How Ottawa’s FarmLead cultivates award-winning culture

Farmlead
FarmLead co-founders Alain Goubau (left) and Brennan Turner. File photo

If an Ottawa startup is in the midst of scaling up, there’s one concern you’ll often hear on the lips of leadership: culture.

Maintaining a company’s shared vision while keeping the days fresh and fun around the office becomes increasingly difficult as the workforce and the amount of work itself grows.

As important as culture may be, it’s also a tricky thing to describe. It’s everything from the way a new hire is brought into the fold to the mood in the office when challenges are fiercest.

It’s useful, then, to look at how a firm actively cultivates culture – and in this regard, Ottawa-based FarmLead may be the cream of the crop.

The local agri-tech startup was recently named to the Business Intelligence Group’s annual list of the best places to work, one of the few Canadian firms ranking on the international list.

After raising its series-A round roughly a year ago, FarmLead is right in the middle of scaling up its product, an online grain marketplace. In the past year the number of farmers using the Ottawa startup’s platform has tripled to nearly 10,000.

FarmLead’s office on Bank Street is quickly filling, with roughly 30 employees today and an expected headcount of around 50 by year’s end.

CEO Brennan Turner, who, like his co-founder Alain Goubau, grew up on a Canadian farm, says the firm’s strong culture comes from bringing quality people together and aligning them on the FarmLead mission.

“Everyone pulls on the rope together,” he says.

There are no motivational posters on the wall at FarmLead’s offices. On display instead are dozens of jars of seed – canola, mustard, malt barley, yellow peas, all sent from the firm’s own customers’ farms – which nonetheless serve a similar purpose.

At FarmLead’s recent holiday party, Turner said he’d give $50 Starbucks gift cards to any employee who could name 75 per cent of the seeds on that wall – a clever incentive program to get employees invested in the crops behind their code.

“I actually had to pay a little more than I was expecting, to be honest,” he says with a laugh.

FarmLead employees come from three distinct camps, Turner says: People who grew up on a farm in small-town North America; others who might have a bit of farming in their family; and more typical tech talent, those who likely couldn’t tell the difference between corn stalks and wheat leaves.

Bringing these disparate backgrounds together is a core challenge for the startup. To that end, Turner says the company has started a FarmLead book club, where employees can come together to learn about relevant topics in the industry such as genetically modified organisms. Also in the office are toy trucks and tractors – visual aids to explain how crops are seeded.

Of course, nothing beats an old-fashioned field trip. Turner says the firm recently took employees to Goubau’s farm in eastern Ontario to see real examples of crop seeding.

“Everyone’s getting the chance to get a little farmer blood in their veins.”

FarmLead takes trips like this every quarter or so as an excuse to get out from behind the computer and see where its platform is in action. Before these excursions, many employees had never set foot on a farm, let alone had the chance to see the rigours of tending the soil up close.

Tech firms can often be accused, fairly or unfairly, of being disconnected from the problems they’re actually trying to solve. FarmLead’s founders believe the best way to deliver a platform that works for farmers is to build a company that shares its customers’ culture.

“Everyone’s getting the chance to get a little farmer blood in their veins,” Turner says.