How to Build a Kick-Ass Company Culture

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

How can you create a kick-ass company culture to hire tech talent from all around the world? How can you promote a single work location to people who may never have considered it? What makes an e-commerce giant unique? I’ve had a chat with Brendan Bank, CIO of to get some answers.
Listen to the interview below or keep reading for a summary. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

What is and what do you do there? is an accommodation website, we bring supply from hotels, bed and breakfasts, apartments, holiday homes together with customers from all over the world. So we are by far the largest online accommodation website in the world and depending on how you count, we’re the third largest e-commerce company in the world.
I am CIO, so I’m responsible for all technology within including all the product phases and technology. So we don’t have a CTO, CIO and CTO are embodied into a single role. Currently in technology, there’s around a 1,000 people, most of them based out of Amsterdam, where we build new products and services for our customers and our partners.

What are your talent challenges?

Well the biggest challenge we have is we are in this war of talent with Google, eBay, Apple, Facebook and we’re fishing in the same pool. I spend around 20 to 30% of my job working with recruitment, interviewing, setting strategies and goals, making sure that we find that talent and that we can bring the talent in.

How did you use culture to attract and relocate 79% of new hires?

Well, it was a long journey I have to say. So, we started out trying to find people in Amsterdam. That didn’t work. We then expanded to the Netherlands. That didn’t work. Basically for every person in the Netherlands, there are about three jobs in technology, there’s a huge under-supply. So we went out and we got CVs in through our website and then we got this one CV and the guy looked really promising. And it was just great and so we invited him to Amsterdam, and he came into reception and the guy didn’t speak English.
So we really had to learn the basics of how do you recruit from afar. From that moment on, we said, “Okay, this needs to be different. We really need a good process. We need a better upfront check if somebody can speak English because that’s our corporate language.” And gradually we broke into more areas and found more talent. Then we had a couple Russian people and they loved to work with us so they were very active, we got a lot of referrals from them. This is how it grows and grows and then together with our culture, which is very strong with diversity, our product needs to work everywhere and so when you stay locally relevant and globally scalable.
To be that relevant, we also need to understand what the cultural differences are when people book room. Because there are many differences. If you look at Japan, if you look at the United States, if you look at Europe, even by country there are different booking patterns. So for us to recruit, it was almost a necessity which we needed that global footprint also in our employees to make sure that localisation in our website really feels local. So tying back, diversity and the cultural frames were used, diversity to give it the strength, back to recruitment and then it all came together. So now we have about 70 nationalities in Amsterdam in IT, it goes to over 100 in Amsterdam if you also include the call centres and all the other departments.

How do you sell Amsterdam as a work location?

Well, there’s a couple of great advantages in general with Amsterdam. First of all, everybody speaks English. If you really try to order bread in Dutch as a foreigner at the bakery, they will start speaking to you in English. So from very early on, we speak English. The crowd is already very international, we have a lot of multi-nationals in Amsterdam, it’s always been a very international city. So the city caters for this, that’s one part.
The other part is that there are not many very successful big, large e-commerce companies in Europe. If you look at all the big ones, Google, eBay, Apple, Facebook, they are all on the west coast. So we are one of the few really large e-commerce companies in Europe. The quality of life is very high, it can compete with any city in the world in terms of the quality of life, but these are key differentiators if you compare to other cities.
There’s also what we call the 30% ruling for a non-Dutch national that is relocating from abroad. The first 10 years you get a tax break, maximum tax you pay is about 30%. So it’s really to help you settle, because as a nation we see that the cost of relocation, and the cost of living is slightly higher, because you’re going to have to travel back and forth to your country. It’s a nice incentive from the government to help foreign knowledge workers to come to the Netherlands.

How does your consumer brand relate to the employer brand?

I think if you are an e-commerce professional and you have experience in tech, then we play in quite a big league, and people know us, generally. And so what we see is that right now around 70% of people that apply with us have just booked with us, so that’s interesting.
I think your brand just helps. So we show potential candidates, what we are all about, and they are like, “Okay, this might be a nice company to work for.” So I think the consumer brand really helps there. But to the employee market we really brand ourselves as a tech company and to consumers, it’s much more consumer brand. There is overlap, but it is not exactly the same.
Related: How Expedia Uses Social Media [Case Study]

What channels are most useful for you in terms of recruiting and attracting?

I don’t have the exact data but I can give you the high level here. Recruitment through referrals has really picked up this year. We put a lot of emphasis on it, we improved the program a lot, we also feedback constantly through to people that refer candidates, and that helps a lot. So we got a lot more confidence from our employees that if they put a referral in, it’s not this black hole that is talked about, and that helped a lot. So from our hires currently over 40% are now referred, which is great.

The light hits us right #planetbooking #goldenhour #magichour #Amsterdam

A photo posted by Planet Booking (@planetbooking) on

The other channel which is really up and coming is LinkedIn, so that’s a very strong channel. And then we have some paid channels that are also working out. But we paid a lot a lot of learning money on paid channels because there’s a lot a lot of money spent on advertisements that never produced one single candidate – job boards, advertisements, online advertising, placement, anything. We tried everything basically.

Do you advertise jobs on

No, because the ROI of that is really low and we are an ROI driven company. If you look at the ROI of a single employee, then you have to compare that with the real estate on It’s prime real estate. So if you use that to do job adverts that’s just too expensive.
So we have to find other ways to do it. We have millions of users of booking every day, so having them “distracted”…because the pond you’re fishing in is really small. And the amount of consumers that come to the website, for most that ad would be totally irrelevant.

