Learn how our RBCx clients attract talent and put their employees first as they scale and succeed in cleantech, sportstech, biotech, and SaaS

“Company culture” and the “employee experience” are buzzwords across industries and companies from startup to scaleup, but putting people first is often much easier said than done. Startups, in particular, face unique challenges as they try to attract talent, grow rapidly, and operate in fast-paced environments full of ups and downs.

But that doesn’t mean startup culture can be ignored or kicked down the road. Over the course of 2023, we profiled some of our top RBCx clients across Canada, and one theme emerged again and again: the importance of getting the people experience right and building a foundation of strong company values.

Founders and executives we spoke with in industries from cleantech to sportstech, biotech, and SaaS are convinced a key factor to their success is fostering tight-knit communities. Here’s what we learned from three of those Canadian startups working hard to elevate their culture in unique and innovative ways.

Find the right people not just for the job, but the company culture

Company culture can’t be treated like a white rabbit that magically pops out of a hat. It’s more like a carefully crafted recipe, for which a company needs the right ingredients. In other words, the right startup talent on board.

Calgary-based Summit Nanotech now has 121 full-time employees, a figure that’s more than doubled over the past couple of years. Even more challenging, the cleantech startup’s workforce is spread across Calgary, Argentina, and Chile. They also recently opened an office in Denver. Remote work, physical distance, and cultural differences were all obstacles Summit’s leadership had to work hard to overcome in order to maintain the company’s culture as it scales.

“As culture champions, we’re super selective with how we hire. Because we’re doing something that’s the first of our kind in tech, while there are certainly certain skills that align with the work we do, a lot of roles require good-enough experience and a very clever person who’s willing to try hard,” says Adam Le Dain, Vice-President of Strategy and Corporate Development at Summit Nanotech.

“That gives us the kind of latitude to hire the right type of cultural fits so we can keep that organic wheel of company culture moving in the right direction, even when there’s a bunch of reasons why we might lose control of it,” he continues. “It’s been super critical that we’re really specific with who we bring into the team.”

Matt Anderson-Baron, co-founder of life sciences startup Future Fields, learned this lesson as the biotech startup quickly scaled from just the two of them to 30 people—although they argue letting go of the wrong fits can be just as important as attracting the right talent.

“More important than having the right people on the team, is learning to quickly let go of those who are not a great culture fit.”

“Our biggest learning over time is that, more important than having the right people on the team, is learning to quickly let go of those who are not a great culture fit. It’s something we struggled to be comfortable with at the start because of the stigma attached to terminations, but we learnt that identifying and acting on these misalignments early was more beneficial for everyone,” says Anderson-Baron. “With this, we also learnt the benefit of letting employees go with empathy and respect, even taking their lead on how the transition would go. Acting in alignment with our values, even through challenging situations like these, has only further strengthened our culture.”

He says the Future Fields team also learned to be more open and clear about their values during the hiring process. “Now, we find we’re seeing less misalignment, even at the earliest stages of our recruiting process.”

Music is good for the soul—and building community

Kinaxis President and CEO John Sicard took inspiration from his youth and outside passions when it came to building the Ottawa-based startup’s signature community initiative: Music at Kinaxis. “When I was a teenager, I was a drummer for a rock band and I thought that music would be my vocation. I soon realized it’s very difficult to make a living in music and life took me in a different direction,” he says.

However, Sicard never lost his love for music, or his belief in it as a way to create community and connect one another. “The Kinaxis culture is anchored in the simple phrase, “people matter,” which extends to the communities in which we live, work, and play.” One core tenant of the culture is a love for music because of its unique ability to unite people across teams, industries, and borders.

“It also helps us and those who work with us embrace creativity, which we believe is vital for business. We believe that businesses could be better – and do better – with more creativity.”

Music at Kinaxis comes to life in several way. Several times a year, Kinaxis employees perform at lunchbreak concerts, which are broadcast virtually for employees around the world, from “The Hive.”

The Hive is a full-size sound stage, complete with professional lighting and sound equipment located in their Headquarters. It’s also home to the Kinaxis In Concert: Live In The Hive series, which sees local and touring emerging artists take the stage and provide free performances for Kinaxis team members. The artists can promote their albums, upcoming shows and sell merchandise. It creates a win-win scenario for employees to let loose and enjoy some live music, and also for the artists to grow their fanbase.

“Music is a cultural ingredient. And, for many, music is medicine.”

“Music is a unifying cultural element. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what gender you are, what religious background you have, or what geographic location in the world you are,” says Sicard. “Music is a cultural ingredient. And, for many, music is medicine.”

Kinaxis has also partnered with ArtHaus to form The Catapult Collaboration, a music initiative designed to propel emerging artists into the spotlight and to share their stories. From putting on airport performances to supporting artists in the studio, Catapult takes us into the lives and journeys of musicians from “starting out” to stardom, with interviews, advice, and life lessons we can all absorb and apply.

Putting company values over ego

While founders and executives certainly set the tone for company culture, sometimes the best thing they can do is step back and let others take the lead.

“For me, one of the most unexpected challenges was working on a team where everyone has very deep technical expertise, and all in very unique areas,” says Future Fields’ other co-founder, Jalene Anderson-Baron (yes, they’re married!). “When you are managing people and projects that require this deep level of expertise across many different areas, it’s not feasible for the manager to understand all the nuance and technical depth – and that can be a hard reality to accept at first. It forces you to take a step back and ensure you are clearly communicating the overarching direction, so the experts are empowered to act and make decisions using their best judgement.”

At Summit Nanotech, the company emphasizes what it calls its hearts values: humility, empathy, adaptability, relentlessness, transparency, and safety.

“We bring those values up in biannual or annual performance reviews and we bring them up informally and directly in interviews,” says Le Dain. “If you have someone who is relentless, but humble, that’s a good person. You want to spend time with that person.”

Summit Nanotech’s goal is to work as one team, with everyone on the same level. “If you walked into our company as a visitor and you ran into someone in the halls, then someone asked what position you think they hold, you would have no idea,” he says. “There’s no way to tell our founder Amanda or any other senior executives apart from a junior member of the team that just joined the company.”

If you would like to learn more about these inspiring Canadian startups, please visit their websites at summitnanotech.com, futurefields.io, or kinaxis.com.

RBCx offers support to startups in all stages of growth, backing some of Canada’s most daring tech companies and idea generators. We turn our experience, networks, and capital into your competitive advantage to help you scale and make a meaningful impact on the world. Speak with an RBCx Advisor to learn more about how we can help your business grow.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.


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