On Valentine’s Day 2018, the most senior member of Culture Trip’s US editorial team stepped into a meeting with Kris Naudts, the firm’s CEO and founder. During his last visit, Naudts had fired the then editor-in-chief and the head of sales, several former employees of the New York office claim.
A few weeks prior to Naudts’ arrival, several editorial staff had also been made redundant. Soon after, Culture Trip’s chief human resources officer left after just three months in the job.
Culture Trip is a London-based travel, media and entertainment website and app which, through its articles and videos, claims to “bring the world to everyone” and to “bring everyone closer together”. It says it has a network of over 300 contributors around the world, writing about dozens of cities, with content ranging from travel advice to culture and entertainment.
The company, which claims to have 18 million unique monthly visitors, is one of the few UK travel and media startups to rapidly grow in the last few years. Since it was founded less than a decade ago it’s attracted more than $100m (£80m) in funding, employs around 300 staff, and is launching a new travel booking service to compete with established holiday firms.
In New York, the US editorial lead remained the most senior member of staff in the satellite office. She had been called into the meeting after she refused a request by the CEO to rearrange the desks in the office in the middle of the workday. Sitting across from Naudts with a colleague from the sales team, she started to lay out a series of Post-it notes on the table as a way of mapping out the office’s desks.
Naudts picked up one of the sticky notes, rolled it into a ball, and threw it at her. Then, chuckling, he did the same with another Post-it, and another, and another, sources aware of the incident claim.
This incident is allegedly one of a string of examples in which Culture Trip staff have been bullied, belittled or neglected. WIRED has spoken to more than a dozen former employees from several departments that claim, beyond a handful of wellness initiatives, the company is riddled with a culture of fear, high staff turnover and constant changes in strategic direction.
They say that while these issues might exist in many startups, what’s unique about Culture Trip is their pervasiveness. Sources described at least six instances when Naudts pressured staff – from berating senior directors for not working longer hours, to accusing an employee of disloyalty when he didn’t reveal confidential information about his former employer. WIRED put detailed questions about these claims to Culture Trip, including the instance where Naudts is said to have thrown paper at an employee. The company did not respond about individual incidents but issued a statement acknowledging it had made mistakes and was working to improve.
The sources say managers who question Naudts’ decisions end up leaving the company, either voluntarily or by being fired. Several company-wide emails and posts on its internal Slack messaging service sent in May and seen by WIRED, also reveal how staff are increasingly pushed to breaking point by management’s failure to take them into account when making decisions. One message said: “There is no care shown. There are people who are planning to give notice, and some that are just a hair width [sic] away from leaving.”
Sources also say these factors could start to weigh on the company’s bottom line and some are unsure about its long-term viability. In one instance, 15 members of the London-based engineering team wrote an open letter to Naudts outlining their problems with decision-making and the balance of power within the firm’s engineering divisions.
Those interviewed about the company’s culture did so on the condition of anonymity. Many said they had signed non-disclosure agreements and others were fearful the company would retaliate against them. Some were concerned about how speaking of their experience at Culture Trip could impact their search for future jobs.
“In the past few months, after a particularly challenging period involving a reorganisation, the leadership team has publicly recognised that they made mistakes and pledged to make changes to improve the working culture of a startup that has grown at an incredible pace,” a Culture Trip spokesperson said in an emailed response to detailed questions about the issues raised by former staff members.
The spokesperson says the company is working on “building an open, informal and friendly culture” and it does not “recognise allegations of a culture of fear or of bullying”. “In the most recent employee survey, 85 per cent of respondents said they would recommend working at Culture Trip to a friend while 96 per cent said they felt positive about the company’s prospects,” the spokesperson said. The spokesperson did not answer follow-up questions about who conducted the survey or the number of people that participated in it, except for saying that it was carried out in mid-2018.
On the surface, the company looks like a success in the making and an example of a people-centered approach to managing a startup. It has won several awards – including for its editorial team and being one of the most disruptive companies to watch in its sector – and attracted executives from some of the biggest names in tech. (Chief product officer Nick Jakobi comes from Google and the person charged to launch Culture Trip’s online travel agency, Andy Washington, is a former managing director at Expedia. Chief marketing officer Mike Fox, who has just left Culture Trip was formerly at Facebook. It is unknown why Fox left the company).
