Treating people well: the key to retention

Genie Ventures


Cambridge-based digital marketing and publishing company Genie Ventures is a young and thriving company which prides itself on its commitment to transparency, equality, innovation and personal development.

That commitment earned it the 2017’s Top Employer Award for larger SMEs.

Set up in 2008 by managing director Ciaron Dunne and technical director Paul Goodwin, it was initially focused on Broadband Genie, a comparison website that also helps consumers understand broadband.

It has grown steadily since: from four employees in 2008, to five in 2009, six in 2010 and seven in 2011. The big growth spurt began in 2015 and the company has grown 100% year on year since. This has been largely thanks to its in-house digital marketing agency, Genie Goals. It has taken the cutting edge technology used to monetise its own websites and now helps some of the world’s leading retailers on an agency basis.

“It has really taken off,” says Sarah Sutton, Head of People & Development at Genie Ventures. She says the business takes a long-term approach to recruitment, hiring people who are at the start of their digital marketing career. It has a very strong training programme,  the Genie Academy, which includes a wide variety of technical training. “The aim is to grow our own talent pipeline. It is a long term investment. It takes a year to get someone up to being a fully fledged account manager,” says Sarah.

Training is also offered on an ongoing basis to all members of staff and career development is one of the fundamental pillars of the business. “To be the best we know we have to constantly grow as individuals. If we don’t we will not be successful,” she adds.

Training needs are identified through regular one to ones with managers.

This year the company has been looking at creating a pay structure which recognises training and development. Within each pay band there are four levels which reflect individuals’ development and growth.  “We are finding that this encourages grown up conversations around career development as people think about what they need to grow. It makes it easier to have those conversations across the board,” says Sarah.

Creative thinking

Genie Ventures also places a big emphasis on creative thinking. Twenty per cent of employees’ time is devoted to personal development and ideas, following the Google Objectives and Key Results model. The aim is to encourage innovation at all levels and Sarah says the company is keen to listen to all ideas.

Genie Ventures has a lot of employees from overseas, mostly from Europe. “The clients we have are global and so we need people with language skills and cultural understanding,” says Sarah. The company is concerned about the impact of Brexit, but is trying to reassure employees that, whatever happens, it will support them.

The gender split at the company is around 50/50, which is very good for a tech company. At senior management level it is around 60/40 weighted towards men and two out of the three directors are men [the men who founded the company]. “We need to do better at senior levels and the next generation coming up has a stronger gender balance,” says Sarah, adding that that balance has come about naturally as the company has developed and because of an interest in gender diversity from the top. The company is aware that this needs to be safeguarded as it grows and Sarah says the transparent pay structure will help to ensure everyone is on an equal footing when it comes to progression and pay.


Next year Genie Ventures plans to develop its manager training and this will include an understanding of the importance of equality and flexible working. Staff flex their hours on a day to day basis, according to business need.  The business is also working on a set of core values through the development of Genie Behaviours, six behaviours that are important for the kind of business it wants to be. These will include respect for others.

The company has already launched its Respect your Genie campaign on the back of the discussion on workplace sexual abuse which followed the revelations about Harvey Weinstein. It is forming a working group in the new year to drive that forward, looking, for instance, at how it measures the impact of any initiatives. “We have to get the culture right and maintain it. We cannot be complacent,” says Sarah.

An important aspect with regard to maintaining a culture of openness and trust is communication, she adds. Genie Ventures has its popular online Genie Journal – which is a cross between an internal Twitter and Facebook page. Different teams are on a rota for contributing larger articles and blogs on anything they deem of wider interest and there is also a space for videos, useful links, recipes and other information. Sarah is keen to add a learning tab.

Parental leave

While Genie Ventures is still a fairly young business, Sarah says it may be on the precipice of a baby boom. At the moment there are eight working parents on the payroll and they are informally joining up to share experience and support, but many more are hitting their early 30s.

Sarah and another mum in HR have individual conversations with those taking parental leave to help them ease back to work. “We work with them and know what they are going through so we can help them to think through what they might feel like. We also talk to their managers to prepare the first few months back,” says Sarah. That might include a gradual return and also any training needs they might have. New parents are buddied up with other parents if they want to be. “We treat them like we do new starters,” says Sarah.

Unusually for an SME, Genie Ventures enhances Shared Parental Pay. The first 12 weeks are paid at 100% pay and from week 13 to week 26 parents get 50% of pay. They get SMP from week 27 to week 39 and then the company pays them the equivalent of SMP until week 52. Sarah says she questioned her boss (the Managing Director) about the generosity of the scheme. His response speaks volumes. “He said that it was the right thing to do and that he would not have it any other way. He plays the long game. He knows that by treating people right he will keep them,” she says. “We are very proud that that attitude drives the company.”

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