Company Culture: How We Mimic Football Club Ajax

BY Reinier Van Scherpenzeel · 3 MIN READ

We believe a strong company culture is key to success. Building a software development company in Africa, you know you are going to face some challenges. There are social, economic, and political circumstances that do work at Tunga, well, challenging at times. Yet, at the heart of it, this goes for every business.

The vast majority of companies face with suboptimal circumstances, battling with a bigger foe for a piece of the pie that we call the market. At Tunga, we try to make things simple when faced with these obstacles by asking one simple question: what would we do if we were the best football club in the world?

5th of March 2019, a day that went down in football history. Ajax went to play against Real Madrid. They were Champions League holders for the past three seasons. And played on their home turf. This was David playing Goliath. Ajax has a revenue of 1/8th that of Real Madrid. And their squad mainly consisted of young, self-educated talent versus the mostly purchased international stars playing in Bernabeù. However, as football legend Johan Cruyff said: ‘I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.’ Ajax scored four great goals and threw the downright favorites out of the Champions League.

How does Ajax do that? And how can we, as a relatively small company with big ambitions, enrich our company culture with the Ajax approach?

Company culture: talent versus performance

Running your operation, it is tempting to hire people who are proven successful. And who has done in the past what you need today? So if you need a project manager, you’re likely to look for someone who has successfully managed projects in your area of expertise. Performance, however, does not tell the whole story.

Looking at the parallel, in youth league football games, kids born at a certain time of the year (December kids) always play bigger kids due to their age group. The bigger kids seem to perform better. But that may be their advantage in age, which can be significant at that period. Ajax discovered that the underperformance of the December kids might actually hide some talent.

Likewise, at Tunga, we are looking to create a coherent picture of everyone working for us. Their experience and past performance are an important indicators. But so is the ability of abstract thinking and any other indicators pointing towards talent. As a business, you should strive to get the best and brightest, not necessarily the ones that have performed the best in the past.

Skills versus mentality

The above point is valid for another dichotomy as well. It is tempting to look at skills as you can quantify them. In football terms, how fast are you, how well can you pass the ball, and are you a good tackler? Ajax, however, is all about training people to become the best. And if you want to be trained, other skills apply. How persistent are you, how well do you deal with feedback, and can you perform under different circumstances?

Our company culture also focuses on developing talent. Like Ajax, that is the nature of our game. And as such, the skills we seek are a mere benchmark. They are what you need to be able to do at the minimum. We want you to become the best software developer there is. And then the difference you make is in how well you can adapt to feedback and react to unexpected situations. For that, we have developed tailored tests and follow-up training. This helps to sift out the ones with the fighting mentality that we need to improve. And to help them develop those skills even further.

‘There is an advantage in every disadvantage.’

Another great quote by the same philosopher as mentioned above. Growing up in a poor neighborhood near the Ajax stadium, he played football in the streets. There were a lot of sidewalk bumps. That was dangerous and difficult to play with. Yet, instead of working around them, he used the bumps to his advantage. Using them to bounce the ball past the defenders. He looked at the challenge not to solve it but to turn it into an opportunity.

All companies must have these situations. Where your business model, choices from the past, or specific circumstances have turned into challenges. When faced with a challenge, we try to use this logic to see what the hidden advantage is. Not only can we solve the bumps in our roads, but how we can use them to perform even better. In other words, we are trying to create a solution-focused company culture. As opposed to problem-focused.

For example, we work with freelance software developers. You could say that the disadvantage is that we don’t ‘control’ them as you would when a company has regular staff. For us, the opportunity, however, is that we can scale projects at any time. And are not limited to a specific technology stack. Our disadvantage of having little actual staff is an advantage that we can scale fast and tackle almost any project that comes our way.

Track everything

The above lesson parallels the saying: ‘if you aren’t big, you better be smart.’ How Ajax does this is that they measure everything in their youth academy. Remember, don’t look at the performance per se but the underlying factors behind that performance. If you are a company with limited resources (and let’s be honest, we all have limited resources), every decision you take counts twice. For they imply investment costs. ‘Am I going to put this developer on the project, or that developer?’

Your decision has a huge impact on the success. And should thus be taken with the most data you can get your hands on. Like Ajax tracks the data of their players, we track all our projects, record learnings every week, improve our processes accordingly and gather data of every developer that is working for us. So that every next decision we’ll take, we are better equipped to take it. The result is a very transparent company culture.

Up or out is also the company culture.

Lastly, the most important lesson. With Ajax, the Champions League is the goal. They invest heavily in the careers of their players. But they realize that not everyone is going to get to the Champions League level. If that is so, Ajax moves on to the next talent. And gives that player a chance to perform. And there is no shame in that. These players that do not make the cut leave Ajax as better players. After all, they had their chance, received a lot of training, and also did a lot of testing. The Dutch league is filled with players who were educated by Ajax.

Needless to say, at Tunga, it’s in our company culture to always strive for the best. But we believe in providing an opportunity as well. So we spend a lot of time training our developers, testing them, and coaching them on the job. Unfortunately, we see that not all developers deliver the Champions League material that we are looking for. There is no problem with that. But we will give them their feedback and provide the opportunity to someone else with the talent to get to that level. In the end, every developer has improved and is thus the better for it.

Of course, we are not the best football club in the world. We are an IT staff augmentation company with one foot in Africa and one foot in Europe. But when we look at the picture of Johan Cruyff in our office in Kampala, we like to think we are a little bit like Ajax.