. An effective Culture Manager is:

  • Someone with a ‘family’ spirit; a people-person
  • A good listener and, once the listening is done, someone who ‘gets things done’
  • A planner who is quick to adapt to change
  • Someone who celebrates shared ownership of a project or initiative rather than guards it jealously

The busuu view of culture as in flux, but grounded in values, and Corinna’s excitement to see culture reinforced by others within the wider company speaks to the trust and ambition at busuu.

The recurring themes in busuu’s reviews on Glassdoor, for example, are ‘exciting’, ‘family-feel’, and ‘amazing team’. These elements contribute to the team’s sense of belonging and insatiable curiosity in its journey to improve the language learner’s experience.

In turn, this drives current and future success of the company and gives weight to the belief at busuu that, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ Based on our experience of culture here at busuu we recommend that business leaders make culture a priority and, that likewise, candidates look carefully at the culture angle before joining any company.