4 key tips to building a team and company culture at your start-up


Back in the early 90s two self-proclaimed “total nerds” graduated from Australian National University, set up in a bedroom clad with Star Wars wallpaper, installed a second phone line and started a company.

Those total nerds were Canberra natives Michelle Melbourne and Phillip Williamson and they invented a technology platform that enables business to digitalise their processes without code. “Phil and I were inherently lazy,” Ms Melbourne told the crowd at CeBIT Australia 2017. “We were always looking for shortcuts to do more work, thinking how can you do less work and still get a great outcome?”.

They had no mentors, no plan and no professional experience. But they did have, Ms Melbourne’s mother, who was a key member of their support crew, telling the duo, “it’s going to be ok, you can get a real job if this doesn’t work out.” She still tells them this today.

Despite the pep talks, Intelledox is almost two decades old, has a team of 50, exists in a handful of different countries, has more than 150 customers and 15 million users. And the day before CeBIT they also signed a multimillion dollar deal with a top financial institution in the US.

But in her talk to the crowd of start-ups, Ms Melbourne made it inherently clear the company still has the culture of a start-up. And to trudge the muddy waters that start-ups inevitably face, she shared a number of key philosophies and lessons to build a team and company culture geared for success.

1. Challenge the status quo

“As a leader of your team you need to curate the swimming of the other direction,” she advised. You also need to embrace that you’re having conversations that you’re doing something different - when everyone else is doing it safe. Ms Melbourne told the crowd when you’re taking a risk that’s how you make money.

To keep things innovative and alive in the office, the last Friday of every month is innovation day. There are no rules. Staff can work on whatever they want - it doesn’t have to be related to work or the Intelledox software. Two weeks later three staff are picked to talk about what they’re working on. The staff are able to expand their thinking and learn from others. It’s not unsimilar to what Facebook do with their staff once a month.

2. It’s the struggle that matters

Reality hits home when you’re under pressure to keep food on the table and make sure your team are getting paid. “The struggle makes you plan to get it right the first time,” she said. If you can’t sell your software and your business model isn’t working, “you have to be up earlier and run faster than everyone else,” she said.

3. Collect good people

At Intelledox they hire for team fit and they hunt for the outliers. “We don’t hire normal,” she told the crowd. “We hire in the outliers - special humans that are not normal. Collective IQ and culture are a critical part of our culture. We call this the Galapagos Effect.” Over the years the team has hand-picked their fellow staff members. And they’re doing something right - the retention rate is high and interns are still inside the company. “One is now our R&D manager,” Ms Melbourne said.

4. Smooth waters don’t make good sailors

Constantly challenge your team. “When it’s not easy is when it matters,” Ms Melbourne said. “It’s easy to play to people’s strengths but I challenge you to know far more about people’s weaknesses.” And don’t do it to make your team vulnerable. But it’s when teams are up against challenges that they perform their best and do really great work together according to Ms Melbourne.

Other wise words from Ms Melbourne included celebrate and reward your team’s efforts and successful leaders need to carry humility in interactions with teams, customers and peers.

While Intelledox is far from a start-up they still have some of those grassroot practices you commonly see in start-ups. It took many years to get to where they are today but in the end, it’s all worth it and they still do not have to “go and get a real job”. If you don’t want to get a “real-job” and your eyes are set on starting a start-up, download our ebook How to launch a start-up.

How to launch a start-up