Culture as the foundation to double a team in size every year

About hiring mistakes and culture fit
The article summarizes a 2019 conference talk; it describes Miro culture and problems back then. Today some of the processes and values have changed.
I work as a development manager at Miro and am actively involved in hiring. Over the past few years, our team has doubled in size every year, we’ve become more and more multicultural, and we’ve opened offices in America and Europe.
Rapid growth started about five years ago. Our hiring and onboarding processes weren’t ready for that. This resulted in hiring and leaving a third of our employees dissatisfied. Besides being demotivating, we risked losing our internal culture and stopping growing. We needed to change the situation radically.
In this article, I’m sharing how studying the experience of successful technology companies helped us focus on corporate culture management, deal with hiring mistakes, and build a process so that today the team doubles in size every year while turnover remains below 5%.
Recruitment challenges during rapid growth
In the first years of the company’s existence, it would be our CEO — a company co-founder — who would lead the final interviews with all candidates. He had the last word: he understood better than anyone the company’s vision and what kind of teams would help execute it. When the number of final interviews grew to 3–5 per week, the CEO no longer had time to conduct them; this slowed down the process. He was ready to delegate this task to team leaders, but we didn’t yet have a set of agreed-upon decision-making principles.
Ineffective team interviews
Since the early days of the company, we conducted team interviews. It was important that the whole team that the candidate would be part of had an opportunity to meet the candidate and decide whether they were a good fit. This was just as useful for candidates, too. In the early years, these interviews would bring together 3 to 5 people. Over time, team interviews began to gather up to 15 people, and the process fell apart.
Many participants didn’t understand the purpose and their role in team interviews; they’d join because “it’s something we do”. Team leaders and HR didn’t teach people how to conduct interviews, didn’t explain what questions to ask and how to ask them, what’s meaningful to learn, or how to evaluate candidates. This reduced engagement: people thought they were wasting their time, remained silent during interviews, and as a result they didn’t understand how to make a decision about a candidate.
Lacking a formal process and context, after interviews people couldn’t agree. Therefore, they’d leave the final decision to the CEO, who could be on a business trip and unable to respond quickly. This caused confusion and stress for the team and the candidate.
Different scores in cross-cultural interviews
The problems around team interviews grew bigger when we opened offices in multiple countries; colleagues from Russia, Europe, and the US began to join interviews. Cultural differences made it even more difficult to make decisions, and to negotiate hiring. For example, in the US it’s normal to change jobs every couple of years; in Russia, people often work for the same employer for a long time, and changing jobs often is frowned upon. This is just one example out of many.
To address these challenges, we formalized the recruitment process, detailed each step, and conducted interview masterclasses. Yet, this didn’t help solve the main issue: we lacked a common understanding of how to make hiring decisions, and why.
Culture in tech companies
When you stumble on a problem, find out how others have solved it before you. We conducted a study to understand how small technology startups, fast-growing companies, and market leaders solve such problems.
The results of the study showed that they all paid great attention to internal culture, and that company culture was a foundation for many processes, from hiring and promoting professional growth people, to product development. A cool product without a company culture behind it isn’t enough.
“Every company builds two things: the products they sell, and the culture inside the company.”

“Like any random experiment, the results of letting culture form unchecked can vary from fair to disastrous.”
The first step for us was to describe the current company culture to create a starting point to work with:
“Codifying those beliefs into a handbook makes them tangible and, most importantly, editable. Making the company our best product is a guiding principle, but we can’t easily improve what we haven’t articulated.”
The culture DNA can be made into an Employee handbook or a Culture code: it can be a simple text document like Basecamp’s, or a full-fledged book with illustrations like Valve’s. These documents are based on the company values, how the company understands its culture, mission, guiding principles, team rituals, and accepted behavioral norms.
If you are interested in seeing more examples, I recommend a huge selection of materials from my colleague Anna Dvornikova.
What is corporate culture and why it’s important
What culture means to us
Every company defines culture differently. There’s no correct answer.
For us, culture is:
  • The principles we abide by when we make decisions;
  • The way we treat people inside and outside the company: colleagues, candidates, users;
  • The way we work;
  • The behavior that makes us successful.
We include culture in all important processes: it acts as the “glue” of the company. Culture also has a control function; Andy Grove described it very well in his book High output management. When everything is changing rapidly in the face of uncertainty, and the company is growing, culture is the only thing that allows you to be sure that the right decisions will be made, including hiring. It’s impossible to describe everything in instructions, and culture works where instructions and regulations don’t work.
Modes of Control (Andy Grove)
Mission and vision
Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it relies on something. Usually, it’s the mission and vision, the company history, its goals, and market trends.
