When our friend and occasional Mix contributor, Kristoff DuBose of Cirkularis8 told us that he had someone we simply had to meet, we didn’t ask too many questions – we simply said ‘Yes’.
August Petersen has the brilliant title of Experience Designer at Intercom. More than 500,000,000 conversations happen every month with help from Intercom, the rapidly growing customer messaging platform. When we say rapidly, maybe meteoric would be a better description. Today, the company’s cutting-edge software is used by the likes of Spotify, Microsoft and Shopify.
August, we’re delighted to discover, has some forward-thinking ideas about the working landscape. He, in turn, is delighted to have found a like-minded partner, in Kristoff and his team at Cirkularis8, to transition Intercom out of WeWork and into a new Shoreditch space (we’ll certainly be keeping an eye on this one!).
Taking a seat outside a Clerkenwell bar on a temperate evening, we begin by asking August about the origins of Intercom itself – and quickly learn that those origins weren’t what we were expecting. ‘Intercom started in Ireland about seven years ago,’ August reveals. ‘They were software developers who had their own consultancy and would work out of this hipster coffee joint and they were interacting with the barista there – and in that interaction they realised that, ‘You know what? We know this person really well, we have these great conversations and this great connection – and through that connection we forgive mistakes, we’re generous in ways that we aren’t with the other customers…why does that very tangible relationship exist online?’ So Intercom is basically the product that emulates that relationship you have with that barista or a valet or whoever it is in your life that you’re in contact with regularly. The mission is to make the Internet personal – to give a more personal touch to your digital interaction. It’s evolved in a lot of ways, introducing a lot of new tools.’
Prior to joining Intercom, August tells us that he worked on projects for major established tech firms, including the expansion of the Dropbox HQ in San Francisco. ‘There is an obvious lavish attitude to how these firms treat space,’ he considers. ‘Intercom is different in that it is a little more rough and unrefined – intentionally. The core tenets of what an Intercom employee is all about is that people show up, they do hard work, they go home and they enjoy their life. The office is not a trap to exploit you to work for 12 hours a day. It’s not a trap to keep you single and focused purely on business – and I think comes from the Irish heritage. It’s very much family orientated. There’s a strong belief in work/life balance.
‘I first worked with Intercom for maybe a little over a year on a consultancy basis – we did a project in San Francisco and a project in Dublin, to expand those two facilities.
‘They are very different cultures – more different than we expected initially. We were maybe a few weeks into working with the Dublin folks before we realised that the relationship was more complicated than we first thought.
‘I would say that Intercom is positioned in a very different way in Dublin than it is in San Francisco. In Dublin, it is almost an engineering-focused business – where all the core product development occurs. It is very lucrative and enticing to software developers – it is the cream of the crop for that market and recruits and retains the best talent. In San Francisco, from where the general business functions operate , the staff there almost accept that they are part of this huge tech market. They almost resent tech in a way that I really love! They want to work for a software company, they want to help build the future – they don’t want excessive lunch and dinner and all the extravagance that’s piled onto the Silicon Valley ‘dream’ – the whole ‘techstravagance’.’
‘One of the greatest proofs of this concept is that, last July, our CEO decided that we all work a lot, we all do a great job – so let’s have one week where the entire company simply closes. So we took the week off, starting 1st July – mandatory closure. Everyone go and spend time with your family, go on vacation, get drunk…whatever you want to do. There will be no emailing you, no one to bug you. We’re closing completely. You can all go and get a bit of sanity! Why would someone close their entire operation for a week? When you think about it, closing the business for a week costs a lot of money – but it paid for itself, two-, three-, fourfold just to have everyone back energised, rested and relaxed. It was amazing.’
August goes on to tell us that Intercom also has a completely flexible approach to holiday entitlement, admitting that it does have certain stigmas about it, but for this firm and this culture, it clearly works. ‘It’s based on accountability and responsibility. People work hard,’ he says.
We move on to talk about the Intercom space in London – or more specifically, the unique philosophy behind it. In our domestic lives we approach space in a very different way – we’re going to live here for 40 years and then we’re going to pass it on to our kids. When it comes to commercial real estate, with such short lease times, we might live in a space for 12 months – and then we’re going to move on. When you approach space from that angle, it really changes your perspective. We should be viewing spaces as installations – more so than as some permanent setting. From a financial perspective, are you really going to spend X amount of money on a project and put it all into the architecture – which then needs to be demolished in a year and half? Or are you going to spend it on the furnishings and the artwork – which can be disassembled and moved. This totally changes what the priorities are. From an architectural perspective, this shifts the onus; and we seek more from our furnishings, from our artwork, we seek more from the technology and we seek more from the people who are in that space. These are things that won’t get demolished in a year and a half.
‘Also, just think about the value, particularly to a fast-growing organisation. A move or a re-organisation suddenly becomes an exciting experience rather than something tiring and dreadful. ‘We’re growing, we’re moving forwards, we’re upgrading’. This should be the mindset.
‘There are already enough issues when you are a fast-growing company – and moving shouldn’t be one of them. There are stages in a company’s growth. You start out as friends of friends and everyone knows everyone to suddenly reaching a point where you walk down the hall and you don’t know anyone, you have nothing in common. How do you scale a culture from maybe 100 people to 500 people in a way that you don’t feel like strangers? Also, your hire someone who in six months might be hiring someone else – how do you make those values translate all the way through the business?
‘What we’re doing at Intercom is to try to develop new ways of communicating a space. We need to make sense of all the nonsense! There needs to be a medium between the idea of ‘we know what you need’ and a free-for-all. It’s not about dictating – it should be about translating ideas into something real. I think this is really critical to Intercom’s future. We’re doing some interesting pilots in San Francisco right now where we’re asking people what they think could be better about the space and then giving them the tools to help design that – and then we’ll make it happen.
‘One of the biggest things they’re interested in is creating an energy and a buzz around sales. That’s fantastic for a sales organisation. So how do you create an office space that invites noise and energy? We want to give them that – we want a space where they can go nuts. It will be loud, it will be crazy and it will be disruptive. But this is sales – and this is important for that group. Don’t stifle it.
‘We’ve essentially taken that group – and turned how they work on its head. They now have a huge, disruptive lounge in the middle – then we have desks scattered around it in a messed up fashion. It’s annoying, it’s energetic, it’s dynamic – when you walk in you automatically feel caught up in it all. I think it’s fantastic that we could do that for this specific part of the organisation.’
Hopefully we’ll meet up with August and Kristoff again – and see these philosophies in action.