In the right context, even small teams are capable of global dominance.
Supercell is a case in point. The Helsinki-based, $1.7 billion gaming company is the creative entity behind Clash of Clans, the top-grossing iPad game in 122 countries last year. It's also a place where 160 employees work happily in small, independent teams.
All of which is why Supercell's culture receives the spotlight treatment in Why Should Anyone Work Here? the recently released book by London Business School professors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. The authors cite Supercell as the rare company whose workers balance an "indie" sense of creative freedom with the marketplace's demands for hit games.
Jones likens Supercell's culture to that of Motown Records in its heyday. Motown founder Berry Gordy's aim was to create a safe atmosphere for ideas and thoughts--without losing sight of the business goal: convincing consumers to buy the record, even if it was with their last dollar.
How did Supercell become the Motown of modern gaming? Jones credits co-founder and CEO Ilkka Paananen for doing the legwork. Back when Supercell had only 55 employees, Paananen sat down with each one for a chat. He asked: Why do you like working here? What don't you like?
The employee responses formed the basis for Supercell's six beliefs. Tibor Toth, senior QA engineer at Supercell, told Goffee and Jones: "No mantras on the walls here, no big words on company culture. We are focusing on what really matters--the game development itself. And honestly, we're living the dream."
Here are Supercell's six cultural values:
1. Small is beautiful.
With the right people and team chemistry, we believe small teams can produce the best games and the biggest results.
2. Full transparency.
All of our numbers, data, and plans about the business--good and bad--are shared with everyone. The free flow of information improves communication, decision-making, trust, and morale.
3. Zero bureaucracy.
Those small, independent teams are nimble and move very fast, so it's important to remove any obstacles that might get in their way and slow them down.
4. Extreme independence.
Small teams alone aren't enough. Those teams must have the freedom to make quick decisions and take risks.
5. Pride in craft.
Although our teams move fast, we try hard never to compromise on creativity or quality. Our players generously share their precious time with us and we want to return the favor by giving them deliriously fun game experiences.
6. Take care of our own.
Top pay, industry leading benefits, work-life balance, and a commitment to the whole human being is the secret to happy, high-performing people. And that's our commitment.
Making It Scale
Of course, it's one thing to have a culture like this when your headcount is relatively small. From their experience studying startups with strong cultures, the authors suggest Supercell will face a major challenge scaling the creative, indie ethos over multiple offices.
I asked Jones if there is a large company with an employees-first culture that Supercell could look to, as a model. He cited Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical giant whose CEO, Lars Rebien Sørensen, was just named Harvard Business Review's top-performing CEO in the world.
The key to Sørensen's success with Novo Nordisk is that he is "obsessed with the culture of the organization," says Jones. "He doesn't see culture as something HR builds. It's central to what the business is." Sørensen has also helped instill values that transcend the bottom line. Under his stewardship, the company routinely brings in diabetes patients to visit, so employees can feel more directly how millions worldwide would suffer without medication.
I wondered if it was any coincidence that both Supercell and Novo Nordisk are Scandinavian. Jones pointed to Sørensen's reaction to winning the HBS award:
I should have said at the beginning that I don't like this notion of the "best-performing CEO in the world." That's an American perspective--you lionize individuals. I would say I'm leading a team that is collectively creating one of the world's best-performing companies. That's different from being the world's best-performing CEO--it's a very big difference, especially in a business in which the timelines are 20 or 25 years. You inherit the situation from your predecessor. You may be the best CEO in the world, but you might inherit a bad business. Or the last guy spent 15 years creating a better business, and when the next guy takes over, he becomes a hero.
If that's not what you want to hear from your leader, what is?