Employee Engagement Fuels Startle’s Rapid Growth

Founded in 2015, Startle International provides unique services to businesses in the UK and the United States. At the UK Employee Experience Awards 2018, Startle won in the ‘Employee Engagement – Growth by Design’ category.

The company’s offerings are based on Startle Music, a service that lets retail shops, restaurants, and other venues select, design, and control the background-music aspect of their customer experience. Additional services include bespoke music plans, bots to allow customers to influence background music via social media, digital signage, quiz chatbots, and even an identity-sensing feature that ensures customers hear their favourite artists or songs when their mobile devices enter the store or eatery.

Launched with zero employees and a bag full of big dreams, Startle has grown quickly. The company hit £1.4 million in revenues in its third year. Company revenues grew 400% in 2016 and the company expanded its operations - and staff - into North America.

Startle is still a very small company. Adding four Americans to the payroll grew the entire team to just 16. But these 16 employees have supported the company’s rapid expansion since it was founded and managers have put explicit processes in place to support future growth.


Experts say that people support what they help to create. That belief has served as the bedrock of Startle’s early years. Every staff member need only look around to see products and procedures that wouldn’t have existed without their input.

Startle management believes the company’s success and growth are tied to one key factor: employee engagement. From the beginning, managers have shared the company’s goals and encouraged staff members to adopt them as their own.

One tangible way of gaining staff support is by giving them a financial stake in the company’s success. Startle has implemented an Enterprise Management Incentives programme to share equity in the business with employees. The goal is for 10% of the company to be owned by staff members, and for that stake to be worth £3m - £5m. Shares are issued according to peer survey results, exceeding performance targets, and notable achievements. When staffers commit to going above and beyond the normal call of duty, they have a reasonable expectation of earning additional shares in the future of the company they’re helping to build. It’s a powerful incentive.

Aligning employees with corporate culture and vision is especially difficult because staffers work from home. Startle has taken special steps to help keep employees engaged even though miles and oceans separate them.

The work-from-home model keeps Startle’s overhead costs low, and it’s also a reflection of the corporate culture. Startle gives staff members the authority and autonomy to control their environments, to have the flexibility to shift work hours when necessary, to support sustainability, and to help them achieve an optimum work/life balance.

The company holds online meetings frequently: weekly management meetings, twice-weekly team meetings, and semi-monthly one-on-ones. Online interactions are complemented by the corporate adoption of Slack as an instant messenger for work-related and casual conversations.

The company has recently added both team and individual presentations to the weekly meeting schedule. Every week, a different team explains how their department’s efforts are contributing to Startle’s growth targets. Managers say preparing these presentations helps team members align their roles and responsibilities with company goals.

The weekly engagement meeting also includes recognition of a particular staff member who has made a significant contribution or displayed outstanding performance in the past week as well as 10-minute lectures in which employees discuss books they’ve read, hobbies, travel destinations, personal philosophy - whatever they like.


Small teams don’t require much formal organisation, but Startle doesn’t plan to remain small. It has recently adopted a management and accountability structure that makes team leaders responsible for the success of their departments and their team members. Startle has added a weekly managers-only meeting to the calendar, established bi-weekly one-on-one meetings between employees and their bosses, and added management-feedback capabilities to its in-house performance management tool. The goal is to catch and correct problems when they are small, not to respond to them at the annual performance review when it’s too late to do anything.

The company has begun focusing on on-boarding procedures new employees in recognition of the fact that new employees may not feel as comfortable with the corporate culture as those who have had two or three years to adjust and contribute to it.


Startle grew 400% in 2016 and surpassed its 300% target for 2017. The expanding customer base and product offerings have required a corresponding growth in engaged staff members. That’s the theory behind the meetings, the instant messenger, the employee-ownership plan, and all the rest.

Managers give those initiatives the credit for Startle’s astonishing 100% employee retention rate since the company was founded. The attendance rate is high too - just 0.93 sick days per employee in 2017, compared the UK average of 4.3 days. An internal employee feedback tool reports an annual “happiness” index of 4.37 out of 5.

Employee engagement is surely at least a contributing factor behind Startle’s growth from £0 to £1.4 million in turnover in 3 years, a 126% increase in site installations last year, and a 0.4% customer cancellation rate.

Do you have an employee experience success story that you could receive external recognition for? Set yourself apart from the competition by entering the UK Employee Experience Awards 2019. Now open for entries. Click here to see the categories and enter online now.