Build for talent
Pieter van der Does
Founder & CEO of Adyen
Pieter van der Does is a leading expert with over 15 years experience in the payments industry. He was CCO at Bibit before co-founding Adyen in 2006. Since then, Adyen has grown from a startup into a successful global operation, one of the Dutch unicorns, averaging double-digit annual growth since 2007. Get his fresh take on building a company with highly talented people and then trusting those talents to do their job with very little structure or interference.
We stimulate a work environment of freedom and responsibility and let our people create their own paths.
What is the importance of organizational design? We try to run our organization with as minimal hierarchy as possible. Many organizations have strict sales regions or segments. For instance, the sales team in the UK may only sell to the UK market or someone may only sell within a certain segment, such as airlines. On a piece of paper that looks fantastic but in daily practice, if you aim for high growth, why would you set all these rules and limit opportunities? We allow our people to sell in different countries and segments and we encourage them to involve a local salesperson to get the local context and promote teamwork. Everybody can sell everywhere. People are focused on certain industries, but if you want to do something outside your industry, that’s ok, we will allow and support it, as long as you don’t do it on your own. We promote teamwork and don’t want to build too much structure around it. We believe this supports the company’s goals. We are very customer-driven; any structure that would temper our result is simply unacceptable.
Since Adyen is run with very little structure, how are things constructed in the organization?
We have decided to build an organization for talented people here, and that has severe implications.We cater to the highly talented. These people want to work with degrees of freedom and report to someone who has content knowledge. Let’s start with our largest team that makes up about 40% of our company; our engineering team. We have centralized engineering, and the vast majority of the engineers are based in Amsterdam. The majority of our board members are also based in Amsterdam.
Local knowledge, cultural connections, and speaking the language will help get more done.
We consciously decentralized our commercial offices all over the globe, with a local country manager. A typical regional office usually has a structure with a country manager and sales and account management, marketing, and customer support-team. The local team reports to the country manager, and the country manager reports to the Chief Commercial Officer. The Chief Commercial Officer reports to me. Most entrepreneurs fear their people building little empires. But I think local knowledge, cultural connections, and speaking the language will help get more done. The one structure that we do have in place is based on workstreams. Our workstreams focus on the topics we really want to move that year. Inside a workstream, there are dedicated commercial people, product people, and engineers who work together on a specific topic, e.g.,the addition of a new payment method to our offering. This way, the team can prioritize issues itself, and we delegate decision-making to the workstream. We stimulate a work environment of freedom and responsibility and let our people create their own paths. Working in a workstream also means that our team members can become part of two teams, so an engineer in payment methods would be part of the engineering team, as well as the workstream that works on payment methods.
How about hierarchy? We try to avoid hierarchy as much as possible. As previously said, highly talented people have different preferred ways of working. It’s not easy to build an organization for highly talented people; they can work wherever they want, and it requires more content knowledge from the management team. If you don't have that license to operate, you simply cannot manage them. So we hire people who have that license of knowledge, and we train them towards leadership based on our Adyen formula. Our way of working is based on the eight principles of the Adyen Formula that we launched in 2011, when we had about 66 employees.
An example to illustrate this non-hierarchical way of working is the fact that we don’t have budgets. We let people make a proposal with the best approach and explanation of what we get if we invest.
We have to put way more effort into training now to compensate for the loss of direct interaction.
An example to illustrate this non-hierarchical way of working is the fact that we don’t have pre-set budgets. We let people make a proposal with the best approach and explanation of what we get if we invest as they propose. Having a budget and just using it without including others as a sounding board is a loss. Therefore we don’t do pre-approved budgets, we let people discuss options, and we challenge them to sharpen their minds. It’s much better if you have no right to sign something off, but have a discussion with your peers about the smartest approach. This, to us, is a logical consequence of putting people in the lead themselves.
What are the challenges of your organizational structure? The way we are organized requires a lot of traveling because we visit different teams, and a lot of our communications flow in informal ways. In the current situation, this is a challenge due to the pandemic. We’re not traveling anymore; we’re not in the office, where the engineering and salespeople would normally sit together and work on the best solutions for our merchants. Normally we ensure that all our engineers witness a commercial deal at least once a year, so the team members understand how their software is being used; that’s different now. We put a lot of effort into compensating for this, but ultimately we come from a different model, and currently, it’s hard to compensate for that. We don’t have a strict structure to fall back on. We now strongly focus on training for our team leads; we focus on extensive programs that we offer via Zoom, such as cultural and leadership training. We put way more effort into training now to compensate for the loss of direct interaction.
Does your company structure reflect the DNA of the founders?
Yes, certainly. We learned what works and what doesn’t work from our previous experiences at other companies. We are way more interested in the actual doing rather than just talking about how to do it. In 2011 we hired a company to help us discover our purpose. When we went through this whole exercise, at a certain point, one of the co-founders said: “If we continue this, I don’t see myself working here.” From there on, we ended the process and went back to what resonated with us and was more practical. That is how our Adyen Formula was born. Very practical. We didn’t look at other companies; we focused on ourselves and previously learned lessons.
What advice would you like to give to scale-up founders?
Start asking yourself the question: what is the objective of how we structure our organization? If you, for example, don’t want someone to work from home, why is that? Is it a trust issue, or do you need accessibility in the office? What is the ‘why’ behind your choices, and most importantly, how are your choices going to contribute to your ultimate company objective?
If you don't have the license to operate, you simply cannot manage.