It’s Dec. 12, 2015, and inside Spain’s famous Camp Nou stadium, FC Barcelona star player Lionel “Leo” Messi scores one goal and assists another as the opposing team holds the home side to a draw. In the stands that day are six employees of GSoft, a Montreal-based software development firm. Barcelona would go on to win the league title that season, while the GSoft team would return home with a promising product named for Barcelona’s star player.
The employees were in Spain as part of a program called GHouse, in which the company rents an apartment in a foreign city and sends groups of six staffers there for two-week spells to come up with innovative ideas. The group that went to the game works for GSoft subsidiary Officevibe, which makes employee engagement tools. Their project: to develop a chatbot that would solicit feedback from workers and measure their happiness via Slack, a team communication platform. They named the bot Leo to commemorate its connection to the Spanish city and to Messi. “We wanted to pay homage to the trip,” says Jacob Shriar, Officevibe’s director of content.
The GHouse program is just one of the creative ways GSoft fosters engagement and innovation among its employees. Founded in 2006 in a Montreal apartment by a group of 20-something friends, the company now has a staff of 215 and two major products (Officevibe and Sharegate, a management tool for Microsoft SharePoint and Office 365), as well as a legacy IT services division.
This year, GSoft made Deloitte’s list of Canada’s Best Managed Companies for the first time. For its initial four years, GSoft was essentially a consulting firm. “Most employees were at customer sites,” explains Simon De Baene, the company’s CEO and co-founder. “At some point we realized [employees] were more attached to their clients than to GSoft—GSoft was just the paycheque.” That’s not what De Baene had in mind when, as a 20-year-old engineering student at Montreal’s École de technologie supérieure, he started the company as a way to build software with friends. So in 2010, GSoft recalled all its employees and began working on its debut product, Sharegate. Three years later, it launched Officevibe.
De Baene decided to expand into products in part to protect the company culture he was trying to build. “In order to scale [a service company], you have to hire people—there’s no other way, because you’re charging per hour,” he explains. But De Baene doesn’t aspire to run a mammoth organization. “My goal is not to be a thousand people.” Building products allowed GSoft to bring in more revenue while keeping the staff comparatively small.
The company boasts all the trappings of a modern tech firm: The 54,000-square-foot office in Montreal’s up-and-coming Point-Saint-Charles neighbourhood has an indoor halfpipe for skateboarders like De Baene, the obligatory foosball tables and a full-time barista. There’s an unlimited vacation policy and an “active” credit employees can apply against the cost of fitness fees or equipment.
But management isn’t simply selecting from a list of buzzworthy perks. Take the fitness allowance, for example. “They thought they were doing well by providing access to a climbing wall and a gym for all employees,” explains Anne-Marie Sicard, a partner at Deloitte who works with the company. But some staff complained—via Officevibe, the same employee-feedback software the company sells its clients—that their preferred way of staying in shape was playing hockey or another team sport. So GSoft converted the gym membership scheme into an open credit. “The leaders of the company want to make theirs a better place for employees and to have a constant conversation,” says Sicard. “It’s genuine.”
The perks also mirror the way GSoft works and its goals. Unlimited vacation, for example, makes sense when all employees have individual roles on specific projects. “If I need to wait for you to do your work and you won’t be done until next Wednesday, maybe today and tomorrow I can go skiing,” Sicard says. The GHouse program may be the best example of a flashy benefit that’s actually quite logical. It’s a way to broaden the participants’ horizons. “I personally had never been to Europe before,” says Shriar. “Being in a completely new environment does something to your head—you’re just thinking a little bit differently.” It paid off: De Baene says GSoft was able to recover the entire cost of the Barcelona GHouse in three months, thanks to the new Officevibe subscriptions the Leo bot generated.
Still, De Baene is not one for laurel resting, and he saw ways to improve the program. “It was really anarchy the first year,” he says. “Most of our time was spent on choosing the destination and the apartment, and very little on mentoring teams to make sure they [were] coming up with good ideas and the execution [was] going to be good.” So for the second edition, in Prague, GSoft added some rules. Teams must now pitch their GHouse projects in front of the company, and a selection committee OKs promising concepts. The company also set up a GHouse space in Longueuil, Que., for employees who can’t leave Montreal for two weeks because of young children. That way, more employees can participate, and Shriar thinks several of the resulting ideas may become GSoft products.
De Baene, a prodigious traveller, came up with the idea for GHouse while working from New Zealand. “When you have nothing, you’re focused on building things that will make you something,” he explains. “But once you have successful divisions in a company, [you] usually tend to reshape around those projects.” Sharegate, for example, is now taken care of by a hundred-person team and brings in some $40 million in annual revenue. But to find its next Sharegate, the company needs to carve out time and space to ideate and tinker. Hence, GHouse. “It’s a way for us to make sure GSoft will exist in 25 years,” says De Baene. “When you focus too much on the present, you forget about the future.”
The barista, the all-company Christmas party trip (most recently, a four-day Bahamas cruise), GHouse—these things don’t come cheap. “It’s really about building those bonds and developing those relationships that work,” says Shriar. That engagement results in an unusually high commitment to creating the kinds of products customers love, he adds, “so the ROI is actually there.” It helps that GSoft doesn’t have investors taking magnifying glasses to expense reports; the company has been bootstrapped since the beginning. “I’m happy we never got any [venture capital] money back in the day. When I was younger, I was so stupid—I would have spent it so badly,” says De Baene, who credits his father’s advice against taking on debt. “When it’s your own money, you spend it very differently and more wisely.” GSoft may have grown a little slower than it could have as a result, he allows, but he’s fine with that. “How we did it will make us exist in 25 years, and that’s something that is rare.”
That longevity is important to De Baene. More than a decade into the business, he’s a still young 31 years old but is increasingly aware of the responsibility that comes with having hundreds of people on his payroll. However, he also remains enthusiastic about the culture he and his colleagues have created and is keen to evangelize to other companies about the importance of workplace happiness. “GSoft is not just about perks. We do a lot of anonymous surveying, and when people [cite] their main reasons for working here, it’s about their colleagues and the mission of the company,” De Baene says. “Even if we got rid of a lot of the perks we have, I’m pretty sure most people would stay.”