NZBusiness Magazine recently interviewed Boost CEO Nathan Donaldson about his drive to create the happiest workplace in New Zealand. Check out the article to learn about Boost’s journey and find out how having a purpose-led culture and a freedom-centred workplace can increase the impact of your own organisation.
Read the article
“A lot of Boost’s success in the technology sector can be attributed to its ethos of freedom and democracy in its Wellington office. It’s one remarkable example that proves staff happiness and productivity really do go hand in hand…”
Watch Nathan’s interview to learn more about our journey from creating CD-ROMs to creating a unique purpose-led culture.
Q1: Briefly outline your background and how Boost first got started.
We started Boost in 2000. I had studied design in Otago Uni left in 1994, joined Avalon studios with a multimedia design company, Worked for a while, did a bit of teaching, went overseas to teach at a design school in Kuala Lumpur. Came back to NZ and started Boost with Tom Hovey in 2000.
We were mainly doing CD-ROMs back then, and a lot of educational multimedia.
Q2: What, for you, have been the standout milestones in Boost’s journey? And what have been the highs and lows over the years for you and the business?
It’s hard to pick particular moments, I think one of the things we have really strived for is to make things even. Not to have high highs or low lows and so when I look back, there’s been times when we’ve done really cool stuff. And I suppose the Cultural changes have been the big shifts for us. So when we built the leadership team that was really an exciting time. Working through what would make that valuable to the business and make the business flourish.
We’ve won awards along the way, most of them have been great, but one in particular was for a CD-ROM we produced to teach writing in Te Reo for Māori students and that was really well received by the students themselves and was the first resource, digital or otherwise for teaching Te Reo and writing Te Reo. That was an amazing project that I’m really proud of.
Q3: The app and website development marketplace is incredibly competitive. What do clients like about your service and what are your points of difference from your competitors’ offering?
That’s a great question, and I think what sets us apart and what our clients really like is that we are driven by values and purpose. So when we are working with a client, we believe in their project and we want to achieve the impacts for them that they are looking for. So the majority of our work is for organisations that are making New Zealand a better place. And that’s what we believe in and our clients relate really well to that.
The market is competitive but we don’t find ourselves competing with others very often. We have very long lasting relationships with our clients. We’ve been working with one of our clients on their projects for nearly 11 years now and that’s because we continue to invest in the people and the processes around those projects.
Q4: Where do you think you are at in terms of Boost’s growth and where do you see the business in another 5 years’ time?
In terms of Boost’s growth, we are tracking nicely for where we had planned. We got together as a team and built a road map for where we want to be in 2026 so a bit further out than five years but not much. And so we call that Boost 2026 — one of the most imaginative names ever. And so where we want to be is $10 million revenue, 50 employees, 50% male female, CEO elected by the team and wholly employee-owned. Ideally what we’re working towards is having co-CEOs — male and female — elected by the team.
Q5: I understand you have a unique point of difference in the way that you involve your people in decision-making. Where does this thinking come from? How does it work? And what impact has it had on the business?
We believe in decentralised decision making and it’s come from a number of different places. Everything we do here is informed by things we see that work really well out in the rest of the world. So I’d say we stand on the shoulders of giants in that regard.
With the decentralised decision making, we have the people closest to the information make the decisions and we support them to do that. And that includes helping them understand which decisions they can make without any consultation with any people on their team.
And we have a very flat structure where no one has a manager or a boss. As an example, I sat down with a member of the team, and asked who their boss was. And they said they didn’t have one. I asked who they were responsible to and they said the team. I think that’s what really makes us different, we don’t have bosses we have coaches. Everyone at Boost has a coach. The interesting thing about that is that the cynical take is that they are bosses but by another name. But it really is a different process. The coaches are really invested in the employee and their personal and professional growth. They help them to be the best they can be. So it’s not a reporting line, it’s a supporting line.
We’ve been a certified democratic workplace for the last seven years. What that means is that we adhere to ten principles around freedom in the workplace and democracy in the workplace. That includes fairness and dignity, decentralised decision making, purpose and vision. It’s about keeping all those values and principles top of mind when we are making decisions. So when we are working together we are trying to move forward in all of those dimensions.
We run an anonymous survey every year run by WorldBlu who are the certifying agency for the democratic workplaces to evaluate where we are and what we need to work on that year.
Q6: What other benefits can you highlight as a result of your policy on inclusiveness? And what has been the feedback from your people?
One of the things we do every month is survey the team on how happy they are at work. It’s a very simple question on how happy you are at work on a scale of 1–10 and we have done that since 2015. So we now have a reasonable amount of data and when we plot that out over the years we can see a steady incremental rise to the point where we are averaging about 9.3 out of ten.
We really believe in transparency so that number is on the About page of our website, automatically placed there by the system we use so at any time anyone can come to the site and see how happy our people at Boost are and in their work. My goal is to create the happiest and most productive workplace in New Zealand. I believe happiness and productivity go hand in hand. You can’t be productive without being happy and you can’t be happy without being productive. And by measuring that we can make sure we are on track to achieving that goal.
We regularly ask the team other questions as well. The happiness question goes out once per month and then the intervening weeks we ask all sorts of other questions. How’s the management team doing? Do you feel valued at work? Would you recommend the company? What sort of animal would you be and why? So we collect feedback every week as well as through the coaches. Feedback through the coaches gets sent through to the navigators who are our leadership team. And then one of the navigators is tasked with closing the loop on that feedback to make sure it gets actioned.
Q7: Can you share any other workplace tips? And what general advice can you pass on to tech start-ups in order to help them grow?
I think the key is that we try to work with human nature, rather than against human nature. So rather than deciding what people can do and how they do it, we move those decisions to the people themselves. And I think that’s had the biggest impact for us as a business. Just in the same way that you can’t decide how fast your car can go, you accept the performance that it provides, and we have to do that with team members as well. That is the key to be able to work at a sustainable pace and ensure that you don’t burn out your team.
It’s good to keep love in your heart and in all of your conversations whether that be with your team, your suppliers, or your customers. Interacting or holding that position of kindness and love is essential to having fruitful relationships and helps to build those strong bonds you need in business.
Q8: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt from your time in business?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to enjoy the ups and downs. So think of it as more of a rollercoaster where both parts are the ride. Business is not a straight line to success and if you invest too much in the ups and too much in the downs, it can be difficult to stick with it long term. So finding a way to enjoy the fear and move past it is critical.