Most people believe that only large businesses, such as Google or Facebook, have impressive work cultures because they offer extras like nap rooms and buffets. However, Mike Del Ponte proves this assumption wrong. He is the CEO of Soma–a company that creates sustainable water filters–and has developed a more innovative culture than many big businesses. His twelve-person team is leading the way for other startups to follow suit. Del Ponte, who is based in Melbourne, Australia, discussed with Levo how he built a tight-knit team and an appealing work culture that keeps Millennial talent during Soma’s very first Work From Anywhere Week.

Levo: What is the work culture like at Soma?

Mike Del Ponte: I always like to start with the vision—the vision of Soma is to hydrate the world. What that means is designing healthy hydration products that improve our consumers’ lives, so donating clean drinking water to people around the world that don’t have access to it. We’re very passionate about that mission. The second thing is we’re very much focused on personal development. We spend a lot of time on growth, so learning and growing our capacity as teammates. And the last thing is vibrancy. We do a lot of fun things to improve the health and wellness of our teammates.

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Before we get into specifics, can you give us an overview of the goals you’ve set for your team’s personal development?

MDP: The way that we’ve designed many of the things that we do at Soma is to answer the question, how do we fulfill our mission? So you have the mission and vision of the company—hydrate the world—and that never changes. Annually, we have three themes that I as the CEO selected. This year, those three things are love our consumers, scale, impact, and grow the team. “Love our consumer” is to understand who our consumer is, what products she wants, and where and how we can meet her. The second is scale and impact—how do we grow our business and how do we grow our impact globally? The last one, growing the team, means both hiring new people and developing the growth of the people that are currently on the team. Then we asked our teammates to describe what their objectives and key results are quarterly. So what do they want to accomplish within those themes? Someone might say, well, in terms of “love our consumer,” we know that she loves tea, and so we’re going to design a tea infuser this month. That would be an example of an objective and a key result. The second thing our teammates self-select every 6 months is personal development goals. For example, mine is to build a world-class team. And then every six weeks we have an off-site, and every week, we do a team meeting, which is followed by meditation. And when we do all these cool, fun things, it’s not just like, hey this is a fun thing, let’s try it out, it’s very much intentional.

Let’s expound upon the idea of meditation after your team huddle. Why do you think meditation would be beneficial?

MDP: This is how we start every single week. People get to the office at 9:15 a.m. on a Monday, we have a quick team huddle, and then we go right into meditation. We believe it makes people more productive and improves creative thinking. And because we want this more vibrant culture, it just adds to the health and wellness of our teammates.

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At Soma, one of the very first things you did as part of our curriculum was called “Recess.” What is it exactly that you do now?

MDP: When you’re growing up, every day there’s time for play. When you’re an adult, there is no scheduled time for play, and so recess was an idea that we developed so that we could get out of the intensity of the work that we do and have a little bit of fun as a team. That ranges from getting ice cream to visiting another office and maybe getting a cool office tour. Now we do a 7-minute boot camp, kind of like a little CrossFit workout, in our office. We blast funny pump-up music, and we try to incorporate the product, so you can imagine someone doing lunges across the office holding two Soma carafes, or another person doing bicep curls with Soma pitchers. It’s hilarious and fun.

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Can you share any memorable moments from your time spent at off-site locations?

MDP: We do an off-site every six weeks—we do a big off-site once a quarter and we do a small off-site once a quarter. The big off-site would be a two-day offsite where we rent an amazing property. It could be in the mountains, the beach, or wine country, and that’s where we get clear on what we’re going to do for the upcoming quarter. And then the smaller off-site takes place in San Francisco, but outside of our office, and that’s more of a check-in. We did an off-site in January to plan the first quarter, and we rented two awesome houses on the beach in Santa Cruz, and in addition to really serious, strategic planning, we also did a lip sync battle, and it was hilarious. One of my favorite off-site was about a year and a half ago. I told the team that we had an all-day strategic planning session to get ready for an intense, long day at work, and when the team got there, we surprised them and took them to Napa. We had a day of wine tasting and playing bocce, and we went to see a movie, and it was just a nice surprise for the whole team.

What changes have you observed in the team since all this started?

MDP: Well, the team is very close. I think it’s all about the purpose. We all feel like we’re on a mission, and that brings us together. But also just these fun ways to step out of the office for a minute and get to know one another personally and let our guard down—that’s helpful too.

Who is responsible for these excellent concepts?

MDP: Everyone on the team. Once a week we have our weekly team lunch, and that’s a forum where people can share anything they want. We also rotate who facilitates our off-sites, so every time we have an off-site, someone will take the lead and they’ll recruit other teammates to make it fun and productive.

OK, tell us more about Work From Anywhere Week. 

MDP: About a year ago I was in Japan, and I was there primarily on vacation, but I realized that it was the best of both worlds because, given the time zone difference, I was able to wake up, spend a good 6 to 8 hours working, and then I was in Tokyo. I would walk around, go shopping, meet with friends, etc. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection and you’re good to go. Having that experience I thought, if would it be possible if we did this regularly, and we were able to coordinate so that we could all be very productive even though we were all in different parts of the world. And so this is our first Work From Anywhere Week. We had one person go to Italy, I’m in Australia, we have one person in Washington, one person in New York, one person in Southern California, and some people are just staying home or they’re working from cafes.

Editor’s Note: Soma is working to help those affected by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan by launching a special rose water that is made with Soma water, rose essence, and aloe. For every bottle sold, $1 is donated to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. 

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