Ten years of impressive and constant growth, numerous awards and nominations, and a very unique organization model. That’s Voys, providing online telecommunications for businesses, without the hassle of long term contracts and without managers.
Voys has been in Deloitte’s Fast50 list of fastest growing tech companies in the Netherlands for four consecutive years since 2012, and also in the Fast500 list for Europe, Africa and the Middle East. This year, the company has been nominated for the European Business Awards and the Groningen Entrepreneur Award (Groninger Ondernemingsprijs).
In 2006, Mark Vletter (also founder/head nerd of Spindle and VoIPGRID), founded his own online telecommunications company in Groningen, a spinoff of the project he was involved in with TNO. This story, like many other success stories about tech companies, started in the comfort of Mark’s own home. “Until my wife came home early one day and saw the mess produced by a bunch of nerds”, Mark adds. “That’s when we had to start looking for an office.”
The Valve model: a structure as flat as the Netherlands
After redesigning and rebuilding the whole system in 2010, things really took off for Voys. The company started to grow exponentially, and has been growing ever since. “When we grew to a point where all the guides and rulebooks say you need a manager, I asked around for recommendations”, Mark explains. “But out of all the people and companies I asked, only one of them could recommend someone.
When Mark asked why this particular manager came highly recommended, the answer was simple, yet puzzling: because he gives you all the freedom to do things your way. “Basically, the choice came down to either hiring someone who won’t let you do things your way, or hiring a manager and you still do all the work. So why would you need one?”
“And when you think about it,” Mark continues, “the world has changed exponentially, but the concept and role of management hasn’t changed one bit. Out of all the aspects of your life, your job is the only aspect where you suddenly need someone else to make your decisions for you. People are fully capable of running a household, buy a house, raise kids on their own or make other life decisions, without a manager telling them what to do. When you start limiting people, you’ll also limit their behavior and growth, both personal and professional.”
After researching the best ways to divide traditional management tasks among employees themselves, the organizational structure was based on the game studio Valve, a flat organization, without managers. Employees don’t have jobs, they have roles and get all the freedom and responsibility to do things as they see fit. “People are more creative and solve things a lot faster. And the biggest benefit: you don’t need constant approval from managers to do things. You just solve it, and that keeps both customers and the people working here very happy.”
Voys is very open about its structure and philosophy, inwards and outwards. Mark travels the country to talk about how and why a company works without managers. Recently, Voys published an article about their radio ad campaign, detailing how much they spent, what worked and what didn’t. “Transparency is really important, and not just within your own company. You’re a part of society, and your customers pay you, so they should also be entitled to know what you’re up to and how you do things.”
Another fully documented feat of asskickery Mark fondly looks back on, is Voys’ trip abroad: “We moved the whole company to warm and sunny Spain for a whole week and nobody noticed. Turns out we were the biggest company to ever do that. It started out as a joke until one day we were like, screw it, let’s just do it! It wasn’t easy to set everything up and make sure about 40 people got there, but we did it.”
“I remember someone calling us and asking if it was also possible to use our telecommunications platform while working from different locations. It’s really cool to be able to tell that person: sure, we’re poolside in Spain right now, works like a charm!”
Modern communication for everyone
Mark’s job description is Chief Happy People. He wants the people he works with to be as happy as they can be, by giving them freedom, responsibility and flexibility. Anyone can start their own project, big or small, as long as it makes the company 1% better, or just makes the world a better place.
The latter, making the world a better place, is becoming increasingly important to Mark and Voys as a company. “We’ve actually been talking about this for quite some time, and I think it’s time we start communicating our message and ideas about it with the rest of the world.”
“The Internet democratizes information and communication. It has radically transformed society, but it has only transformed 40% of the world. The other 60% is standing on the sideline. Having access to information and modern communication will help solve a lot of problems related to poverty and inequality and this is something we’ll be focusing on in the future. Over the next 20 years, we want to help create an open source, independent and worldwide communication platform, so everyone in the world can have the same access we have here.”
Mark witnessed what lack of access to communication and information can cause firsthand, when he was in a small village in Haiti in 2003. “I became close friends with one of the locals. One tragic night, his brother died because the doctor wasn’t able to show up on time. It was a rural area, and the doctor was 16 kilometers away. My friend had to travel to the capital to arrange the funeral, walking through the mountains, a trip that took him more than 10 hours. With a satellite phone, everything could have been arranged in a matter of minutes. And with that same phone, his brother’s life could also have been saved.”