The Culture Factor: interview Swapfiets

How Swapfiets captured its culture whilst growing at hyper speed

Swapfiets is one of those business success stories that inspires many. Founded just 7 (!) years ago, Swapfiets grew into a member base of 250.000+ cyclists across 9 european markets. And employs over 1500 employees in total, spread out across locations all around Europe. And somehow, during this crazy expansion, Swapfiets manages to maintain its shared culture of support, personal development and mission driven innovation. How do they do it? Daniëlle van Alewijn, Director of People and Culture at Swapfiets shares some of her key learnings.

What does Culture mean to Swapfiets?

To us, culture is way more than just creating a nice environment to work in. It is all about sharing the right principles of how we work and how we make daily decisions. When Swapfiets was founded in 2014 by three technical students in Delft, the key idea was to really focus on one clear customer need: hassle free access to bikes. And to create a concept that was all about service and simplicity. From the start, our founders have always cultivated these values and made them the core of the Swapfiets cultural DNA and what working at Swapfiets was all about. I'm sure we would never have been able to scale our company as fast as we have if we did not have these shared principles to guide us.

As we grew internationally, we noticed some values were starting to mean different things to different people. And so we knew we had to sharpen and update our Cultural Values. This was mainly to make it more internationally savvy: some words just mean other things in different cultures. We made it an effort for our Cultural Values to be more applicable to all areas of expertise within Swapfiets. Everybody shares the same four values across Swapfiets. The supporting example behaviors are made relevant to different experts in our warehouses, our stores, our customer service and our HQ.

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So you recently set out and sharpened Swapfiets’ Cultural Values. How did you do it?

Our goal was to find the right balance between credibility and aspiration. So to define Cultural Values that describe what our culture already is and what we aspired it to be. This balance was leading in how we approached it. So we started bottom up and hosted workshops with the key groups within our organization that needed to recognise themselves in the updated values: warehouse & logistics employees, customer service experts, store & field hero's and other important ‘sub-groups’ from across all the countries. 

We processed this input with a small ‘writing team’ that aligned it with Swapfiets’ purpose (‘we lead the movement to more liveable cities’) and ambition. This is where we did the actual ‘wordsmithing’, supported by an external expert. The result that came out of this writing effort was rapidly shared back to the initial workshop participants and sharpened further on their feedback. 

What kind of rituals do you cultivate within Swapfiets to make sure your culture evolves, scales and does not lose its strength? 

We really try to make our values the center of the ‘Swapfiets universe’ and our entire employee lifecycle. We aim to voice our values to the world in our employer branding. And we attempt to enable hiring teams and recruiters to make hiring decisions on our values as well. Once new talent comes in, our values are the backbone of our onboarding procedure. And of course our cultural values are a key part of how we run our evaluation cycles and how we gather peer feedback, making sure we actually live our values. 

We even have a virtual escape room based on our values as part of the onboarding programme!

Besides these key rituals in the employee lifecycle we make an effort to cultivate the values frequently. They are part of every Monday Morning Global start and we even have award shows around them. I know, it sounds a bit corny right? But our people really love it. It just works for us.

What 3 learnings can you share with other founders/COOs/Heads of People?

Learning 1: Don’t wait.

The earlier you define your cultural values the better. Although it might feel a bit much to define your culture while your team is still small, you will thank yourself later. In fact, you will thank yourself right away because it will help you immediately. And also, don't worry about the fact that your cultural values will still have to evolve at an early stage. They will, and you will sharpen them as you go.

Learning 2: Do it right.

If you decide to capture your Cultural Values, make sure you do it right. Be aspirational, involve leadership but also think about how to include bottom-up input in your process. Share what you have written with the ones that provided that input. This really helps with credibility and adoption.

And also: give the actual ‘wordsmithing’ the time and focus it deserves: language really matters. Finding the right words truly helps to make your values applicable in daily collaboration.

Learning 3: Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Shaping your culture is an ongoing process: it’s never finished. Make sure you repeat yourself. Enable others to repeat and practice your values as well! By putting your values at the heart of all your cultural rituals. From hiring to evaluation cycles and employee engagement: make sure you really walk your talk. By making your values tangible enough to be used in peer feedback and such, you allow everybody to be an active contributor to your culture.

Besides that: don’t miss any opportunity to repeat your values. Throw them on the walls, shape your leadership recipe and programme around it and hand out value awards to recognize the right mindset & behaviors. And don't shy away from a bit of cheesiness either, if it gets just a little corny here and there, you might just be doing it right.

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