Does business care about culture? Does the culture help achieve company goals? Culture in itself isn’t the goal of business, but it allows you to assemble a strong team that can achieve business goals.
Tyler Palmer, VR Operations on Patreon, writes that their culture is based on team, culture, and business. It’s in this order, because culture is an indicator of business success:
“We believe that establishing the proper foundation with the right team and culture determines whether or not we will sustain as a business. Any business’s product will and should change over time. Aligning the team on cultural values will guide you through those transitions; an ill-defined or weak culture will fail you”.
PandaDoc start their Culture Code with the history of the founders and the reasons why they created the company.
While working on our culture, we started with mission and vision statements. At one of the strategic sessions, top management asked themselves: “What’s happening in the world of collaboration? What do we have to do with this?” We want to do our part to change the way people around the world interact.
Year 2018
Based on the answers, they formulated the mission and vision, showed them to the whole team, collected feedback, conducted several iterations, and got the final result, which has been with the company for several years now:
We are on a mission to empower teams to create the next big things by providing best solutions for collaboration.

To live in a world where teams can create products and services together as if they are in the same room regardless of where team members are located.
How 70+ people described company culture
Culture as a product
Analyzing the culture of technology companies, we learned about the approach of Asana: culture as a product (“We decided to treat culture as a product”). It does represent the basic cycle of product development:
As a product company, this approach is close to us, so we took it as a basis for working with culture. We started researching the user experience of employees, created a minimum working version of the product, tested it, refined it based on feedback, fixed “cultural bugs”, and improved the product and its “delivery” to users. We repeat this cycle as long as it brings value.
This approach focuses on the end-user, gives the right to make mistakes, and the possibility to make improvements. It was important for us to involve the whole company in the work on culture. When we started working on formulating our core values ​​in 2018, the company employed 70+ people in Russia, Europe, and the US. We got everyone on board.
Collect stories
As a first step, we collected the opinion of each employee about the culture of the company. To do this, we asked everyone to answer 5 questions in a Google form. We phrased them as open questions to encourage people to tell stories. The survey was anonymous, but in the end, we gave the opportunity to subscribe to those who wanted it; almost everyone signed up.
  1. What, in your opinion, is the most important achievement of the Miro team during your work (such that it vividly illustrates the phrase “to be the best”)? What behavior of colleagues made this achievement possible?
  2. What is the main factor that determines the viability of Miro as a company? Without what will it cease to exist or cease to be itself?
  3. Think back to a time when the manifestation of cooperation between people and teams in Miro was especially felt. What contributed to this level of cooperation?
  4. Remember when you felt most alive and involved in your work. Describe this case.
  5. What kind of behavior makes a person “on the board”, what can you say without looking: this is a real Miro teammate?
We collected the answers in the course of a week; everyone participated. Instead of dry numbers, we got a lot of stories that revealed the culture of the company and how each employee felt about it. The downside of it is that it was a lot of unstructured text.
Moving forward, the working group analyzed each answer and added semantic tags. This process yielded 30+ tags. Then we grouped tags into clusters, ranked them, and formed the first version of values based on the most frequent ones.
Three levels of detail
After drawing the final list of values, we added two levels to each of them: a short conceptual description and observed examples of the related behavior.
Here are three levels with an example:
  • Value: Embrace trust to turn failures into wins
  • Description: We trust and help each other. It’s ok to make mistakes and not scary to experiment because we create a safe and supportive environment.
  • Behaviors (True Miro team members behave like this): Problem-solving oriented, instead of searching for someone to blame. Asks for help and openly admits mistakes. Helps others, approachable. Trusts others. Promotes an easy-going, informal, democratic atmosphere in the team.
We validated the resulting list: we hung the values around in the offices, and we asked people to write what they thought of them; we conducted personal and team interviews with employees, and we asked the following questions:
  • Is this aspect of company life important to our long-term success?
  • Does this aspect relate to all departments of the company and all employees?
  • Will this aspect help us make influential decisions in the future?
  • Is this aspect part of a cause-and-effect relationship with another one on the list?
  • Is this aspect part of another one?
We fixed all “cultural bugs” in multiple iterations. Examples of “cultural bugs”: we say one thing and do another; the described value inspires actions that aren’t important to us; it’s not about us at all.
This is how we formulated our values ↓↓↓
After that, we added internal memes and stories to these levels. They contribute to making our culture alive.
What’s next?
Build these values/principles into the key processes of the company: recruitment, new hire onboarding, training and development, feedback system, career planning, internal communications, and so on.
Changes in the recruitment process
Let’s explore how culture helped us change our hiring process.
