A corporate lawyer limiting his employees’ billable hours and a consultant operating a pay-as-you-want pricing strategy. Sounds crazy? Or attractive? Cécile van Oppen and Sjoerd van der Velden, a sustainability consultant and a lawyer, grew tired of the existing corporate dogmas within their sectors and decided to change the rules of the game. Not just by starting their own business but by operating it in radically different way. Here’s part 1: Sjoerd’s story.
Control is an illusion
At first sight Sjoerd, despite wearing jeans, looks no different from any other corporate lawyer. “I am sure I meet a lot of the traditional clichés people have about lawyers” he admits smilingly. His views on his profession on the other hand are anything but traditional; “Being distrustful of others is a costly business. Too costly really. And control is an illusion anyway. I want to change something. I don’t want to become a cynic.”
In 2006, when Sjoerd and his business partner Harm Bruggink started BvdV, a law and tax advisory office, they were fed up with the existing working environment in corporate law firms. One in which money often gets squandered and the human dimension seemed lost. “ I think you should be worried when your employees are working late on a structural basis” Also they felt the strict hierarchical structure was not bringing out the best in people. “It simply doesn’t make sense hiring smart well educated people and then forcing them into a mould in which there is no room for initiative.”
The wisdom of the crowd
They decided to operate their new office in a radically different way. One in which everybody, including supporting staff, gets a say in all decisions made. At BvdV all 28 employees together decide on organisational office issues such as a new IT-system or whether or not to install solar panels. And also on more strategic issues, such as shareholdership, consensus is needed. When you want to become partner at BvdV you need everybody’s blessing. “I believe in the wisdom of the crowd” Sjoerd explains. “Of course this way of working calls for total transparency though, even on a financial level. So everybody knows each other’s salary here. ”
Democracy, transparency, trust and freedom
BvdV’s way of working is based on democracy, transparency, trust and freedom. “Self-interest becomes office interest if you are prepared to trust people and give them the freedom to decide for themselves what works best.”
Lawyers at BvdV work as independent contractors. They are free to decide on their own hourly rate and are responsible for their own clients and debtors. “The way we work encourages entrepreneurship and creativity. This really benefits our clients as we are more flexible. It also helps in understanding them better; we know what it feels like.”
No more than 4 days
Although there are hardly any rules at BvdV, one stands out: all employees are encouraged to work no more than 4 days a week. “I believe when people get to spend that fifth day on something else than work – such as family, study, sports or whatever – they become better and more creative employees.” And to prevent people from regularly ‘pulling an all-nighter’ anyway, BvdV has even put a cap on the amount of billable hours.
Earn a full time salary by working part time
In contrast to most companies, BvdV has a focus on minimising cost instead of maximising revenue. “Within the system we have created you can earn a full time salary by working part time. All employees have to work a certain amount of billable hours to be able to break even as a company. Of all extra billable hours that employees make, he or she gets half. The other half goes to the shareholders. This implies that the lower our break-even point is, the more everybody can earn. This makes everybody aware of how we can cut costs.” The result of that for example is no company cars, no company phones and no reception desk.
We are still cool!
Up until a few years, Sjoerd, when asked about their way of working, says he always emphasized their smart cost minimising system. “I felt I had to defend our way of working to the outside world: Yes, we work part time and operate a democratic model but we are still cool!”. That has changed. Especially younger people, he says, are drawn to BvdV’s corporate democracy. And also the media, such as the Financieel Dagblad, has shown a lot of interest. “I feel more confident now talking about our fundamentals such as trust.”
Keeping it manageable
When asked if there are any disadvantages to their democratic model, Sjoerd admits that, as their company grows, it can be a challenge to keep processes manageable. “Sometimes you wonder whether it is necessary to discuss, for example, new lamp shades with all 28 employees together. Not everybody is interested in office equipment issues. That’s why we are currently considering self-managing teams for specific tasks.”
Interested to learn more on corporate democracy? Watch Ricardo Semler’s TED talk ‘How to run a company with (almost) no rules.’