Being genuine and honest - and giving credit where credit is due - is perhaps the strongest code of conduct to Platypus Co-founders Daniel Bowen and Nico Blier-Silvestri. Up to the point where it almost made this interview impossible: Because to them Platypus’s 18 months journey from being an idea in the minds of two guys to an 18 people startup, raising a €2,3 million seed round and getting ready to go to market with a solid Beta, can’t be reduced to the ideas of two guys.
This isn’t a matter of false modesty, but an integral part of who the two co-founders are and the baseline for how they act: “What you see is what you get”.
This goes for how they want organizations to communicate their culture in order to attract and retain the right talent - that will actually thrive and stay. And it goes for how they’re approaching the startup journey.
I sat down to a chat with co-founders Daniel Bowen and Nicolas Blier-Silvestri about the ideas and frustrations that lead them to build Platypus and how their vision of culture has also shaped how they’re building their own organization.
On ideas, beginnings - and building a fellowship
Dan: I’m not too keen on these sorts of interviews and founders being in the limelight, and: “This is our idea and this is our story…”
Nico: It’s bigger than Dan and I. For us, of course, we believed in this. It was our idea. We wanted to build it. But the fact that people related to the idea and wanted to build it, that’s more powerful than anything.
Dan: It’s Frodo and Sam starting off and along the way we’re picking up the fellowship. (Both laughing)
Me: *Deep sigh*
Q: However true this is, you framed a problem that was compelling and motivating for people - employees, investors, etc. - that joined you on that mission. Both of you have a recruiting background, and you, Nico, have also worked in HR. How did those experiences prompt you to start Platypus?
Dan: For me, the idea of Platypus definitely started with a frustration with how culture was used as an excuse for rejecting candidates. And I mean good candidates.
Very early on as a recruiter I realized that “best practice” - in terms of bias or good candidate experience - didn’t matter when presenting candidates. Because the hiring manager would still at the end of the day say: “I don’t like that candidate. It’s not a cultural fit”.
This is the main objection a hiring manager will give you for not hiring someone. The candidate can be amazing, ticking all the boxes, have a high potential in terms of growth, align with how the team culture is described by the hiring manager, and then that candidate is literally just told: “It’s not a good culture fit”. That for me is just the weakest excuse.
I’ve seen companies aiming for a specific ratio of, for instance, female candidates - and that gives you an idea of when this excuse would have been used. ‘Cause it was just white dudes that were getting hired…
Nico: It’s hard work being a recruiter. You give jobs to people, yeah. To one person, but there are probably 60 people that you have rejected. Being forced to turn down candidates with bullshit excuses was one thing, but also the bluntness of overselling an organization’s culture - knowing very well that it’s not the reality of what candidates are gonna experience, that frustrated me.
And I really wanted to build something that would overcome this dilemma.
Q: So there was an element of professional frustration. How was this also personal to you?
Dan: It is personal - and not just to us - because everyone has been in that situation where they’ve joined an organization and the culture hasn't been what they expected it to be. They’ve had bad experiences with recruiters overselling the company culture. They've gone through this whole experience of not just disappointment but the costly realization that what you thought would be a great fit was anything but…
As recruiters, we got to experience both sides of this: We were part of painting pretty pictures about the company culture - careful in omitting certain things, but I also got to a point where I had experienced that posturing just too many times in my own career.
When you’re 20 and you don’t really give a shit and you can buy into anything to further your career. But when you’re as cynical and old as I am… When you’re presented with bare-faced lies - show me a little bit more respect.
Nico: I totally agree. And another aspect is that there are people everywhere - and especially in startups - that will be playing the game because they like the job and it’s good for their career, but don’t actually feel that they can be honest about communicating what is important to them.
Our basic idea was, and still is today: Let the right people find the right organization and vice versa.
What I really like is that Platypus is a tool for giving a voice - anonymously - and a vote to everyone in an organization when it comes to defining the shared culture.
I really like that it is not: “We decide the culture”. Because leadership can’t decide what culture is. They can decide the mission statement - and it’s their responsibility to decide the mission statement. And it is their responsibility to actually behave in relation to that mission statement.
But your culture is more than this: Culture is what people value, what’s important to them, and how this shapes their everyday behaviors and motivations.
Q: These ideas on what a company’s actual culture is, and who should be the faces of that culture, how have they impacted the way you built your own organization?
Nico: There wasn’t a thought process behind how we wanted to build Platypus as an organization. It was more natural. This is who we are. It’s our mindset. And it’s always been our mindset. And to me, that’s the reason we’re a success - if you can call it a success after 18 months.
We’re still alive so I guess that it counts - is because it was never about us. It was always about what was best for the organization and what’s best for our people. Systematically.
And this is so aligned with our mission, with what we’re building, that I think everyone working here is like: “Ok, they’re not bullshitting. They’re genuine about what they do”.
Dan: I mean, we’re consistent… Because we’ve been open and honest the whole time it’s just consistently the same message.
Q: But how do you then do that?
Nico: Maybe I’m lying to myself, but I feel that everyone has a voice in Platypus.
Dan: We’ve never been like this: This is what we want. Go build that.
Nico: We’ve been super flexible on letting people have an impact. The product has evolved when Neva has come in when Louise has come in, the visuals have changed… We’re very agnostic. As long as we stay true to the vision and mission of Platypus.
Q: How do you make sure that people actually get a voice?
Nico: By Dan and I giving them the ability to voice themselves. In the early stages, by having a lot of open forums and brainstorming sessions. Also, we tried very quickly to create groups that we’re not part of. Because I know that I can very much eat a conversation. I’m loud and I cut people off in the middle of their sentences. I know! So by removing myself from this I give people a voice.
For me, that is the most important thing when it comes to our culture. The type of people we want to have in the organization is proactive people that come with ideas. And our role is to give them the room to share those ideas, and then we can discuss whether they’re good ideas or not.
Nico: If you make anything about you, if you build an organization that is centered around you, you’re not gonna grow. You’re not gonna get different ways of thinking and you’re not gonna get people to stay. Because why on earth should they stay if it’s only about you!?