And unlike startups that have yoga teachers come in for occasional classes, Culture Trip employs a full-time instructor on the company’s payroll. It has also employed a diversity and inclusion manager – something uncommon for a company of its size – and is recruiting for a new person in the position.
The site provides a mix of travel, culture and entertainment content from around the world, although the bulk is from North America, Europe and Asia (most of the content at the top of the Africa and South America sections dates from 2017 or 2018). Last year it started producing original video series, initially with Hungerlust, a show on food culture around the world, and more recently a series on LGBTQ pioneers set to coincide with June and July’s Pride celebrations.
Naudts, a former psychiatrist who says mental health is a priority for the company, founded Culture Trip in 2011. But it was only in 2016 that he secured its series A funding of $20m (£16m) from Czech investment fund PPF. The unlikely investor – PPF focuses on sectors such as banking, real estate and financial services – quickly followed its initial cash injection with an $80m (£64m) Series B financing in April 2018. That’s when Culture Trip started to pump significant sums into its expansion.
Naudts played an important part in both securing this funding and making the key hires for the company to grow. Sources point to skills he may have developed during his time as a psychiatrist aiding both those goals. “[Naudts] is good at finding people and he is very persuasive. He found them [PPF] and persuaded them to invest and persuaded them to reinvest,” a former senior executive at the company who worked closely with Naudts says. His skills have been demonstrated in the ability to bolster Culture Trip with senior staff from high-level positions at some of the world’s biggest tech companies. “He is also very good at recruiting,” the source says. “He is good at getting people through the door from much more successful companies.”
But for some of these people, the conditions began to become unbearable. “It was a hugely toxic culture and you could feel it when you walked into the office,” a former senior employee said.
Much of the fear is a result of the frequency and the seemingly arbitrary nature with which people have been fired. Last March, when more than 20 people in the London and New York offices were made redundant – many of them just before the end of their probation – the only communication from management appears to have been limited to an email from the CEO, which they received at 18:35 on a Friday informing them of the redundancies. The email stated that some employees were leaving Culture Trip due to changes in the company’s direction and others for performance issues. Naudts was absent that week, leaving the chief content officer Dmitry Shishkin to handle most of the exit meetings.
“People disappear like a bad B movie,” one former vice president says, referring to the way the COO and the CFO were hired and then left the company within a matter of months in 2018. “It wasn’t even publicly or internally acknowledged – no message was sent to staff when it happened.”
A spokesperson for Culture Trip does not dispute the departures or the lack of communication with staff, but says only one “c-suite” executive was fired by the CEO in the last two and a half years. Naudts has ten staff that directly report to him, the spokesperson says. “Five of them have been working with him for over three years and a further three of them between one to two years,” the spokesperson says.
The company has yet to replace the COO and CFO, as well as other senior members of staff who have departed in the last two years, including the chief revenue officer Richard Soule and the chief human resources officer. The chief people officer (CPO) who was hired in March 2019, quit after just two days at the company. Sources say her premature departure came after she challenged the CEO during a meeting of the senior leadership team, branded the K-Team by Naudts, after the initial of his first name – Kris.
During the meeting, it is claimed, Naudts asked the heads of the different departments to sign off on a list of company values, including the value “be unreasonable”. Naudts has published a Medium post on the idea of staff being unreasonable. The CPO was opposed to the approach, saying that a phrase like “be audacious” would be more accurate in trying to express the non-compromising attitude Naudts was trying to express, while having a lesser chance of backfiring. People present at the meeting say Naudts quickly shut her down, saying it was too early for her to have an opinion.
Later in the meeting, Naudts launched into a tirade against the senior vice president (SVP) for engineering, where he questioned his competence and the performance of the engineering team, according to sources present in the room. He then said that both the SVP for engineering and the CPO, who was expected to work closely alongside him, should be in the office at 8am and leave at 8pm because that was the way to motivate engineers, the sources say. Two weeks after this meeting, the SVP for engineering was fired. WIRED asked Culture Trip to comment on the incident, the circumstances surrounding the CPO’s early departure and the suggestions that staff should be in the office for long hours. The company did not issue a specific response.
“I have worked with CEOs like this before,” one former employee says, adding Naudts can be unpredictable. “Good Kris is very genial, quite complementary and based on his background he can make you feel good. Bad Kris, he will really tear people apart.”
