What two founders learned merging their companies during COVID-19

As if the impact of COVID-19 wasn’t enough on its own, we merged our companies—Demandbase and Engagio, with the former acquiring the latter—during the past few months. At first, our investors were doubtful this could be done, and it looked like a long and rocky road ahead. But there were also benefits to merging during a time when the entire world was also in the throes of adjusting to major changes.

Undoubtedly, this timing added complexities to the already complicated process of merging companies and cultures, but it’s also brought some silver linings. Most of all, together we’ve learned some valuable lessons that have shaped the way we will approach our culture moving forward. Whether you’re merging two teams or just bringing on a few members, read on to learn how we managed to make it work for us.

Rethink onboarding

Onboarding looks very different when done virtually. And for our company, we kind of like it! Sure, we had remote teams before all this (most tech companies do), but now, it’s become clear we relied too heavily on building relationships during occasional in-person visits and assumed everyone would build the relationships they need organically, especially via social events and larger, company-wide meetings.

We quickly learned that those tactics don’t work to bring virtual teams together in a merger (and can be hard on our introvert team members). It’s hard to keep engagement high in a large virtual meeting, and even more difficult to make connections. In contrast, an unexpected benefit of strictly “online-only” was that we ended up scheduling hundreds of one-on-one meetings across the company. Meeting and mingling over a big group lunch as we would’ve in other times is nice, but meeting face-to-face virtually with individual team members helped us get to know each other on a much more personal level. An added bonus? It improved our workflow. In some instances, we’ve learned more about our employees during COVID-19 than we did being in the same building with them.

We also learned the importance of providing our new team members with clarity on their particular roles. We found out that spending a couple of weeks sorting through every little detail added stress to employees’ lives during an already anxious period. So if you find yourself in a similar situation, move as fast as you can to offer role-specific context and information. This is even more vital when completing a merger remotely, when employees can’t meet their new managers in person.

Consider the ways teams work and what has the potential to stay

Although our two companies and cultures were aligned at a high level before the merger, there were a lot of operational differences. We took the opportunity the merger provided to review what each business did well and what could be adopted (or nixed) company-wide. For example, Demandbase had been using email more than Slack for internal communication, but Engagio was all-in when using the collaboration tool. Demandbase ended up switching to Slack, as we determined it to be more efficient, especially as electronic communication became our main mode of collaboration.

Similarly, the Engagio team members were briefed on the operational practices and tools they would need to get familiar with in order to mesh with the ways of Demandbase. It was a two-way street, and each side had to come meet in the middle. We had to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to bring an idea to the table and be heard.

Even if you’re not combining teams, this time during the pandemic is a good chance to look at operations with an auditing eye. What processes can be streamlined? Is your team sitting on ideas they never shared? What would help your teams work smarter at home? What bottlenecks have been highlighted while doing things virtually?

Chances are these ideas and problems existed before COVID-19—and it’s taken a workplace shakeup to bring them to the surface.

Remember the little things (they can make the biggest impact)

Post-merger, we found that everyone was working long, packed days and not taking many of the vacations they had planned pre-COVID-19. We also noticed that by working from home, people seem to be starting earlier and working longer with fewer breaks in between. So, we ended up instituting a “Summer Fridays” initiative, where everyone gets to take every other Friday off. This gave our team some much-needed downtime and recognition for their hard work (and it gave folks a meeting-free day to catch up on projects). It also showed new team members that we care about their workload and the stress that has been put on all of our plates. This has been such a success that we’ve extended the experiment, perhaps indefinitely, to “Fall Fridays.”

It’s always been a high priority for us to nurture connections between team members and make new employees feel welcome. So, every week, our HR team sends out an email about two new employees. The email includes the individuals’ pictures, roles, where they’re from, favorite things to do, and so on, giving others a chance to put faces to names and get to know each other.

We also made sure we incorporated fun into our meetings. If we had been in person, there would’ve been chitchat and joking around at the start of a gathering. But virtually, this camaraderie gets lost. So, we make sure to mention what someone’s been baking or take a moment to appreciate someone’s dog. It keeps us human and connected.

Like many of you, we also had departmental virtual happy hours. We then took them a step further, inviting attendees to guess each other’s favorite albums and vacation locations. As a result, many of our employees started proactively setting up their own Zoom catch-ups with their peers, after hours, to reconnect and support one another.

The positive momentum of our cultural investments is snowballing and impacting everyone for the best.

Listen in to make real progress

Finally and most importantly, we made it clear that everyone was part of the same team. Recently, an Engagio team member was promoted to an executive position, which was an encouraging sign to the rest of the team.

Furthermore—since internal processes are changing so much—there’s a feeling that everything is new. So as we’re inventing a new, remote version of the company, long-time employees are learning just as much as new ones are. And all the groundwork we’ve been laying through the merger will shape how the entire Demandbase team will work together once we’re all back in the office.

It’s important for your teams to see growth and recognition in themselves and their teams, now more than ever. It’s a lot of work, but on an ongoing basis, we check in with everyone to gauge where they are and how they’re feeling. This helps us get regular feedback about what’s working and what isn’t.

To that end, we received feedback from employees talking about wanting to be able to be comfortable at home while they worked. So, we created a stipend that allowed team members to buy office furniture and organizational items to help create better workspaces while working from home. We never would’ve known that was an issue if we didn’t regularly collect feedback.

Merging is always an enormous undertaking and going virtual certainly added some complexity to the process. But by keeping our vision, values, and people first, we’ve navigated it—and are now enjoying the rewards of the hard work. This is a challenging time for everyone, but ingenuity, communication, and a good sense of humor can get us all through.


Jon Miller is currently the chief product officer of Demandbase, a San Francisco-based marketing company. Miller has a long history of establishing and leading some of the most notable marketing technology companies including being a co-founder and CMO of Marketo and the co-founder and CEO of Engagio.
Gabe Rogol is the current CEO of Demandbase. Since joining Demandbase in 2012, Rogol has been integral in setting the product and corporate strategy for the company.

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