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10 Minutes with Culture Amp CEO Didier Elzinga

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The South Australian expat entrepreneur shares the trials and tribulations of growing a startup on his return to Adelaide for the two-day SouthStart Conference this week.

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A willingness to keep going beyond the point where most people would have given up has been a key to business success for Didier Elzinga.

The former Rising Sun Pictures CEO grew up in Adelaide but left a decade ago to chase his entrepreneurial dreams, which materialised when he co-founded Culture Amp in Melbourne in 2011.

The People & Culture software company is now worth $1billion and has 400 staff servicing more than 3 million users across 2500 customer companies worldwide. Culture Amp is still headquartered in Melbourne but has established offices in San Francisco, New York and London.

Elzinga is a regular visitor to Adelaide, returning several times a year with his wife Greta Bradman and their children to visit family. This week Elzinga will fly in to speak at the two-day SouthStart Conference on Thursday morning where he will share his experiences to an audience of tech startups and emerging entrepreneurs.

We caught up with the former Adelaide Hills resident ahead of the conference that begins Wednesday morning at the Adelaide Convention Centre.

What advice do you give to people wanting to build a startup?

The advice I give to people generally when they come to me and say ‘hey, I’m thinking about doing a startup’ I say ‘don’t’. Chances are it won’t work and it will be really painful. If it’s something that you care enough about and you’re willing to fail then you can start because it’s hard and you probably will fail – most people who go down this path do. I can’t get up on stage and tell people that I’ve got some secret that if you just follow my path you’ll get there. It’s luck, timing, perseverance. So the first advice is to abuse people of any notion that building a startup is a great way to make money, but if people really want to do it, what I can share is that it’s not easy, it is really hard and you have to be clear on what you’re willing to hurt for and then I can share some of the things we’ve learnt along the way.

How did Culture Amp begin?

I started Culture Amp on a slightly different problem, which was around performance management: how do we take something that’s a universally loathed annual backwards looking process and turn it into a forward looking continuous coaching situation. So I started working on that idea when I was still in Adelaide, moved to Melbourne, continued working on it and met my co-founders. We had paying customers but it wasn’t growing as fast as we wanted it to so we thought we’d try something else. It took us six months to kill the first idea, six weeks to kill the second idea and then we settled on this. The idea Culture Amp is built around came from discussions I had with Dr Jason McPherson, who is our chief scientist and was our first employee. We were both just reflecting on the fact that marketers had all this information about customers but on the People & Culture side we really didn’t have much information at all about who these people were that we worked with all the time. So we sat down, built a prototype and I went and pitched it to ten CEOs that we knew and said ‘if we build this will you buy it’ and four of them said yes and we were away. It was an insight that we followed and we got validation by putting it in front of people and seeing who it resonated with. We very quickly took off in the (Silicon) Valley – Airbnb was an early customer of ours when they were about 100 people and they are now 7000. We work with 2500 customers globally now so there’s a huge range of them.

What are some of the lessons you have learnt?

One of the critical ones we learnt early as a software product company is that the real question is not ‘can you build it?’ The real question is ‘will anybody care?’

Early in a startup’s life I usually tell them that the challenge is not how to build it, it’s go out there and figure out what the problem is people want you to solve.

Often times as technologists we spend too much time trying to build the thing right and not enough time trying to build the right thing. The learning is not going to ten people and asking ‘what would you like me to build’, it’s going to ten people and saying ‘I’m building this thing, what will you do with it’ and then you listen to what people say and try to understand the questions behind the questions.

What do you put your success in business down to?

You have to be willing to keep going beyond the point where most people would have given up and you also have to be willing to follow leads. A lot of my success both at Rising Sun and Culture Amp I would put to that. I would be talking to someone and there would be an opportunity so I would say ‘I am going to be in Sydney next week can I come and see you’ and someone else would say ‘why are you flying to Sydney just to see that person?’ It’s a mentality thing – just showing up is half the battle and so often people think it’s too hard or too complicated or too risky.

