Culture is Key to Zoobean’s Success

Knowing that most new businesses fail, any founder who sets off on a new venture expects to face challenges. What comes as a surprise to many leaders, however, is the source of these challenges—which often have more to do with the organization’s internal growth and evolution than with product design or market fit. It is no small task to build a healthy and high-performing organization from the ground up.

Initial stages of organizational growth are periods of intense and ongoing change. As a change leadership firm, Outside Angle works with startups and growth-stage organizations to help them navigate these periods of intense change to balance between the structure they need to grow and the flexibility they need to be responsive to the market.

Startup leaders have to evolve and sharpen the founding vision, design new processes to match the organization’s evolving needs, and cultivate durable relationships across the team and with key stakeholders, all while balancing revenue and expenses. The pressure and challenge of this period can easily overshadow the ideals they held as new leaders and pull their energy and attention too far toward solvency at the expense of organizational health and sustainability. 

Over the past four years, our team has partnered closely with Zoobean, an education technology company that promotes reading through its partnerships with libraries, schools, and companies. Zoobean has grown extensively during that time, both in terms of its business and its team size. Throughout that period, our partnership has focused on helping the company sustain growth through an intentional focus on maintaining team culture.

Let’s take a look at how Zoobean has successfully maintained a positive culture through intense change.

Team First Culture 

Zoobean co-founder and CEO Felix Lloyd is clear and transparent about his own leadership values and principles, and he applies the same thinking to how the company operates. He regularly repeats the things he most believes in—and one of them is “team first.” Even from outside the company, it is clear that Zoobean’s culture reflects its values of love, inclusion, hard work, and awesomeness. 

All of these values center on how the team interacts with one another as much as on how Zoobean interacts with the millions of people it serves. The intentional grounding in values and constant connection to their mission make people feel pride and purpose in the company’s work. Throughout their journey from startup to growth-stage company, between 93% and 100% of employees have agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I am proud to tell others that I am a part of this company.” 

The team believes that culture supports their performance, and helps them through hard times. “We believe in what we’re doing, and it feels good to do good,” says Lloyd. 

Pod Structure

As the team grew and moved to a fully remote environment, new threats to company culture emerged such as silos within teams and uneven access to information. At each juncture, leadership responded with new, lightweight systems to proactively address these risks. One great example is the cross-functional pods that have become a part of the company’s culture. 

In addition to a more traditional organizational reporting structure, Zoobean’s unique pod structure fosters connection and collaboration. Pods are cross-functional groups of around five employees that are encouraged to connect via monthly lunches, a Slack channel, subgroupings during staff retreats, and other opportunities for productive and positive interaction. Each pod is led by a pod leader, who also helps to plan company-wide culture-strengthening events such as retreats, virtual lunches, and Fall and Spring Breaks. Pod leaders can be anyone who does not report directly to the CEO and, because pods rotate every six months, this opportunity to be a leader is spread across the organization.

Why all this effort for something that isn’t even a functional unit? Pods help build relationships across the organization, which helps reduce the tendency for silos to form. They also give people outside the leadership circle a chance to lead a culture element for the organization. Perhaps most importantly, they form a sense of community that helps Zoobean feel like a small and close knit community even as it grows. 

Intentional Opportunities to Connect and Align as a Team

Zoobean focuses on maintaining a strong culture as it grows. To do that, the company leverages a repeatable and predictable cycle of engagement. Within those cycles, Zoobean holds monthly and quarterly opportunities for the full team to come together to learn, align, and connect. These include:

  • Semi-Annual Retreats: Twice annually, Zoobean brings the full team together for a virtual team retreat, typically in January and July. These one-day retreats aim for reflection, relationship building, and goal-setting. The “State of the Bean” is always a feature. (More on this below.)
  • Spring and Fall Breaks: Additionally, the Zoobean team (which works remotely otherwise) comes together in person once or twice annually for a multi-day retreat. Fall Break and Spring Break are less about content and strategy, and more about team-building, connection, and unstructured fun.
  • Monthly All-Hands Meetings: Monthly meetings on the first Friday of every month drive the work in the interim. Executive team members are tasked with preparing a monthly report, and the time is used to socialize priorities, ask questions, discuss housekeeping items, and give shoutouts to colleagues. 

State of the Bean

Zoobean’s team fosters its culture by measuring it in the same way they do other financial, customer, and product-focused outcomes. Every six months, as part of the Semi-Annual Retreat, their team takes stock of their culture and reflects on the opportunities to reinforce and strengthen both positivity and productivity across the team. They look at real data related to culture. Undoubtedly, this has helped them continuously calibrate and navigate change.

For example, the June 2023 State of the Bean showed a dip in team positivity indicators, such as company pride and job satisfaction. The data, based on anonymous survey responses, was made available for everyone to see, which prompted the question, “What’s going on here, and what can we do differently?” That spring, the company had navigated some decisions that tested the company culture and leadership like never before. The Semi-Annual Retreat created space for the full team to face and wrestle with this, rather than turn away from the challenge. By December 2023, data showed a rebound in team positivity—in part thanks to the team’s ability to have honest conversations around the state of the organization.

Culture Is Key

Like any organization, Zoobean’s team culture has experienced its ups and downs and its leaders have had to navigate threats and strains on the organization. But its Team First culture, pod structure, intentional use of regular opportunities to connect and align as a team, and consistent monitoring of data to drive mission-critical goals have helped the team work through challenges and perform together.

In the most recent staff engagement survey, the top three words team members used to describe working at Zoobean were “challenging,” “fun,” and “rewarding.” Surely challenges lie ahead and continued hard work will be a necessary part of the equation. Based upon what we have observed so far, though, Zoobean’s investments in a positive and productive culture will pay dividends far into the company’s future.