Culture fit handbook
During interviews, it’s important for us to determine two key things: how the candidate fits the role (job fit) and our culture (culture fit). Everyone knows how to test professional skills, but culture fit is more difficult to deal with. That’s why we created a guide for hiring managers and for all interviewers. It contains values, examples of behavior for each, questions that you can ask to test the candidate’s compliance with each value, and recommendations for interpreting the answers.
The questions are open-ended and projective. For example, how do you know if a candidate matches the values “Yes to passion, no to bullshit”? We believe that a person with this value doesn’t create tons of instructions for their own sake, and doesn’t build formal barriers in communications and processes. We assess the candidate by asking them to talk about how a particular workflow was organized in their previous team, how they worked on the process, who built it, and how they relate to instructions and formalized procedures.
The questions are open-ended and projective. For example, how do you know if a candidate matches the values “Yes to passion, no to bullshit”? We believe that a person with this value doesn’t create tons of instructions for their own sake, and doesn’t build formal barriers in communications and processes. We assess the candidate by asking them to talk about how a particular workflow was organized in their previous team, how they worked on the process, who built it, and how they relate to instructions and formalized procedures.
Then you can interpret the candidate’s answers:
  • Understands why the process looks like this, proposes a change if they see that the process is interfering
  • Follows the process without thinking why it’s the way it is, or if it helps
  • Actively collaborates in defining processes
  • Phrases like: “It was there before me”
  • There was no attempt to understand the reason behind it
It’s not possible to capture everything with questions, and the answers can be socially desirable ones. However, this approach works, and it’s great for teams in interviews. Moreover, it allows all interview participants to understand what’s happening: when one person asks a question, everyone else understands what we’re checking with this question and why.
Scorecard (questionnaire)
After the interview, all participants fill out a questionnaire in the HR system. The aggregated results of the questionnaires help us make a hiring decision. Besides assessing experience and skills, the questionnaire contains a section on culture fit. The grades in this section are just as important in decision-making as the grades about skills.
Hiring manager and hiring decision
A hiring manager is a new feature in the team, not a separate position. The hiring manager, like everyone else, participates in product development but at the same time understands the entire hiring process and knows the hiring priorities in the company and each team individually. Together with the recruiter, they lead the candidate to the offer. Usually, it’s team leads who take care of this task.
Before making an offer to a candidate, the hiring manager defends this decision with top management. To do this, they write a hiring decision: they briefly describe why we’re hiring the candidate, and what risks this decision brings with it. Culture fit is always a separate item here. To prepare this document, the manager and the recruiter analyze all scorecards, and they assess any potential outliers (for example, the whole team gives the candidate a high score, except for one participant).
During onboarding, it’s important for us to not only get a new hire to familiarize themselves with the processes as quickly as possible but also to check the risk items related to hiring decisions.
Each beginner has a daily task plan, a weekly list of goals phrased like “what I know by the end of this week” and “what I can do by the end of the week”; there are performance metrics so that the new hire, their team leader, and the whole team can assess how successful the onboarding period was. We have a well-developed feedback system: if something goes wrong, especially if a new hire does something that doesn’t fit in our company culture, colleagues and a mentor can discuss the problem and help the new hire adjust their behavior.
New employee onboarding plan created in Miro
In addition to this, every few months we hold a Culture code meeting for newcomers; it’s an opportunity to learn and talk about the company culture, the history of our values, ​​and related behavioral examples. Once a quarter, the CEO holds a meeting with newcomers Founder talks, where he talks about the company’s history, mission, vision, strategy, and objectives.
This whole process allowed us to solve the difficulties that we faced at the beginning of our rapid growth:
  • The bottleneck has disappeared from the hiring process. The CEO has handed over final hiring decisions to hiring managers because we set out values ​​and decision-making principles in the Culture code: the whole team agrees with our code, and everyone knows how to work with these principles.
  • Interviews have become more transparent: we set in place a set of common evaluation criteria, and decisions are more balanced and consistent; rejection reasons are understandable; we address hiring risks at the offer stage, and we work out how to fix them during onboarding.
  • As a result, since we started working on setting our company culture, the number of employees has increased 6 times, whereas turnover has fallen from 20–30% to 5%; at the moment, it’s only 2%. For an international company of 300 people, this is an excellent indicator.
Staff turnover
Now, we’re working on the next stages of ingraining our culture deeper into our processes: we’re improving career planning, our reward system, and internal communications.
What else to watch and read
  1. Asana Culture as a product approach, the principles of which we have incorporated into our process of working with culture
  2. A series of articles detailing our entire culture development process, from early research to testing results. There are also links to dozens of examples of corporate culture and a detailed structure of the Culture Code. The author is Anya Dvornikova, People Team Lead, who led this process.
  3. Stories about our internal events that reflect the company's culture: internal hackathons, Friday Wins и Fails Night.