Baking Culture into bka Interactive

6 min read
Mar 12, 2012

Like Marlaine McCauley of Apex Facility Resources, Barbara "Barb" Anderson also took an unconventional route to starting bka Interactive. Barb went to Otaga University to become a teacher, but she admits that she never really felt like it was a perfect fit. She didn't like it too much, and after her youngest child was born, she quit and went to back to school to study art.

Barb had a fantastic time at art school and started learning about the digital space. She also developed an appreciation for computers and got her first email address. At the time, her friend was a bigwig at Saatchi & Saatchi and persuaded Barb to come help her on the production side.

Barb knew that she would have a steep learning curve but also thought it would be a really fun opportunity. She likened it to puzzle-solving. She must have been really good at puzzle solving, since shortly after her time at Saatchi & Saatchi, she started bka Interactive from her kitchen bench in 2000.

Initially, she thought it was going to be a huge disadvantage to be a woman in her 40s in the digital space. But she quickly learned that she was a breath of fresh air to clients, who could relate to her. She wasn't a 23-year-old recent college graduate wearing hipster clothes telling them how they've got their social media strategy all wrong.

Today, bka Interactive employs 14 people and is a full-service digital agency that helps clients in all aspects of growing their business online, from website development to social media to building apps.

For Barb, her company's top three strategic assets include:

(1) People - people, people, people - 100% people.

(2) Passion for winning - by hiring the right people.

(3) Innovation - hold innovation meetings every Tuesday.

Since Barb hasn't spent a lot of time working at big companies, most of her company's processes that underpin their success come from her being nimble, casual, and adaptable. For example, they don't have an annual strategic plan. She prefers to review this constantly and doesn't even think an annual plan would make sense in her industry because it changes so rapidly.

So it's not surprising for bka's HR and performance review process, Barb has also adopted a casual approach. Here's some key insights she shared:

*Rolling Feedback and Bonuses - Barb's a big believer in providing constant feedback instead of bottling it all up for the annual review. She does this verbally and also with monthly bonuses to employees who are exceeding expectations.

*"Outsourcing" Performance Reviews - Like Mike Luckenbaugh at Chameleon Technologies, Barb's really created a laid-back work environment. Everyone sits together in an open bullpen arrangement. Since Barb sets the tempo and culture for bka, she decided to appoint her GM to conduct all the performance reviews. This way she is not directly involved and minimizes the dread or discomfort associated with the process.

*Employee Owns Career - Barb combines the performance review and compensation review. But a big focus of this meeting is an understanding where the reviewee wants to go in their career. She's a big believer that people should leave bka more accomplished. Reviewees are encouraged to own their career and find courses that bka pays for to get them to where they want to go.

*No One-Size Fits All - Being an agency, bka has its share of quirky, creative personalities. And some of these folks just don't want to play the game and undergo a formal review process. They just want another raise. For these, Barb amends the process to fit the situation. She really thinks that the process needs to be flexible.

*Giving to Each Other - I got a bit of an education and a huge smile when Barb shared how employees are randomly drawn to make tea for their coworkers every Friday. As an American, I was like, "How do you 'make' tea? Offer selections like green tea, Earl Grey, lemon, etc.? How difficult can it be?"

Actually making tea is very involved. First, the individual who is drawn the week before has to hand make the cake, goodies, or sandwiches by themselves. No outside help is allowed. It's a huge hit now and everyone strives to outdo each other. Second, if you do a poor job, you'll definitely hear about it! Great example of how culture isn't just about the company giving, but about employees giving to each other and having a hoot along the way.

*Laws Dictate Behavior - In the US, there is "at-will employment" which is defined as the following:

At-will employment is a doctrine of American law that defines an employment relationship in which either party can break the relationship with no liability, provided there was no express contract for a definite term governing the employment relationship and that the employer does not belong to a collective bargaining group (i.e., has not recognized a union). Under this legal doctrine:

any hiring is presumed to be "at will"; that is, the employer is free to discharge individuals "for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all," and the employee is equally free to quit, strike, or otherwise cease work.[1]

So there's an understanding from the employee that they have to perform or they may be let go. Similarly, there's an understanding from the company, that they have to fulfill the employee's expectations, or the employee can easily look for another job.

Barb shared that there are very strict legal requirements in New Zealand governing employment issues. Basically, it is very difficult to let go of someone who is not performing or not fitting in. They have to be given verbal and written warnings. And if it continues to escalate, they can even bring a "friend" to another meeting (a friend can be a spouse, friend, or lawyer).

In the last two or three years, the New Zealand government has instituted a three-month "trial" period for new employees so businesses are less wary to hire and grow. After this trial period, the employee can be let go without worrying about draconian processes or repercussions.

This probably contributes to a different outlook on performance review when the employer knows that a surly or non-performing person can be extremely difficult to let go. I'm looking forward to sharing more on how this varies from country to country as I continue my interviews in Australia and Korea next.

*Conclusion - From an unconventional path to starting bka, Barb has instilled this unique and flexible approach in her company. They don't instill a rigid one-size-fits-all review process on everyone. And more thought-provoking is that bka provides continuous feedback, plus bonuses and raises when it merits throughout the year.

James of Avidian Technologies shared with me that every company will develop a culture whether you are proactive in shaping it or not. So why not be proactive in guiding it? I really liked how Barb cultivates bka's culture by rewarding people constantly. Most impressively is that the culture is now baked in and employees have taken the lead themselves with Friday Teas and Dress Up Fridays.


*Follow @TINYhr on Twitter to get the latest insights and best practices from entrepreneurs as David continues his travels and interviews around-the-world.

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