The Grownup Startup: Empowered Employees Transform Corporate Culture

When you challenge your employees to set and execute on a fresh vision, you can transform your business. As a result, even a 30-year-old technology provider in an industry known for inertia can innovate like a startup. This underscores the lessons I learned way back in 2011.

During my first summer as Comptel CEO in August 2011, we held a two-day training session at Haikko, a Finnish hotel and spa, with 30 long-time Comptel employees. The session came at a crucial time in our 30-year-old company’s history: after taking over as CEO the prior January and visiting nearly every global employee and customer, I observed that Comptel had an energy problem.

Our staff created a collection of ideas for the company’s future.

Our team was doing great work, creating reliable software and working with fantastic customers. But, we were missing a sense of enthusiasm about our work, which threatened to undermine our reputation for innovation.

Given that we were in the midst of a leadership transition, the Haikko session felt like the perfect venue to reexamine Comptel’s core values. So, we set aside one full day for employees to question everything about our business, strategy and culture in a spirited debate. With no help from company leadership or independent consultants, our staff created a collection of ideas for the company’s future.


Empower the Employees

Impressed by their passion, I asked representative staff members to present their ideas to our board of directors, which was similarly impressed. From there, our Haikko group self-organized – they asked me not to intervene, and I obliged – to extend the discussion across the company with 60 global workshops.

They asked me not to intervene, and I obliged.

The end result? The team distilled its ideas down to the four core values that define Comptel today: Passion, Unity, Respect and “Make it Happen”. These values imbued a sense of enthusiasm and energy throughout the organization, which has helped us transform how we work.

As a turning point in Comptel’s history, the Haikko session showed me what’s possible when employees are empowered with the resources and autonomy to initiate organizational change. Its influence is still felt five years later, as we’ve embarked on an even more ambitious initiative to inject a culture of startup agility and innovation into our very grown-up organization.


Values Set the Standard

Keeping our four values in mind, we’ve evolved our product development strategy to serve the needs of the rapidly evolving telco industry. Our most recent product innovation, FWD, is a good example.

We saw a market need for an easier, self-service mobile buying experience. We envisioned FWD as a way for smartphone users to pay for mobile app access on time-based intervals – from 10 minutes to one month. The market was hungry for this type of solution, so we needed to develop something fast.

Eager to experiment with a new agile way of working, and taking inspiration from Haikko, we created Comptel NXT to develop the project. It’s a semi-autonomous “startup” division that works within Comptel but functions separately from the rest of product development and other company functions.

By establishing a new internal unit – rather than splitting off an entire new business – we could test the “fail fast, succeed fast” work model without incurring much risk. And, the team would be able to prioritize speed of development above all. That’s what the “Make it Happen” value is all about. We wanted Comptel NXT to set a vision for a new product and then execute on it rapidly. FWD would be their first attempt.


The Ground Rules for Innovation

From the start, we decided to bring in new people to introduce new leaders, voices and ideas. We first brought in Harry Järn, who offered critical experience in startup environments, as the team leader.

We then hired staff strategically, recognizing that NXT would need to manage itself and deliver products independently. New NXT employees start on a trial basis before joining the team permanently.

We’ve developed a group with diverse professional and personal backgrounds, who offer fresh ideas and perspectives. The team has freedom to operate on its own. Complacency is the enemy – we want NXT to be an enabling force, moving quickly to create new value-add services for customers.


Accelerating the Speed of Development

Evaluating NXT’s progress, it’s easy to see how our internal startup has helped Comptel accelerate the pace of product development.

In launching FWD, NXT has created a modern mobile buying experience that allows operators to compete in markets where traditional mobile contracts are unpopular or impossible. We also think FWD’s flexible service terms will be a perfect way to connect the world’s next 2 billion internet users.

The bigger lesson for us was how quickly we were able to bring the app to market, thanks to the startup culture fostered within NXT. The team developed the solution in months, and from there, it took only five months from signing our first customer contract to field deployment. Finnish-based operator DNA was the first company in the world to deploy FWD, and it has enjoyed significant uptake of its 10-minute data package amongst a test group of customers.

It’s helped us transform Comptel into a future-minded innovator in our industry.

The NXT team is working hand-in-hand with DNA to deploy and test the app’s rollout, which means they’ll be able to take customer feedback directly back to the team for further development. And because NXT is nimble, they can feel free to experiment with other ideas to create better solutions.

This culture of innovation is not exclusive to NXT – it’s spread throughout our entire organization, influencing how we talk to customers, market our company and develop new products. It’s helped us transform Comptel into a future-minded innovator in our industry.

You can draw a straight line from the lessons we learned from Haikko to the culture we’ve ingrained within NXT. We put trust in the team to work in the best interests of our customers, and it’s paid off.


Juhani Hintikka