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Multinational work culture lessons from Typeform’s fumbles

By Jenny Sagstrom | Founder and Chief Executive Officer



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September 1, 2023 | 8 min read

Jenny Sagstrom of creative agency Sköna analyses survey platform Typeform’s recent struggles through the lens of its transatlantic workforce.

A row of small flags hanging in the sun

What can agencies learn about international growth and management from Typeform's misplays? / Nareeta Martin via Unsplash

Earlier this year it was reported that Typeform’s declining market share and stagnating revenue growth resulted from poor leadership and an unsuccessful attempt to bring American ‘hustle culture’ to the Barcelona-based forms-and-surveys company.

As the chief executive of a company that has offices in both Silicon Valley and Sweden, I can personally attest to the very different approaches to work-life balance between the US and Europe.

Some of those cultural differences are simply out of your control as a leader, like labor laws. But Typeform’s issues had a lot more to do with the company’s culture. It really boiled down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to build a meaningful work culture – which is, by extension, a failure to build a meaningful brand.

These are the work culture lessons we can learn from Typeform’s mistakes.

1. Kombucha isn’t culture

One of the greatest falsehoods Silicon Valley has ever spread is the idea that work perks equal work culture. Typeform’s early days in Barcelona boasted things like a beer fridge and a hammock room. These are fun, but they don’t make up for a lack of vision and a larger mission behind why a brand exists.

Employees today need deeper reasons to go to work than ping-pong tables and paychecks. In fact, for 70% of gen Z employees, their jobs having a purpose matters more than pay.

Typeform’s technology wasn’t the kind of society-shaking platform that employees can rally behind as self-proclaimed revolutionaries. In reality, very few companies are actually changing the world for the better. However, that doesn’t mean they don't have a meaningful mission. Even smaller, more personal missions help employees contextualize their daily tasks as relating to something bigger, giving them a reason to come to work every day.

Had Typeform established a clearer vision, it could have kept employees more engaged, and established a sustainable direction for future innovation while cheaper competitors entered the market. Growth for the sake of growth isn’t a North Star, but brand vision is.

2. Leaders who don’t listen aren’t leading

As someone who grew up in Sweden, if there’s something about the work culture there that I’ve always tried to infuse in my business it's a sense that everyone has a seat at the table, and every voice matters. I’ve found that European employees aren’t as afraid to speak up when they disagree with something at work.

But when Typeform announced it had replaced its chief technology officer in an all-hands meeting in 2019, employees took to an anonymous platform to complain. If your people don’t feel safe to disagree, you’ve sent the message that you’re the one with all the answers. It’s a lose-lose for everyone. No single human can sustain an entire business, and creativity is severely limited when people are afraid to fail – a natural consequence when psychological safety is missing.

True leaders listen, respect the opinions of their employees, and understand that their ego is less important than the overall success of the business. They aren’t afraid to invite diverse opinions, and recognize that this can in fact help their company thrive. Had the Typeform leadership done a better job of listening, they may have been able to prevent the massive turnover that ensued later that year.

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3. Throwing money at B2B marketing doesn’t work

Typeform, like so many startups, was feeling the pressure to grow, but its chief executive was looking at marketing through a B2C lens. This doesn’t work – B2B strategy is different. B2B buyers are risking their jobs making expensive investments, so they’re far more analytical. Marketing materials therefore have to work harder to speak to tangible, measurable benefits, rather than having some kind of splashy partnership.

Still, B2B marketing can learn some things from B2C, like a greater emphasis on brand marketing. Most B2B businesses put 90% of their resources toward performance marketing, despite 95% of buyers not being in market at any given moment. This means the majority of B2B budgets are wasted.

In pursuit of growth, Typeform would have been better served investing in an integration of both performance and brand marketing strategies: what I call BrandGen. This would ensure customers at the lower end of the funnel are targeted (important for immediate results), while also pulling in new customers to the top of the funnel. This creates a sustainable cadence of long-term growth, with the added benefit of protecting employees from burnout.

Though Silicon Valley isn’t likely to widely adopt European labor laws anytime soon, leaders can create work cultures where employees feel empowered, and teams are engaged in a greater mission than growing customer bases.

May Typeform’s fumbles be a lesson to us all.

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Sköna is a B2B creative agency specializing in marketing, branding, and design for innovative tech companies. Founded in Silicon Valley in 2003 and with offices in San Francisco and Stockholm, we build brave brands with a blend of Silicon Valley high-tech expertise and Scandinavian sensibility.

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