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Wearing Corporate Culture on their Sleeves: An Interview with Hicham Ratnani and Ethan Song

Wool pattern

This article originally appeared in Lēad Magazine, Issue 15: The Value of Brand Attraction.

Boasting more than 100 employees – and growing – after just two years in business, Montreal-based menswear company, Frank & Oak, has made amazing headway in changing how men shop for their clothes. Every month, the company website features new, on trend clothing and accessories, which Frank & Oak itself designs and manufactures. This stunning startup success all began with co-founders Hicham Ratnani and Ethan Song, who sat down with Adecco to discuss how they first acquired the employees they needed to flourish, how their workforce needs continue to evolve, and what they do to adapt to those changes.

When you first started the company, did you have a clear idea of the type of people you wanted on your team? If so, how did you go about finding them?

E.S.: For us, the company is about creativity and technology, and we wanted people who had an interest in both. So, that was a clear guideline for us. We started with zero employees, and then grew to two, then to 10. Most of the time that growth occurred because of community connections, whether through Montreal’s creative agency community or the startup community.

Was it initially difficult attracting or finding the type of people you needed?

H.R.: Finding the right mix is tough, which is why you have to hire slow and really look at referrals. It’s great when people in the company bring in their friends because there’s a very high likelihood that they will be a good fit and we can grow from there. I would say that our first 10 to 20 employees were all friends of friends, and we had tremendous chemistry because of that. At the beginning, there would be days where you’re coding all day and tagging boxes all night, so it’s important to have a cohesive team.

What were some of your most intense growing pains?

E.S.: Early on, our main challenge was attracting people. As a startup, you have to sell people on the dream and the vision. But as you grow, your challenges change. As we grew, we realized that it’s easier to maintain a company culture on a smaller scale. The bigger you get, the more you have to decide between hiring for culture or strictly for skill. Ideally, you want to find both.

Do you feel that you’ve been able to maintain that sort of culture since the beginning or has it shifted over time?

H.R.: Our culture is certainly different now because we have over 100 people, but we still have most of the people that have been here from the early days. We also have a very specific onboarding process, which is a three- to four-month journey during which the new hires meet with our HR person every week. The technical onboarding side is there, obviously, but we mostly concentrate on the cultural side. I personally run a two-hour cultural onboarding session where we go through the history of the company and talk about some of the highs and lows, as well as what makes us a special and fun place to work. And then I’ll bring in our first five or six employees to share their favourite stories about Frank & Oak. This is very powerful because you have somebody else there to demonstrate the reality: a voice for what it was like in the trenches of the early days. I believe those stories speak to where we come from and, ultimately, it empowers the current employees and new hires because it makes them say, “Yeah, I can do this. I can contribute and maybe even create 100 more jobs here because I know I have the power to do so at Frank & Oak.” We also make sure that we are always empowering our team. We have a really open and transparent dialogue with each of them, and we let them know that they can make a difference.

Do you follow the same hiring process for all hires?

E.S.: We have definitely added more steps to our hiring process recently because our team has grown, and we are now hiring for more senior roles. Even during the hiring process, we spend a lot of time on the Frank & Oak culture, which I believe is one of our main differentiators. We break down the process into three parts: the first part is an interview to assess the right experience and the right alignment of skills; the second part deals mostly with culture – we bring in other members of the team to bounce around ideas with the person to see how they integrate and whether they’re the right fit; and the final stage is a test of sorts – a technical test for programmers or a design test for graphic designers, etcetera. We believe it’s important to challenge candidates on their hard skills too.

How do prospective employees learn about Frank & Oak as an employer?

H.R.: Prospective employees learn about us through a variety of methods. Often they’re clients. Actually, most of the people who started working with us in the beginning were clients, which is humbling because it means that they wanted to be a part of the company beyond being clients, and we love that. The people who apply to us are people who think we have the right branding, the right approach, and who think we do things that are aligned with their values.

You speak a lot about developing your culture. Did you have a clear idea about the type of culture you hoped to develop?

E.S.: Absolutely. That’s extremely important to us. We’re definitely looking for people who want to be great – not just good. But beyond that, what I believe is the most important aspect of our culture is multi-disciplinary collaboration. It is essential that our technology team is interested in sitting down with our design team, and that our business team has discussions with our technology team so that nobody is working in a “silo”. Having everyone work on the same floor ensures no one is separated. We hire people who also have this vision of inclusiveness.

Do you feel that you base some of your strategies on the type of employees you have?

H.R.: The right strategy isn’t necessarily A or B, but usually something in the middle. We think we have great people and try our best to foster their talents. If there’s someone with a particular interest, we’ll try to foster it. At the same time, our vision is shared, and everyone contributes to our strategies. For example, when we created our technological roadmap for the next three quarters, we involved everyone – every person had a say. We then presented the final plan and everybody signed off on it.

Do you feel your culture communicates itself, or do you have to reiterate your culture to employees?

E.S.: Communicating our culture is definitely something we consistently build upon, which is why we emphasize it so much during our onboarding process. The way we create social moments is definitely something that needs to be maintained because in a typical work environment, people naturally stick to where they’re most comfortable. You need to be able to facilitate the kind of dialogue and openness we aspire to.

Looking back, is your current direction still aligned with your initial mission?

H.R.: Absolutely. It’s fun to step back and look at our beginnings and our initial challenges. But our goal remains the same: to help a generation of men dress and live well, and to make a lasting impact on society.

Now that you’re two years in, do you feel you have a clear vision of where you’re heading?

E.S.: We’re always evolving, and our goal is to build a global business that’s anchored here in Montreal. And to do that, we need the best people who want to help us achieve that goal. We develop the vision and hire according to that vision.

About Hicham Ratnani

Hicham RatnaniAs the co-founder and COO of menswear e-tailer, Frank & Oak, Hicham leads the brand’s operations, logistics, technology, and member services teams. He prides himself on being a “numbers guy” who uses data intelligence to improve the customer experience, but is also a team leader and motivator, creating company culture behind the scenes. After graduating from McGill with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering, Hicham became a technology strategist at Deloitte. He later left his corporate life to co-found Frank & Oak. In just two short years, he’s successfully transformed the online brand and retailer into a menswear destination for the digital generation.

About Ethan Song

EthanAs co-founder, CEO, and creative director of menswear e-tailer, Frank & Oak, Ethan enhances everything customer-facing, including the product, marketing campaigns, and online shopping experience. Originally from China, Ethan has worked in locations all over the world, including Shanghai, Paris, and Vancouver. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer and Electrical Engineering from the University of British Columbia and professionally performed and studied drama and dance for several years. In 2012, he co-founded Frank & Oak to revolutionize the traditional retail model and offer men the simplest way to shop online. Ethan’s entrepreneurial spirit and passion for both the arts and sciences make him a successful driving force behind the innovative brand.

About Lēad

Since its first issue in 2007, Adecco Canada’s Lēad Magazine has been keeping employers on the cutting-edge of developments, trends, and breakthroughs in workforce management. Featuring articles from some of Canada’s foremost economic, legal, diversity, political, and HR experts, Lēadis an invaluable guide through the dynamic and ever-changing world of employment affairs. To view past issues, please visit our Lēad archive.

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