Mr Employee Experience: Star Struck at Startle

April 30, 201810min

Ben Whitter is known as Mr Employee Experience in business circles, and his role as a global Employee Experience (EX) leader brings him into contact with many companies keen to improve how they accommodate their most important resource – their staff.

He is the CEO and Founder of the World Employee Experience Institute, which partnered the 2018 Employee Experience Awards, and also leads CXM’s Employee Experience Masterclass.

As part of an exciting new blog series exclusive to Customer Experience Magazine, Ben is touring the headquarters of awards finalists to uncover and highlight what makes them EX pioneers…


On my tour of companies which have been shortlisted as finalists in the 2018 UK Employee Experience Awards, my second destination was Startle, an innovative firm that “awakens consumer senses” by helping brands deliver unique experiences in their venues with background music and technology.

I had an inkling I would be very impressed from the get-go; the firm, with its 16 employees, enjoys a 100 percent staff retention rate. Startle is in the business of creating memorable consumer experiences, so it stood to reason that if I was to find a memorable employee experience anywhere, this would be it.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Employees taking ownership

Startle has thrown out the tatty old rule book on building a great company and the experience it should provide for employees. They have created their own rules through experience and innovation.

At the centre of this business model are the employees – or as Startle calls them, ‘owners’. Unlike other organisations which claim they want staff to feel like owners while giving them zero ownership, Startle, from the beginning, has operated a share ownership model. This means that the employees have a genuine stake in the business.

Startle is already committed to giving away 10 percent of the company in the next five years to its staff – that 100 percent employee retention figure might make more sense now, but everything else Startle does is equally as impressive. Given the fact that all employees are owners, there is total transparency with information. Every colleague receives a full data set on performance, including the financial side of things.

This is delivered in real-time performance updates and around a solid set of guarantees to their customer base. Everything is shared so that employees and team leaders can act on the data through candid and focused performance conversations.

A rewarding experience

Meanwhile, you won’t find a typical performance management process here – there is none! There are no formal reviews, as contribution is measured by peers.

Reward is determined by peers. Recognition is delivered by peers.

This is conducted through an anonymous and live voting experience. As all the targets are discussed and shared amongst the team, accountability for results is high. There is no hiding, but there is also no lack of support as the team pulls together to solve problems and develop even better experiences for their customers.

How could it be any other way when Startle’s big promise to its customers is the company’s much heralded Relentless Support™ 24/7?

The company is crystal clear on what matters most within the Customer Experience, and this filters through everything within the Employee Experience. Startle stands firm on three performance metrics: response time, satisfaction, and cost/efficiency.

Key objectives are agreed based on the metrics, and alignment is established with each team member. Alignment is key within the Employee Experience; many companies create some good things but fail to connect and align them to what matters most within the business. I get the impression this would never occur at Startle as the entire business model is dependent on it and every employee is invested in it.

These metrics are the point of focus for the only corporate-style meeting the business has. This is a 90-minute meeting every week to cover issues, metrics, and progress. The meeting always starts and ends on time. The rest of the time the company operates in an informal way.

The business has grown by drawing on past experiences, learning lessons fast, strengthening accountability, and harnessing the full potential of the team by creating a happy and fulfilling workplace. If people are not happy, then collectively they fix it, which is a great lesson for any employer.

Awards achievers

Startle is also no stranger to winning awards – it picked up several UK Business Awards in 2017. Operating on employee-first principles, the company has cited its Employee Experience as the reason for its success.

Being a virtual company, the potential for digital communication channels is maximised, but they also get the whole team – which is dispersed around the world – together for special gatherings. For example, the whole team flew into Germany at Christmas for a shared experience. These elements are proving hugely beneficial in ensuring the connection between people at Startle remains strong and that trust in the team and each other is high.

One experience that emphasised team building was the staff kayaking the River Thames over five days – and 500 miles – to raise money for the British Heart Foundation.

As for work/life balance – forget it! I have always thought there was something misleading and sad about that concept. Companies like Startle and other progressive organisations are thinking much more in ‘life/life’ terms. We are much better off when we build around the ‘whole person’. This is evident at Startle, where colleagues have young families, so working flexibly, with real clarity and autonomy, are just a way of life.

If colleagues want to access training and development, and it is aligned to the growth of the company and individual, Startle will be in ‘yes’ mode. Any employee can raise a case for development. One colleague I spoke to did just that and Startle paid for a degree programme as an investment in the business and the individual.

A history of beards…

Startle uses apps to take the pulse of progress and enable employee input into key decisions at all levels. Informal one-on-ones are still available to provide feedback, coaching, and support. Usually occurring every two weeks, these sessions are also listening points to spot any themes or patterns, and to take action to respond to issues.

Every week there is the practice of a 10-minute talk. Employees take turns to talk about anything they wish to share with the team. Recent editions including big picture thinking, staying calm, and even a history of beards! The latter would have been my favourite!

With the backing of the CEO and top team for an employee and customer-centric business model, this is an example of growth by design. This team has purpose, momentum, and energy behind it.

From what I now know about Startle, I suspect that they will not only achieve their collective mission in the time they have set to achieve it, but they will also create a lot memorable experiences in the process, for employees and customers.

To join Ben at the CXM Employee Experience Masterclass, click here.

Ben Whitter

Ben Whitter

Ben Whitter is one of the World's leading figures within HR & Employee Experience (EX). Ben is the Founder of the World Employee Experience Institute (WEEI) and Chairman of the UK EX Awards 2018.

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