What I know about building a happy company: Alper Celen

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You cannot spread happiness without being happy yourself. This tenet is the driving force behind Alper Celen’s aim to build the happiest company in the Middle East. Celen is a Turkish-American entrepreneur and investor who is the cofounder of Joi, one of the GCC’s online gifting platforms. Based in Dubai’s Al Quoz area, it currently operates in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Just as his company focuses on spreading good vibes, he decided to make being happy one of the foundations of Joi’s culture.

A world away from his former life as a McKinsey consultant Celen encourages customers to wear wigs when they visit the office and joy is a daily topic of conversation.

Work for a cause and not just for the money. Previous generations prioritized salary and stability when choosing their jobs. Nowadays, people are searching for meaning in their professional lives. It’s important to select driven but caring people and instill in them a mission to make the world a happier place, from the first interview. For us we make the mission visible and a daily topic of conversation.

Be visibly happy with joyful traditions. To build a happy company, you need to make it a priority and make joy visible. It is, therefore, imperative to engage in happy traditions and frequent celebrations. It could be as simple as celebrating colleagues' birthdays or business milestones, or even playing music in the office or having an after-hours karaoke session like we do. Our workspace (lovingly called ‘The Garage’) is a converted warehouse near Al Serkal Avenue. We asked an artist friend named Dina Saadi to paint the walls with one of her signature bright-colored murals to add energy to the environment. All our visitors are asked to pose in front of our mural wearing one of our funny hats and wigs. This has been known to humor even the most serious businessperson.

Measure happiness and make it a frequent topic. To become happier, you need to be able to measure how happy you are. A very effective scaling tool would be asking people if they would want their friends and family to work at the company. In fact, more than a third of our company members were a friend or a family member recommended by a colleague. With the temperature rising, we recently started ‘ice cream huddles’ where we eat ice cream as we discuss how we can be happier at work. Beyond asking for increased salaries, it is amazing how ice cream breaks the ice and creativity flows. We have bi-annual reviews where we openly discuss team happiness.

Joi co-CEO Alper Celen. (Image via Alper Celen)

Be open, and stay personal. People are happy working with those they can relate to, not with ‘bosses’ who tell them what to do. To be happy at work, you need to be surrounded by people you share emotions with and preferably like, and not with robots who deliver ROI. As the ‘boss’ try to be personable - have an open door policy, let employees know they can easily approach you, share personal stories, do not use terms such as ‘boss’, ‘employer’ and ‘owner’. We’ve also found that getting the new team members to share a secret on their first day enhances a sense of belonging and strengthens bonds.

Grow and be respected. As a startup you need to hire ambitious people, and those ambitious people need growth and recognition of that growth. So, create a ‘growth plan’. It can be aimed at improving core skills and learning new ones. Regular reviews of team-members work and feedback amongst staff is a good indicator of how people are getting along - development of an individual may go unnoticed by them but will be seen by peers. We’ve found the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personal preference test to be useful also.

Keep trying. It is not possible to be happy or joyful everyday. High-growth startups are tough work and there is always a fire to put out and a deadline to meet. We understand people are sometimes stressed or have bad events in their personal lives. At these times give colleagues space, let them work from home. At such times there is no need to force fake smiles, you can exchange them for empathy and understanding.

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