When we got an opportunity to work with Adobe early in the life of our company, we spent an hour debating whether we should spend $300 on the ticket to fly one of our co-founders from Vancouver to San Jose to take the meeting. It was a line-ball decision where we said yes. We could have very easily said ‘no, it’s too expensive’ and we wouldn’t have Adobe as one of our anchor clients.

In the early days when we were building what we were building, people would say to us ‘no one cares about People & Culture, HR is a terrible person to sell to, you’re never going to get anywhere with that’. Thankfully we didn’t listen to them because we thought that ultimately People & Culture is the biggest lever that you have and if we want to build successful companies we have to do it by growing the people that we have.

The mission that we have always had is to build a better world of work, it’s just that nine years ago people were less sure that was as important as they are starting to realise that it is. The number one thing was not giving up – probably beyond the point where most people would have and the second thing is we’ve thought to build not just a platform and a software company but a community and a movement that we sit inside.

What led to you speaking at SouthStart this Thursday?

They’ve been talking to me for a little while asking me to come along and honestly I’m at the point now where I’m basically saying no to all of these things because my plate is overflowing. But the fact that it is in Adelaide is the thing that got me over the line. I’m proud to be from Adelaide and I’m happy to be back trying to support that ecosystem.

Greta and I come back to Adelaide a lot because both of our families are there and growing up in the Adelaide Hills I haven’t yet found anything else quite like it anywhere else in the world.

This week it’s just a quick trip but we’ll be back at Christmas.

Thursday is a fireside chat and I’m happy to talk about almost any part of the journey. I think it will be a process of identifying what’s important to people in the room but I’m happy to share the early days, the middle, the triumphs, the tragedies and anything that will help people understand what that experience was like.

There is some really good space tech going on and some really good entrepreneurs but when I come back to Adelaide I come to spend time with family, not to talk to tech companies but one thing I’ve noticed is the city has continued to evolve and get more sophisticated. The food scene continues to be amazing and I still really enjoy spending time in Adelaide as a city, I think it’s a really fantastic city.

What’s next for Culture Amp?

We’re really just getting started and I think where we are right now I would say is like the first lap of a ten-lap race or longer. Our mission is to build a better world of work and the vision for us is to amplify the experience and the impact of over 100 million people – roughly 1 per cent of the world’s population. So the next five to ten years for us at Culture Amp is delivering on that promise to people – how do we use technology to help build a better world of work so that’s going to keep me busy for a while yet.

Where we are seeing a huge amount of innovation and an area where we’re looking to lead that innovation is in how we use technology to drive behaviour change. It’s not just ‘hey we ran a survey and you should do this’ it’s surveys and other things that inform a system that supports you as a manager or a leader or as an individual to make choices that improve the culture around you.

Early on you’re really fighting for the right to exist at all and I would hope that we’re past that point. But once you get to that point the question is ‘can we go and build a category to lead from the front’? It’s not just your own company, it’s the companies around you and together you want to create a new wave and that’s what we want to focus on now. We’ve earned the right to have that conversation and now we need to set our sights on actually changing the thing we set out to change and doing it at scale that we can be proud of.

Earlier in the year we acquired a company called Zugata, which is in the performance development space. Our existing platform was around organisational feedback but what we liked about this is it allowed us to look at the individual lens as well. So now we have both organisational feedback and individual feedback and the key thing for us is pulling that together. The future piece is how do we drive behaviour change in organisations because the truth is for all the stuff that people are looking at, very little actually changes and we want to fix that.

The week-long SouthStart event will explore the emergence of technologies that are set to explode and redefine our future. More than 70 leading scientists, virtual technologists, winemakers, entrepreneurs, ecosystem champions and other unlikely cohorts will gather to explore the intersection of technology and humanity at venues across Adelaide. Tickets are still available for the both days of the main conference.

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