Interview

Pieter Zwart

Founder & CEO Coolblue


Pieter Zwart is the founder and CEO of Coolblue. Founded in 1999, Coolblue is an e-commerce company that operates one of the largest webshops in the Netherlands and Belgium. Zwart has seen his company, and its culture change as it has grown. Just as he understands his business, he knows the importance of culture to a growing company.


[Culture is] something that will be there whether you manage it or not.

When did you start talking about culture? I think it's somewhere when the organization reaches around 50 to 80 people.That's typically the size where you, as the leader, start leading teams indirectly and don’t manage everyone directly anymore. You need to outsource all kinds of decisions, which people will expect a leader to do. The Coolblue team discussed for example, what defines a true Coolbluer? It begins with hiring, because you only want to hire true Coobluers, right? Don’t assume that everyone working at Coolblue will share the same definition of what a true Coolbluer is and you won’t know if it’s the case unless you write it down. When writing down your culture you make something that's quite irrational, rational. You take it out of the magic land and you bring it down to rationality of the written word.

Who did you involve in describing the culture? First of all, since company culture is quite broad, almost everybody in the organization, even the fresh hire of yesterday probably will have an opinion about it. Describing the culture is a collective process when shaping a company's culture, but that does not necessarily make it a democratic process. In the end, I think leadership, especially the senior leadership, plays a fundamental role in defining the culture. Even though we involved almost everybody in creating the culture, we narrowed it down to around eight to fifteen people we thought had interesting opinions to engage in active discussions around what the company culture should be.

Pieter Zwart

Founder & CEO of Coolblue

COOLBLUE VALUES

UNCONVENTIONAL FRIENDS GO FOR IT FLEXIBLE SIMPLY AMAZE

Pieterpraat: Company Culture

In this video Pieter talks about culture, how it come into existence and why it is important to write it down.

Make [culture] consistent in everything you do and repeat, repeat, repeat.

How do you ensure that you activate culture in your organization? Your cultural values should be written down very clearly, so when you show it to your colleagues they will instantly relate to what you've written down. If that's not the case, there's probably still some work left to do in terms of having a discussion. The most important thing to activate the culture is to make it consistent in everything you do and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Who should own culture? Culture is something that's owned by the group, but by definition the culture will be challenged. Eventually, senior management or the CEO will be the judge of the execution and protection of the culture. If your company is really big, it helps to appoint someone to be a go-to guru. This person helps out with all kinds of smaller decisions with regards to culture and can test them, creating a feedback loop of what cultural practices work.

People often speak about hiring for cultural fit. What does that mean to you and how do you assess fitness? I think it's very important that you have cultural values that are distinctive enough, so you can hire people who match those values and you will be able to use it during the hiring process. At Coolblue we want to have an open and direct conversation, so that we can really know the characteristics of the candidate in the interview. At Coolblue, one of our values is unconventionality. So we ask people to describe themselves in three words. Often it's vague and something anybody could identify with like “music, sports, and beers.” But we are looking for answers that highlight what makes that person unique and different from others. So if you are not unconventional in a certain way, you will probably not be the best match for Coolblue.

I think people are proud to be part of Coolblue because they feel that we do things differently and we're successful because we do things our own way.

How to keep your culture strong when you grow as a company, especially with different offices, maybe even worldwide? Culture by definition will evolve, whether you like it or not. Especially when teams grow very fast, or spread over a larger geographical area culture will change even faster. So, be consistent. Write the culture down and make sure that your senior management is really aware of your company culture. Every company policy or decision that is made will eventually have its impact on culture as well. The more consistent you are and the more willing to define the culture in the first place, the stronger your culture will be.

Do you believe you can prevent the development of subcultures? Subcultures will arise, no matter what. For instance, we have a logistical depot in Groningen where in most cases strong guys work delivering washing machines or other big, heavy stuff for our customers. They have a culture that is strongly related to the culture we have in our tech team at the head office, but it’s not necessarily exactly the same. And that's not a bad thing. But the key values need to be the same. We're now at 5,000 employees and we actually made sub manifestos for the biggest teams, e.g for Tech, Delivery and Customer Services. The key values should be the foundation, but they need to be translated to the specific working environments to make them tangible.

Culture is something that's owned by the group
I think it's very important that you have cultural values that are distinctive enough, so you can hire people who match those values.
I think it's safe to say that after we miss certain elements of our culture in physical reality

What are you most proud of in your culture? We still manage to do things in an unconventional way and keep our we-can-do-it mentality. I think people are proud to be part of Coolblue because they feel that we do things differently and we're successful because we do things our own way. To still have that vibe, even in the size we’re currently at, that’s really cool.

What is a challenge that you had to overcome in the past in your culture? The funny thing is, as soon as you come to the magical moment when you have everything written down about your culture, you still have to take a look back and examine whether or not there are inconsistencies. Often you will find that a lot of stuff has become institutionalized within your organization that is not consistent with your culture. And that can be a big challenge to overcome. You see things that, even though they worked well in the past, are inconsistent with your current culture and need to be changed. It takes time to understand this, as culture is not always an easy concept to grasp.

What should a CEO of a scaleup company do tomorrow to work on his or her culture? Firstly, write down your culture. Secondly, be true to what you’ve written down. For example, while writing it down, you will probably come to the conclusion that not everybody you hired in the past is a culture fit. Don’t be afraid to let someone go. Thirdly, make it pragmatic and hands-on. Make a list of all the things you need to change or implement based on what you’ve written down and do it.

The more consistent you are and the more willing to define the culture in the first place, the stronger your culture will be

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