(originially published on Nordic Startup Bits on July 29th 2015)
I'm standing in the foyer of Innovation House in Gloucester, MA. In the kitchen to my left people are cleaning up after lunch and starting preparations for an afternoon garden party hosted by Vivaldi later that day. Located in a beautiful 18th century mansion north of Boston, Innovation House is locally known as the White House of Magnolia. Hosting visitors from start-ups affiliated with Innovation House in Iceland and Startup Lab in Norway, Innovation House in Gloucester has the aim of allowing startups to easily access one of the hottest tech communities and world leading academic institutions in the US. Innovation House was founded by Jon Von Tetzchner who also founded Vivaldi (and Opera Software in a galaxy far far away). Vivaldi is an advanced web browser created with the power user in mind. With offices in Iceland and Norway and a few team members working remotely from various locations in Europe, every June the Vivaldi team meets up at Innovation House in Gloucester and every October in Iceland to work together in the same location for a whole month.
Maria Thorgeirsdottir, Office and House Manager of the Icelandic office, has joined the Vivaldi team in Gloucester. As she leads me through the kitchen into an open work space that used to serve as a dining hall in its days as a hotel, she tells me that her partner has joined her on the trip, as have partners and children of many of the other team members. With full access to everything that Innovation House has to offer, wether it’s office space and supplies or a plethora of activities offered at the site such as bicycles, paddle boards, or the local beach, the families are there as they would be if the team was working from their office back in Iceland, Norway, or their respective remote office in various cities around Europe. “What a nice perk” I think to myself and my curiosity is aroused even further when Thorgeirsdottir tells me that not only do the families join the team in Gloucester, they’re expected to do so. The founder and his team place a huge value of family and community and the values reflect that family always comes first. Having the support of ones family while going through the turmoil of starting up a company is without a doubt one of the keys to success as without their support this already uphill battle is bound to be a lot more difficult. So not only is this social mission, it is also a practical one.
Thorgeirsdottir leads me to a beautiful backyard where we meet Krzysztof Ośmiałowski who bears the awesome title of Innovation House Rockstar. As we look around the colourfully furnished area, Ośmiałowski sits down at a drum kit that has been set up on the veranda and starts playing. He's a member of the Vivaldi house band that will entertain the party guests later that afternoon. Just an ordinary day at the very out of the ordinary Vivaldi office.
A Browser for Our Friends
Last January, Vivaldi announced the launch of their first technical preview (pre-beta) and has to date launched three previews with around 1.3 million downloads. According to their website, Vivaldi enters the browser industry with three guiding principles: continuous innovation, a strong focus on community, and a respect for the unique needs of each person who uses the browser. Considering the conversations I've had with some of their team members, that is also the guiding principle in their HR strategy - innovation, community, and respect. The drive behind the browser, according to their website, is that the Opera browser they once loved (and helped build) no longer serves its community and so they came together to make a new one.
“A browser for ourselves and for our friends. A browser that is fast, but also a browser that is rich in functionality, highly flexible and puts the user first. A browser that is made for you.” Jon Von Tetzchner writes on the Vivaldi website.
Caring Doesn’t Stop at the Office
At the end of my office tour with Thorgeirsdottir we run into Anne Stavnes, Head of Office, HR and Culture at Vivaldi. A Norwegian-American who lived in Norway for years but has moved back to her home country and now resides in Gloucester, only minutes away from Innovation House. A former team member of Opera Software, where she first worked with Tetzchner, Stavnes tells me that the people who have joined Vivaldi from Opera expect the same kind of culture at Vivaldi - one of openness and inclusion.
“We underestimate how little it takes to make people happy. Caring doesn’t stop at the office. We care about how our team members are doing and we take the time to connect with them,” Stavnes explains.
Stavnes goes on to tell me stories of some of their lessons learned in the earlier days of Opera back in the early 2000’s. One such lesson is the importance of helping new employees integrate not only into the culture at work, but also for employees moving from abroad to know how to live outside of the office. As an example she tells me a story of a British employee who moved to Norway to join Opera but found himself frustrated and lonely when trying to meet new people in this new city. He tried going out for a drink after work but couldn’t find a way to talk to the closed Norwegians in the bar as he could so easily do with his fellow countrymen back in England. So he returned back to England shortly after arriving in Oslo. To deal with some of the issues that arose for the expats, the HR team came up with a programme focusing on engaging people to help each other. They did this by assigning every new team member with an office mentor and expats got their own expat mentor who helped them integrate better into the community outside of work.
Putting together and managing teams with members from many different origins can seem like a daunting task to many, especially with regards to different cultural views, religions, and traditions, but Stavnes tells me that although they share and recognise the different cultures of their team members, they believe that when people come together to work for a company, where they come from isn’t what identifies them at work. Ultimately it is their passion that identifies them and brings them together.
Everyone On the Team Has a Talent We Need
“If people are unhappy outside of the office they will be unhappy at the office. Nobody said on their deathbed that they should have spent more time at work. We need to allow people to live life,” Stavnes comments when we discuss the sense of community at Vivaldi.
She adds that they don’t outsource for anything. Whether it’s catering, entertainment, or cleaning, they handle it all in-house. They hire their own janitor who is well integrated into the team and gets stock options like every other team member.
“The US could learn a lot from the European culture. In the US, people rarely leave the office at the end of the work day before their boss does. At Vivaldi we don’t count the hours that people work but our biggest job is to get people to go home. For us it’s the end result that matters the most. While compassion and attention go a long way we also need to give our team members a vote of confidence. Everyone on the team has a talent that we need and we show them the respect they deserve,” Stavnes tells me when I ask her about how they help their team members thrive at work.
During my conversation with Stavnes I often forget that I’m speaking to the Head of HR at an international high growth tech company. Their emphasis on family and community is astonishing and a couple of times during our short conversation I find myself wondering if I should check for job openings even though I'm not really looking for a job. And so I leave Innovation House and the Vivaldi team busy with browser development and party preparation feeling hopeful and inspired but also a tiny bit bummed that I'll miss their garden party. Oh well, there’s always next year.