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How to build a successful team of 100 members in 5 years?

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A company story focused on impact

Unit8 is a leading Swiss data services company with a mission to help non-digital native companies transform data into value with a mix of data science, analytics, and AI. Headquartered in Lausanne and with offices in Zürich, Kraków, and Wroclaw, Poland, we have recently reached a key milestone in our journey: 100 people. Our team is made of world-class data experts who have delivered more than 125+ data & AI projects to date. We are a trusted partner of Daimler, Firmenich, the WWF and other recognized brands.

As People and Culture Lead my role is to attract, retain and develop people at Unit8, as well as build an awesome workplace and culture for our team to succeed.

This article is about our story and how we built a successful team of 100 members in only 5 years.

Start with a clear and impactful mission

Competition for tech talents is growing. In a McKinsey Global Survey on future workforce needs (2020), “nearly nine in ten executives and managers say their organizations either face skill gaps already or expect gaps to develop within the next five years”. More specifically, 43% of respondents report a potential skill gap to be addressed in Data Analytics.

What is the vision of Unit8 ? As Marcin Pietrzyk, our CEO and Co-Founder says: “Top Silicon Valley companies attract technology talent from across the world. Many amongst the best brains of our generation often end up working on advertisement optimisation rather than broader technological and real business problems. The result is that traditional industries, particularly in Europe, are increasingly left behind and miss the right talent for their digital transformation initiatives.”

As a consequence, the mission of our founders became clear: help traditional industries accelerate their digital transformation and support them in using AI’s full potential to solve business challenges. Unit8 was born.

The first employees of the company were hence recruited in the personal close network of the founders, as it usually happens in start ups. Why did they join? First, they trusted them. In addition, the mission of Unit8 was appealing and they saw it as a way to use their technical skills to have a large impact on the industry. This is how we opened our offices in Lausanne, Krakow and Zurich, where our first team members were located.

After the first operating year and our a few successful projects, time came to grow, fast, but how then to compete with the big players and attract tech talents? Build a strong company culture and develop people!

Build a strong company culture, first

The objective of the founders to create an awesome workplace for their team has always been at the core of the growth strategy. After a few months after its foundation, they both worked on a set of company values that still today guide our company structure, the way we operate and the expected behaviour of our team members:

  • Customer focused. Always.
  • Team over individual.
  • Results matter. Have fun and get it done!
  • We are in it to win. Never give up.
  • Positive impact on the world.
  • Journey is the reward.

After the second year of operation already, our founders hired a person fully dedicated to people well-being, talent development and company culture (me!). I was the second non-engineer person hired at Unit8. At that time, our company was only 30 people. This decision really showed, in my opinion, how people matter in our company. Together with the senior team, we worked first on keeping the team together during the Covid-19 pandemic. Thanks to multiple online team building activities, people continued to virtually interact with each others. At the peak of the pandemic, we used to meet almost 3 times a week, in small groups, and nurtured our company culture, no matter what.

Design your hiring process by focusing on people strengths and culture fit

A very short slow down due to the pandemic allowed us to build a strong hiring process: during that time we set up hiring teams made only of our engineers. With our CTO and co-founder Michal Rachtan, we trained them on how to conduct interviews and we set up our own technical tests. We put a lot of emphasise on culture fit and decided that no compromise should be done on this element. At that time, almost 90% of the company was involved in hiring activities. This phase was particularly important to create successful teams as the amount of projects was also growing. Therefore, we trusted our engineers that they would hire the right people to growth their project teams too.

Work on personal growth rather than retention rewards

During our 3rd year of existence, we set up an internal mentoring programme with the objective to support the personal development of our team members. As a result, people felt better supported in their daily work, got a person of reference to guide them on their next steps and benefited from advise from people working on other client projects.

During that year, time came to also work on the retention of our talents. Personal and technical development are a key factor to retain tech talent at Unit8. Therefore, we decided to create our own career path with a group of highly engaged engineers, a career path done by our people for our people. We included in this project representatives of each group of people at Unit8: interns, engineer in their early career and more experienced ones. The career path we developed is strongly linked with our company culture based on impact. As a consequence, we developed 7 dimensions of impact and 3 possible levels of contribution (contributor, enabler and strategist). Individuals decide on the direction they would like to focus on as well as which contribution level they dedicate to each.

Keep the team together

Today, 5 years since our foundation, we have reached 100 employees!

With that size, our main challenge is to keep our people together. Here are a few simple things we put in place:

  • Our hiring process is still handled internally and led by our engineers.
  • In order to foster cross-location collaboration, we encourage teams to regularly meet in person in one of our offices.
  • Various team offsites are also opportunities to be together for a few days and to encourage team bonding.
  • Almost all our client projects are managed by team members “cross locations” and we ensure regular rotations to keep our people engaged and to provide them with more opportunities for learning.
  • We still run our mentoring programme with an average participation rate of 80%. Every 6 months, we rotate our “mentoring pairs” so that everybody can benefit from some personal support from another team member.
  • We nurture a culture of feedback and regularly organise online or live 360° feedback sessions.

Finally, an awesome workplace remains our first company goal and our new project for the upcoming year is to develop our Learning and Development Programme.

People focus, always

To conclude, Unit8 has been successful because our teams are successful: they decide who is a good fit for their project team and for the company. Our culture defines how we do the right things and we put a lot of emphasise on people growth. Personal relationships reinforce our culture and we make sure people can interact as often as possible within and outside of their project.

Our challenge today is therefore not the competitive market and the shortage of talent but how to scale our culture to support the next steps of growth.

To be continued…

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