How Greentown Labs Manages Communication and Culture for 75 Startups

Andy Cook
May 4, 2018

Developing a great organizational culture is hard enough on its own, but what if you have literally dozens of sub-cultures within the larger organization? Liz Barno, Community Director at Greentown Labs, the largest cleantech startup incubator in the United States, works to encourage this, but it’s not without complexity.

Greentown Labs’ mission is to support early-stage companies working on hardware technologies that make our use of energy more sustainable. They’re based in Somerville, which is at the heart of the culture at Greentown Labs. Originally, starting as just workspace for small companies to work, they expanded into programs, facilities, and a community that allowed small companies to grow and develop their products alongside like-minded peers.

Founded by four entrepreneurs who rented out a warehouse in order to save money during their bootstrapping phase, the community values were built from the idea that the incubator was originally self-run for two years. This “members-first” approach is something that remains with the organization to this day. Liz defines it as:

“By entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs… we’re always looking really closely when we’re thinking about new things whether this is something that members actually need.”

Liz is the lead on ensuring that this “member-first” culture is maintained. Her team helps companies out where they need help. She keeps a finger on the pulse of the successes and struggles that member companies experience, and works to figure out what initiatives Greentown should introduce next in order to best help their companies.

With 75 current members and over 150 companies that have passed through the Labs in the last six years, Greentown Labs arguably has a better idea of what startups in the energy and environment industry need than anyone else.

How do you manage culture at such a diverse organization?

First and foremost, the phrase that Liz used to describe the culture at Greentown was “passionate.”

“We are a 24/7 facility and there are people here 24/7… you know that when you come here, there is an energy of excitement, passion and interest.”

The casual atmosphere encourages a tighter community, one in which it’s common for everyone to celebrate the successes of others, not just themselves. That, coupled with a general like-mindedness and interest in energy and the environment, only adds to the collective consciousness ingrained in Greentown’s culture.

It’s not just by sheer coincidence that Greentown Labs has managed to forge such a like-minded, tight-knit community though. They use what Liz described as “three pillars” to determine whether or not a startup will be a good fit for the Greentown space.

  1. Industry: are they within energy and environment sector industry?
  2. Growth stage: does the startup have a business plan with substance, a product, etc?
  3. Community: is the startup looking to just put their heads down in a space, or do they intend to get involved in the Greentown community?

The culture was something that began organically; it was a natural outcome of having like-minded, co-located entrepreneurs. They were working on similar projects, had attended schools in the Boston area, and had complementary personalities that made the early-stage culture easy to maintain. Once Greentown grew to a size where you “didn’t know everybody’s name and their dog’s name,” as Liz puts it, it required a bit more hands-on management. That’s where Liz’s current role started. The group wanted to think more intentionally about how to encourage connections to develop.

When Greentown moved to a bigger office space, it became clear that more effort would have to be allocated towards things like welcome packs, after-hours events, orientations for new members, and even simply announcing the arrival of a new team into the community and space. A bigger group meant thinking differently about helping people adapt to the culture and community. She explored new ways to make new companies feel at home at Greentown, while at the same time, maintaining the key parts of the culture they’d worked hard to build.

Managing Different Sub-Cultures in Greentown Labs

Liz points out that she’s seen an interesting tipping point with many small businesses. This point comes when a company makes the shift from working within Greentown’s culture to forming their own individual culture. The cultural tipping point typically happens when a small business makes a series of hires and quickly increases the number of employees.

Although it doesn’t conflict with the Greentown Labs culture, Liz notes that it’s common for companies who reach 6-8 employees to step back from the incubator culture to focus on their own. That could be as simple as requesting a cluster of desks in a section of the room, or even just putting up more branding of their own within their area.

Liz encourages this mindset shift:

“It’s important for a business… to start developing their own team culture because eventually, every one of these companies is going to have to move out… and they’re going to be in their own office.

Navigating Change

In an attempt to prepare for future changes in the size and location of Greentown Labs, Liz harkens back to what she believed was a struggle in the past. After moving to the more spacious location in 2013, Liz attempted to introduce, and slightly force, new companies who joined Greentown Labs into the old culture. As she puts it, that simply didn’t work.

What ended up working was finding “threads” of the community that Greentown Labs wanted to retain and always keep at the forefront of their organization. These took priority, and she let additional parts of the culture develop over time and be shaped by the incoming new businesses. That includes things like events or monthly traditions.

For example, Liz refers to the small group of members who started running a regular cryptocurrency discussion meet-up on the top floor of the building. Naturally, the first thought might be to say that cryptocurrency has nothing to do with the environment or sustainable energy, but it’s a prime example of a subculture in action. Rather than disband the meet-ups, Greentown encouraged them and simply let those in charge of the group run the regular meetups themselves.

A notable change also relates to the way in which Greentown holds their “town hall” meetings. It’s reaching the point where it’s not feasible for the organization to address everyone at once, so they’re exploring new ways of communicating. Rather than rely on how they’ve done things it in the past, they’re seeking input and alignment with smaller groups and new communication channels.

Communicating Effectively with Stakeholders

Unsurprisingly, communication across the entire facility is key; one of the main ways that Greentown ensures communication happens smoothly is with Slack, especially since so many member companies use it with their specific teams. They also rely on CrowdComfort, a facilities ticketing system with a social media element,” and GRID, (Greentown Resources and Information Directory.) GRID is a private channel in which members of Greentown can access everything related to the facility through one central location. They also use traditional approaches like flyers and word of mouth. Because the community is so tight-knit, information travels organically much of the time.

Although it’s used from a more casual perspective, Slack plays an important role in the collaboration through Greentown. Since Greentown now has two, unconnected buildings, it’s important to make sure information travels between teams and across properties. As you’d expect in any organization, a significant percentage of channels are dedicated towards general interests and discussion threads, e.g., music or movies that you’re into at the moment. People set up channels to discuss projects in the community or just find out what other companies are working on.

Cultivating Openness

Liz has had a unique view into the operations of many different companies. She’s gleaned perspective in what leads a company to succeed or fail. Again and again, she’s seen companies more likely to thrive when they focus on putting the customer first.

“Only doing things that your customers really want and need… knowing your customers and listening to what they’re actually asking for instead of trying to push something on them that you think they want”

It can be hard, at times, to distinguish between what the customer wants and what you think they want, but it’s critical to make this distinction. That, coupled with the willingness to “get rid of something that isn’t working, even if you really like it,” is what has helped lead Greentown Labs (and the companies who operate there) to success. This openness makes it easier for member companies to articulate what they need and makes it easier for Liz’s team to focus on what will have the greatest impact.

Liz’s key takeaways in growing this terrific community and culture include:

  • Use the origins of your company’s culture to shape it going forward and find the common thread you want to hold on to
  • Don’t force new employees or companies to adhere to all the old parts of your culture but rather, let new employees and companies shape the culture going forward
  • The way you communicate will evolve over time. That change is perfectly normal, so embrace it, and allow it to adapt organically

Always put the customer or member first, and spend the time to figure what they actually want and need, rather than offering what you think they need