Why Successful Startups Need to Build 'A Culture of Overcoming'

A volatile business

So let's imagine you decide you want to start a travel business in 2006. You're three young entrepreneurs, travel lovers following your lifelong passion. You have no overheads, a business plan and an almost endless fountain of energy and ideas. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the global economy for one. About as wrong as it's possible to go. Just eighteen months later.

And the Icelandic fire gods for another: who would have imagined that a smoke cloud from a volcano few had ever heard of, and fewer still could pronounce--Eyjafjallajokull--would bring air traffic to a halt for a week in April 2010, and throw 10 million travellers and most of your business into turmoil? Add political unrest and the volatility of currency fluctuations on top of all the peaks and troughs of starting a small business on a bootstrapped budget, and you have a challenging business context beyond anything you could have anticipated when you started. So how do you build a business culture that drives growth--and continues to drive growth--in such a difficult, constrained and endlessly uncertain environment?

Black Tomato Group have built something of a name for themselves as thought leaders in the travel business. It was born as an idea between three friends hiking in the Australian outback, who saw an opportunity to create travel experiences for people like themselves who wanted to get off the beaten track. 'We wanted to help people really get under the skin of the place', says Tom Marchant, the co-founder, 'find some of these incredible experiences that the world has, which is what we ourselves spent our whole time trying to find.'

They were innovative right from the start. They built unique content relationships with media companies like Daily Candy, introduced a new level of brand experience with the 'Back to Reality' goodie pack that waited on your doorstep when you returned from vacation to ease the low of returning home, and offered a Panic Button for bridegrooms who had forgotten to book their honeymoon in time.

A day it could all have changed

But the impact of the global ups and downs tested their innovative capabilities in a whole new way. Marchant recalls the day in April 2010 that Iceland's ash cloud stopped all flights for the foreseeable future. He was due to leave for the airport for an expedition up the Congo, a lifetime ambition which would have seen him flying to Rwanda, and then travel upriver for 10 days to visit pygmies. As he woke, he turned on the radio, and heard about an ashcloud off NW coast of Scotland; it didn't seem too serious at the time. But by time he got to the office an hour later, everything was shutting down. Within 4-5 hours the travel business was in pandemonium.

His trip was cancelled, but that was the least of it. Millions of travellers were stranded. 'What put the fear into everyone' Marchant reflects, 'was that there was no reference point--people had no idea how long it was going to last. And in fact there were a lot of people predicting it was just the prelude to a much worse series of eruptions. Air travel could have been down for a long time.'

So Black Tomato set up a Twitter account with regular ash cloud updates, and then set to focus on helping every one of their travellers affected. But that wasn't going to get them past the threat that the cloud posed to their future business. So they got their leadership team together and looked at how to overcome the threat to their future. How were they going to get through this? While much of the rest of the travel business dithered, Black Tomato quickly launched a new product range of inspirational land trips--holidays that took the slow road, boat or train to spectacular locations. Promoted on their site, they were picked up by the press as a company demonstrating care, imagination and thought. And it proved good business: Black Tomato went on to have their best year to date.

A culture of overcoming

But Marchant is clear that their ability to continue to thrive through setbacks like these was not just due to individual ideas, but what he calls 'a culture of overcoming'.

'When we started the business, there was just three of us in a bedroom, and we celebrated every little victory, no matter how small it was, as if we'd won the World Series--because it was us against the world. It might have been a tiny bit of press coverage, maybe it was one trip sold, maybe it was a bit of feedback or a new relationship developed. But that feeling of getting ahead was huge. And so what we've done is recognised how important that was for us, and so we've kept that in the business; so no matter how small the victory someone achieves, we recognise it, we make it clear that someone's achieved something important. And we create this culture of everyone feeling like they're winning whether it is small or large. Now, doesn't mean if a photocopier is bust and someone fixes it we take the day off and go to the pub, but it does mean that everyone can see that constantly we are overcoming challenges and it creates a culture of overcoming and a series of reference points to always look at.'

Three ways to build 'a culture of overcoming'

There are three key ways Marchant and Black Tomato build this resilient culture:

  1. Shine a light on every example. Black Tomato hold weekly company-wide meetings they call 'chinwags', in which they call out and celebrate examples of people making big and little breakthroughs.
  2. Make the best examples lasting and visible. On a long wall in the office (called the 'High Five Wall') Black Tomato write up these examples of overcoming to create a continual series of reference points people can look back on. It's there to say 'Remember--we did that', says Marchant.
  3. Everything counts. It's easy to focus on the salespeople pulling in the big contracts. But Black Tomato focus on everyone; no matter how 'back room' it might be, they showcase it. They want the culture to be part of everything they do.

It seems to be working: Black Tomato grew their top and bottom line 25% in 2014. Already in London and New York, they are about to open an office in LA, and are exploring offices in Asia and South America.

Perhaps one day Marchant will be able to take his trip up the Congo after all.

This article first appeared on inc.com.