Tell us about your employee blogs?

We started the blog three years ago. Actually it started as a fun project because we had some stuff that is open source. So we created some open source offers that we released in the market. We wanted to blog about it. So we put up this blog and very quickly it turned out that many of our candidates who were later hired, read those blogs, because they really want to know what our company is about.
They want to see some snippets of our code, because good developers, they can see the culture through how the code is written. So they know what you are based on the blog. Nowadays, we try to publish one article a week, which is hard because you have to distract the engineer and developer and designer to write something up, and they’re not professional writers. It takes a little bit of time, but it’s well worth the investment. It radiates this culture even before they’ve even met you. So I think it’s a great way to communicate with potential candidates.
There’s also, which is our recruitment portal, and there you find a lot of blogs on the rest of the company, so not just tech but also customer service, finance, marketing, the whole range of jobs that are there. And then we have a blog on Dribble [and Medium], which is more a designer focused blog where we publish all kinds of designs and we talk about design.

What’s been the return on investment on this program?

I think the return on investment is that we have a highly engaged workforce. Engagement is around 80% in technology, which is very high. We want to push it up even higher. We believe that this engagement really drives a better product. Engaged employees are more in tune with what our customers want, so it’s critical that you have that high level of engagement. So the ROI is really the engagement of the employees. And we’ve grown the company over the last seven years in terms of technology headcount, about 20x. So when I started we had around 50 people and now there’s 1,000 people in technology.

Did you reduce recruitment agency spend?

Yeah, we had a lot of agencies and I’m not a recruitment expert, but what we saw was that our recruiters were relying heavily on these agencies to bring in candidates. They were not recruiting themselves anymore, they were really managing agencies. And then myself and Jennifer Boulanger, the Head of Recruitment, looked at the high costs of agency hires and you still need a local pool of internal recruiters that manages these agencies. So we said, “Okay, we want to limit the amount of agencies as much as possible. Not so much from a cost perspective but also from a cultural perspective.”
They bring in slightly different cultural people, just a few of the agencies really understood what we needed. But if you have in-house recruiters in the teams themselves, for instance the technology recruitment sits in technology. So my budget, I hire them. They’re much more in tune with our culture and how we work, and so we didn’t need those agencies anymore. There is still room for agencies, it’s not that we totally don’t have agencies. However for the mainstream jobs; developer, designer, data scientists, front-end developers, we tend to use our own recruiters as much as possible.

What are some of the mistakes you have learned?

Define your culture very clearly. So what is it that you want to radiate out? Because talent these days, you can hire talent but talent also chooses you. And they choose you based on the company culture, not so much on pay, because the pay is relatively the same anywhere. So, define the culture, make it very clear what you’re about, make it very clear how you do work, and then people can choose themselves if they fit into that culture. For instance, not everybody fits into and that is fine. That’s it’s totally fine.
There are people that don’t like to work with us and we accept that. Because there is no cultural fit, and if there is no cultural fit from both ends, it will not work. So that’s the main thing that I would say is important and there is a whole list of other things that, for instance, take care of the partners.
If you relocate so many people, we relocate about 80% of all our hires to the Netherlands because most of these hires are not in the Netherlands, you need to take care of their families, their children, you need to pay tuition for school, etc. So you need to do a lot to make these people feel at home. So don’t just take care of the employee but you also have to take care of their partner, making sure that they feel also at home in Amsterdam in this case, in the country where they are hired.

What company inspires you?

I think Google, for a long time, has inspired us a lot in how we hire and how we recruit. We learned a lot from them from talking to them, and recruitment conferences like here at Talent Connect. And what we got from them really is a pure data driven approach to it. How many interviews should you do, all these things that were good grounds for us to start testing for ourselves. They are five years ahead of us constantly. I keep saying that for the last seven years, but also in recruitment they were quite a bit ahead of us. So, we look at them for the future of recruiting.

What’s next for

Well I think the market is changing rapidly. So the biggest thing that is currently going on, and will go on for a long time is that the world is going mobile. So travel is going mobile. We used to be a website. We were just a website where you booked, we sent you a confirmation two weeks later. After you stayed you get a review evaluation, you fill out the review, and that was it. We can now travel with our customers to these destinations. We can excite them with new feature functionalities like guides, personalised guides, personalised travel plans, and things like eat like a local.
Because we have all these offices around the world we can really excite the customer with new features of functionality, basically, to give them more trip for their money. So and there’s a lot of innovation that still needs to happen in the years to come to make that a frictionless experience for our customers.
So, in terms of growth I think the future is bright and I think you will see travel growing as an industry, so that’s really exciting.

Finally, what makes unique?

Well we are a truly global brand, so we will support you in your own language, we will make sure that there is always somebody available for you to help you out. If it is in the middle of the night, and you are in Shanghai and you’ve lost your way, we will make sure that we get a cab for you and get you back on your feet.
One of our cultural statements is also, “Put the customer at the centre of everything we do,” and “We’ve got your back when you travel.” So if anything goes wrong, if anything happens that you didn’t expect and influences your travel in a negative way, call us and we’ll try to resolve it for you. And so I’d say it’s more like a security policy that we always will make sure that your trip is safe with us. And that’s ingrained in the whole culture, how we build systems, how we build process for customer care, it’s ingrained in everybody, that’s in common. That’s why culture is so important.
It’s not just for your tech community, it’s for the whole company because you want to radiate this out to your customers, your partners, and your employees.
Connect with Brendan on Twitter @BrendanBank and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.


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