How The Twin Sisters Behind Stylerunner Put A Quirky Company Culture At The Heart Of Their Strategy

Sali (L) and Julie (R) Stevanja, founders of Stylerunner.

At Stylerunner, there’s a weekly peer-voted “flamingo of honour” trophy that sits on the winner’s desk. There’s a “tiger of the month”, and a “lion of the year” award which comes with a $2,500 travel voucher.

Having happy employees is a top priority for the Sydney-based online activewear startup has just teamed up with lululemon – the first collaboration ever for the international yoga clothing brand.

They say they are happier than they have ever been in any work place, and we hear that feedback every single week,” said co-founder Julie Stevanja.

They also hold company-wide “gratitude sessions” twice a week in which staff are encouraged to share things they’re grateful for with the rest of the team.

“We believe in positive thinking, the law of attraction. We hold the meetings twice a week and we share gratitudes – it’s all about creating a positive energy and a good vibes in the business.

“Everyone works so incredibly hard here… it’s a reward for the contribution that they bring every single day,” Julie said, who along with her twin sister Sali launched Stylerunner just over two years ago, putting the creation of a killer company strategy at the heart of their strategy.

Since its launch in October 2012, Stylerunner has had 600% growth year-on-year, with an expected turnover reportedly in excess of $2 million this year, a success which Julie puts down to “organic viral growth and very little marketing”.

“Just as we want our customers to have the best of activewear that we can possibly find, we want our staff to have an environment that is better than anywhere else they have worked.”

Some of the Stylerunner staff at an event. The founders focus on creating an awesome company culture.

Every week each individual in the company votes for an employee who has been outstanding in some way and then a winner is rewarded with a prize – weekly, monthly and yearly.

“At the end of the week there is the flamingo of honour, which is a bright flamingo and sits at about 40 centimetres high and sits on your desk for the week,” said Julie, “It’s really fun, and I think important.

“At the end of the month, there is a tiger of the month.

We have this internal culture where we call ourselves wild cats. It came about based on the theme we had working around us – we were focused, fierce and the energy was strong and ambitions.

“So we started calling our team wild cats. And this person that embodies these traits and goes above and beyond gets a $100 voucher.

“And then at the end of the year there is the lion of the year and that will be decide amongst the 12 tigers, and you basically become eligible once you’ve won a tiger. And that person wins a $2,500 travel voucher.

“So the person who wins the $2500 travel voucher are very welcome to take a few months of and hit the Caribbean if they like,” said Julie.

The team culture is what sets the startup apart from its competition, says Julie. “We wouldn’t just rest on a level that is standard and normal.”

Unlimited annual leave is also an initiative the Stevanja sisters have implemented in their business, wanting to create an environment where employees can work hard, enjoy what they do and take extended annual leave when they feel like they need it.

The sisters even boast that they beat Richard Branson to implementing unlimited leave.

“We think that they if need the down time we want them to be able to get that rest and come back to the business with as much energy as they are displaying when they are working hard.

The make sure they reward their employees duly.

Julie acknowledged that this forward-thinking in the workplace is yet to be fully embraced by employers but said it is the way of the future.

“We seem to be one of the few business that I know of implementing these new movements, and the impact this has on staff morale and performance is amazing,” she said.

“I think it’s something that is not communicated enough anywhere. It’s a new direction that businesses are going in going forward, and I think this is going to improve more and more.

And while Julie and her sister have encouraged their staff to take as much leave as they wish, to date none of the Stylerunner employees have actually taken them up on the incentive.

This is an all too common problem in the startup community.

While innovation, ingenuity and perseverance are words we associate with successful startups, it can often lead to an environment where employees find it hard to step away from the job.

Out of the desire to be in control, meet targets and appear conscientious, staff can stockpile annual leave, work longer hours than they are required to, don’t delegate work and check emails on the weekend – all not conducive to a healthy work life.

But Julie says when it comes to staff not taking this opportunity to have extended leave comes down to the responsibility of management.

“If you want to be genuine about it as a leader you also have to encourage you staff to take it,” she said.

We have an obligation to look after our staff and part of that is making sure they are getting their down time and not feeling guilty about taking that when they need it.

“You have to make sure you are communicating to staff that it would benefit everyone,” she said.

“One is yet to take the additional leave but we have some lined up to take it next year and we’re excited for them to be able to plan a holiday to Europe, or what it is they want to do.”

The sisters make sure everyones efforts are recognised.

Trial and error

But she says it took some trial and error to find the right balance in the company’s culture – including the right employees.

“We’ve really had a very hassle-free run for the most part of it… we’ve had a lot go our way but I think one of the early difficulties was hiring staff with the right culture fit that contributed to an office environment which is harmonised, positive and in line with our inspirational missions,” said Julie.

“Some of the difficulties are that you hire people who aren’t comfortable with the rapid pace of change within a startup. And when you are a startup you need your small team to work really productively and efficiently, and to do that you need to be harmonious and happy.”

Very quickly the ladies realised they needed to hire staff that were the right company fit rather than just talented at their job.

“We had to identify what the attributes were we needed in staff apart from talent. If they are not the right culture fit it can have a really detrimental impact on your business and your team, and we’ve learned that lesson now and we’re very specific with the people we’re looking to attract and hire.”

And after “kicking a lot of goals” this year, Julie said the business – which has been completely self-funded so far – is now getting interest from investors.

“We’ve been approached by three potential partners… and we’re definitely entertaining those conversations,” she said.

“We’re looking for a strategic partner, a partner that can bring a lot of expertise in areas to help us scale and maybe have some experience in similar online models.”

Watch this space.

The next steps

And next year the Stevanja sister have more up the athletica-sleeves.

The business will be relaunching their Stylerunner Man site which was released at the same time as the women’s site but because of the growth in the core, the business couldn’t give the Man product the attention it needed.

“We struggled to deliver the standard in both that we wanted to so we brought it down and we are now launching it with a dedicated team next year.

“We believe there is going to be a huge opportunity for men’s business in the future. Men’s sportswear is a multimillion-dollar industry in Australia, let alone globally, so being able to serve a slice of that market in a way that we don’t think is being done well is definitely an opportunity,” she said.

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