Becoming Brink. Landing on Brink's model for global business

From the very early days of Brink, we wanted to build a global business. Lea and I knew from the start that we wanted to work on urgent and important issues, making meaningful dents in the world.

We wanted to challenge a view of technology and innovation so heavily skewed to the science parks in Silicon Valley and the tech unicorns in China. We wanted to promote what we’d each witnessed in other parts of the world: a resourcefulness, resilience and ability to get things done even in the face of adversity. Communities hacking drones to fertilise the land post-earthquake in Nepal or Syrian women using entrepreneurship as a way to improve inclusion.

On a personal level, as a European of Jewish descent (that’s me) and a South African of Arabic descent (that’s Lea), it felt very natural to honour those mixed identities in the business. It was an almost unspoken ‘given’ between us that working multiculturally and globally felt right.

Diversity is in our DNA

Our first two hires really set the tone for growing a multicultural team: Asad grew up in Pakistan. James moved to the UK from Zambia to work at Brink. (And so it has continued: we're now a team of 30 that speaks 12 languages and is from 15 different nationalities.

Four years in and we have seen just how diversity makes a difference. It’s more than just the makeup of the team. It also means being able to articulate a more global perspective on innovation, which feels representative of the work we do and the innovators we work with. And it means being where the work is, and being of the places we work, not just parachuting into them.

Having a global outlook, being globally distributed

Brink started in the UK: an office in London, a UK-based team. Before the pandemic, we worked across 24 countries and connected with colleagues remotely, virtually, with occasional travel to gather with innovators and teams. This included developing great relationships with global ventures, from pay-as-you-go bikes in Zambia to electric motorbikes in Kigali. This work, and the connections formed, sparked further questions in the team about what might be possible if we rooted ourselves closer to these amazing ventures.

Fast forward to the pandemic: Brink became a fully remote team overnight, and we decided to explore how we might turn that disruption into an opportunity.

We asked ourselves things like: How might we use this time to play out some of our ambitions to be more global? What new work paradigms are emerging that might serve us well? If we were to start Brink today, what business would we build? And most importantly, how can we better represent and collaborate with the communities and innovators we aim to serve, and root our work more deeply in the locations we have the privilege to work in?

We quickly began to see ways to become more global as an organisation. The pandemic removed the friction of working as a globally distributed team. It also removed the set mental models of what that work looked like.

We encouraged Brinksters to live their best possible lockdowns and allowed them to locate wherever they wished within a few timezones. Brinksters moved out of London: to Scotland, Wales, Spain, France...one went to South Africa. Their actions showed us Brink Global was not just an ambition of ours, but also a benefit to the team.

A modern global business needs a modern model

Beyond the standard model of an HQ with satellite offices, there are many different models for running a global business. We suspected we could test and learn our way towards a model that would work well for us. Two of the team, James and Asad, felt compelled to explore the opportunity - to the point of moving to a different country.

We asked ourselves 4 questions:  

What sort of models can best help us be locally rooted?

Beyond the standard model of an HQ with satellites,  or a hub and spoke, what other models were available? Which would allow us to stay light, nimble and quickly attract local talent?  We found the 4 stages of a network a really useful provocation for the team to discuss what sort of future we were aiming for: multiple “hubs”? Not quite: we learned that we wanted some centres of gravity in different locations, but fluid and smooth interactions between Brinksters regardless of their locations. (We think this is somewhere between stage 3 and 4 shown in this diagram.)

Credit: four stages of network development, June Holley. Image: Jeff Mohr, Kumu

What’s the way to balance entrepreneurialism and culture?

We also care about Brink having a DNA. Principles, ways of working, and an underlying approach that feel the same to our partners, wherever they and we are in the world.  Equally,  we care about encouraging autonomy, because we know it's the way to tap into global wisdom and work in different contexts. These two things - DNA  and autonomy  - can work against each other. Asad Rahman, our Employee #1 once wisely pointed out that entrepreneurialism is actually the happy medium between those two things in tension. It’s where you are allowed to be free, within parameters. We discussed what level of entrepreneurialism we wanted distributed teams to have over decisions like strategy, hiring, new business, especially if they were set up in a new country or region.

Where's the energy?

From talent to new business opportunities, from government strategy to creating an environment conducive to innovation, what would be the result of investing time and resources in any particular country or location - and what would that potentially mean for our future prospects?

What outcomes are we targeting? How long are we prepared to wait to see results?

If we targeted short term sustainability, it would inform our models and whether to go global at all. If we take a more patient approach, we can take more risk.


Where Brinksters are working

We still have much to learn

We now have Brinksters based in Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa, France, The Netherlands, Portugal and the UK. We’re working in 31 countries. We also now have our first non-UK office in Rwanda, which is focussed on our work across East Africa.

We feel immensely proud we can truly call ourselves a global organisation and we’re still getting goosebumps from hosting our annual all-company retreat in Rwanda.

But we are still learning as we go, and in particular learning that there are operational and cultural things to consider, and reconsider with each stage of our growth and each country pin we add to our global map of Brinksters.

Things we’re still asking ourselves include:

  • How do we keep the team connected without burning out?
  • What’s the optimal rhythm of getting together in person? And how do we best use that time together?
  • How do we best support new joiners in new countries, what are the cultural things and operational things we need to bear in mind?
  • Do we stick with one salary scale no matter where people are based?
  • What experiments shall we run next?

We’ll keep sharing about those as we learn and grow. Next up fellow Brinksters James and Asad will be writing about our decision to locate in East Africa - what powered that decision and what we’ve learned one year on.