The 2015 edition of the pan-European startup contest Idea Challenge sees an increase in variety and internationality. The series of events re…
whatchado CEO Ali Mahlodji in the meeting room. Photo credit: inventures
When you are out of ideas, it often helps to just ask someone. This concept can be especially helpful in questions of future planning or choice of career. So, the Austrian startup WHATCHADOmade it their goal to provide access to different people, colourful stories and various ways of life. For our new series we've visited CEO Ali Mahlodji and his team of ten nationalities in the heart of Vienna - and here is what we found out about their “Company Culture”, that actually felt more like a vibrant shared flat than a shared office space.
Whatchado borrowed their company name from American slang (“What do you do?”) and aim to approach young people with their easygoing videos of people who tell about their jobs. Within their company, however, they like to refer to themselves as “Sauhaufen” (a bunch of slobs) or simply as “The best team on the planet”. Their trust and confidence in themselves is encouraged by their warm and hearty business culture: a hug or two seem to have become the standard “because we love to hug. We even hugged Heinz Fischer, the president of Austria,” says Ali.
“We believe that all humans are equal.“ At whatchado this sentence can be translated into: any person has a story to tell. While the production of videos from people in various working settings is their main activity, they also aim to make it easy for job seekers to find video stories based on their own interests. And for those who are interested in jobs at whatchado, Ali has prepared a video that tells other people about his job.
Emergence of the company
On a frequent base, whatchado is happy to welcome new members on board. For new employees, the company organises a special information day that aims to help establish themselves in the company structure. At these monthly gatherings, they are not only introduced to the strategy, the initial idea, the products and the business model but also to the company’s history. Even the trials and failures of the past are shared with them. While this happens mostly orally, a booklet and a video is just under construction in case employees want to look something up. Before they settle and find their right place in the company, all new members go through a traineeship with stops in each team for a couple of days.
Ali likes to break the ice by pretending to sell carpets and camels to their clients."
Linguistic Affiliations and Practices
“Every day is different,” became a running gag to employees at whatchado as it turned out that loads of people they were interviewing used this phrase to describe their jobs. While other inside jokes might be hard to notice from the outside, Ali gives insights into his idiosyncratic way of speaking: “I like hip hop a lot, so I guess I start every second sentence with YO,” and that’s also why people take it over and sometimes even journalists greet Ali with a ‘YO’.
With two of the founders being Persian and four other employees with the same ethnic background, jokes about clichés also seem to be a standard program. At presentations, for example, Ali likes to break the ice by pretending to sell carpets and camels to their clients. This shows not only the companies’ acceptance of self-irony but also that at whatchado you can always have a good laugh even it’s at your own expence.
Photo credit: inventures
Ali admits that the first three months for a new whatchado employee “are really hard”, but if they manage to survive, a symbolic reward awaits the new members on board. In a kind of initiation rite, the employees receive a pair of dazzling white sneakers which seems to carry the message: now you are one of us. “I always wanted to have a sneakers company, where we are professional but do not take ourselves too seriously,” says Ali. Nowadays, it seems that even sneakers can be considered a modern uniform which may create a feeling of belonging.
In a kind of initiation rite, the employees receive a pair of dazzling white sneakers which seems to carry the message: now you are one of us."
To make also the companies’ stories visible, the huge office space features a wall of achievements where a “Lederhose”, an Austrian traditional costume, hangs as a symbol for courage and persistence. In the course of losing a bet, Ali had to wear this exact Lederhose, he received from German bloggers, while giving a speech in front of 400 people at the chamber of commerce. While Ali states that “they laughed at me and at what my company does,” he immediately adds: “Now look at us today,” and seems proud about the progress he made in the past years.
There is another symbol that seems to pop up everywhere at desks, in the kitchen, on shelves – so you start asking yourself what’s the deal with the rubber duck? Ali laughs when telling us about the yellow poultry that eventually became the company’s mascot. Originally, the famous rubber duck was a piggy bank and the only decoration in the first 4x4 meter office of whatchado. Later on, the concept was developed further and employees were given rubber ducks with matching characteristics so the CFO, for example, received a duck with a calculator. This went so far that today employees even identify with their small gimmicks. “People take them along to group pictures,” Ali explains and refers to the fact that the appreciation for the individual combined personal effort and those little extras make people stick around.
whatchado is based in one of Vienna’s old, almost antiquated, buildings in the city centre. They occupy the entire fourth floor with more than 400 square meters and the teams are neatly seated together in rooms with all the equipment they need. In addition, there is a large meeting room, a community kitchen and a mobile table for luncheons in the hallway.
the whatchado office also has plenty to offer in terms of visual impressions. While in the meeting room classic leather desk chairs meet street art, the business development office features a huge map of Europe and the common kitchen is regarded as a precious place for encounters.
Photo credit: inventures
“Break all the rules you do not believe in.” The fact that this is Ali’s credo also explains the goal of the pedagogic challenge he set for himself: to “educate the team leaders to mavericks”. While it might not always be easy to work together in this almost anarchic framework, it seems that this attitude is what brings them closer: “We are an army, where anybody sacrifices anything for anybody”. As any religion, this approach between punks and soldiers seems a bit contradictory, but the fact that the team solidarity even goes beyond working hours, as many like to play football together or team up for a yoga class, proves it effective.
We are an army, where anybody sacrifices anything for anybody.”
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions
Since everybody needs to eat at least sometimes, whatchado makes use of this circumstance and transforms meals into happenings. While every second Monday a breakfast is combined with a major update for all employees, the teams also like to cook together – with the food on the company. But these cosy get-togethers also depend on the stress level, workload and the big question: “Is anyone today in the office?,” says Ali.
Symbols of Social Stratification
Unlike big companies, at whatchado social status is not displayed through electronic devices like the latest iPhone or a shiny iPad. “We are pragmatic; if you need devices for travelling or visiting clients you will get it. But this is not based on targets, rather on needs for the individual,” Ali reveals. So for example, if you have a lot of ideas but you tend to be late, whatchado will help you out with a watch or maybe with a Moleskine notebook if you are chaotic with your notes.
Government, Leadership and Officials
In terms of hierarchy, the company accepts three: (1) besides Ali as CEO and the Chief Happiness Officers, there are five positions at the C level (one of them is female), (2) then there is a line of project owners, who are responsible for one specific topic and possibly (3) some project owners also have a team. Each of those levels has a quarterly performance review on (a) individual targets, (b) team targets and (c) company targets. “We wanted to make sure we perform as a company and coordinate our resources well among all teams”.
Social Problems and Controls
Since feedback and a smooth working routine are important at whatchado, all employees elected a team of two as their “Chief Happiness Officers” (CHO) who have a seat in C-level meetings; like a modern version of works council. They are approached in case of problems or concerns and are entitled to lead through the mediation process.
Photo credit: inventures
Annual tickets for the subway, food vouchers as well as white sneakers are basically available to anyone in the company regardless of the job title. Moreover, once a year the company pays a retreat in Thailand, a skiing trip to Carinthia or other activities that are organised for the whole team.
Division of Labour by Gender/Ethnicity
The 27 FTEs consist of ten different nationalities with a „remarkable Persian connection” since the two founders and also four other employees are from Persia. The female/male ratio is approximately 35/65.
“I gave all of my management peers Richard Branson’s Like a virgin book for Christmas, don’t ask me how many read it.” Ali himself swears by Peter Drucker’s Art of Management and any kind of leadership literature from the military, sports or educational fields. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of military systems, but you can get a lot of insights, how groups work best together,” Ali concludes.
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