As negative reviews from staff pile up on Glassdoor, with titles such as “stay away”, “deeply broken” and “Smoke and mirrors – complete car crash”, Naudts has allegedly asked the K-Team to counter them with positive ones. Recently, reviews have been written by the chief marketing officer, the general counsel, the chief content officer and the vice president for operations. (There is no suggestion that these reviews were not posted independently).
Confronted about the negative reviews in a recent Forbes feature, the CEO said: “I can’t say I find it easy to read that stuff. I find that unpleasant.” He said the company has historically not been strong with its communications but that it was working to address the issues. In a statement added to the article after publication the company said it was “disappointing” to see the “article selectively highlight some negative, historical ‘reviews’”.
But the recent batch of reviews by the K-Team wasn’t the first time Naudts had allegedly asked senior managers to write on Glassdoor. “When the Series B news came out, he [Naudts] was worried about people googling Culture Trip and Glassdoor coming up,” a source said. “The chief of staff was asked to write a list of people who should write reviews and she would chase [them and tick them] off a list.”
This environment means that few within the K-Team question the decisions of the CEO and those who do find that they are rarely listened to, sources say. Former senior employees claim this made it difficult for them to implement changes within the company and that at times decisions were made without thinking what impact it could have on staff.
When redundancies were made in March, the HR department was only brought in at the last minute, after a list of names was allegedly accidentally left in a photocopier, leading to rumours circulating concerning imminent terminations, sources say.
More recently, in May, the company announced it was pushing back the day it paid staff from the 28th of every month to the 5th of every month, giving employees only two weeks warning before the changes were set to take place. Employees sent emails and messages through Slack complaining about the short notice, the company’s failure to consult the workers, the difficulties some would now face paying their rent or mortgages and the timing of the announcement, which coincided with mental health awareness week.
“I’ve talked to many people today and the consensus is – the company treats us, the employees, more like numbers than people,” wrote one employee on Slack. Another said: “With the cost of rent in London, a lot of people pay upwards of 50 per cent of their salary on rent, and will be paying both their June and July rent from their June pay… it’s incongruous to carry out financial wellbeing workshops during mental health week, while at the same time introducing massive financial hardship into the lives of your employees”.
A week later, 15 members of the London engineering team co-signed a letter to the CEO listing the problems they faced implementing changes and the obstacles put in place by their counterparts in Tel Aviv. They noted the difficulties they were having tackling legacy issues with the site’s code that were created by people previously taking shortcuts – the website is run on WordPress – as well as the resistance by some managers to industry standard testing techniques.
“The fact that engineering leadership in Tel Aviv has been around longer seems to create a bias amongst the K-Team (and the CEO specifically) towards anything that comes out of Tel Aviv,” the letter says. “Are people in K-Team asking why the number of permanent engineers in London is slowly but surely shrinking? Would they want to know the reasons? Would they listen? Would they care?”
CultureTrip’s plans to diversify its sources of revenues beyond media sales, affiliate deals and partnerships, by creating an online travel agent (OTA), have faced a number of setbacks as it wrestled with different potential service providers. After originally announcing a spring 2018 launch, the company now says it will debut this month, over a year later.
“[Naudts would] say we want to be like Disney and Netflix, and at other times he’d say our biggest competitor is Google. He had such a big fake perception of who we were that it was hard to bring it back to the ground,” said a former director at the company. Discussing company changes with Forbes, Naudts said: “I was so focused on the future that I actually forgot to lead in the present, and I actually didn’t catch up with what the present had become”.
In an email sent to staff following layoffs in March, Naudts said the company would be focussing its efforts and reinvesting resources to focus on its key objectives, including revenue and growth. This would require, among other things, a restructuring of the editorial department, which would now have a “renewed focus on locally produced content.”
But people that have worked in the editorial team say it has faced constant changes in direction, with at least three different people managing the department in the last two years. “They were constantly changing priorities,” says a former Culture Trip editor. “I think Culture Trip really had the opportunity to be super successful in the US had they stayed the course and stuck with interesting cultural pieces”.
Instead, a lot of the website’s content are listicles with headlines such as “20 Unmissable Attractions in Paris” and “The 9 Best Boutique Hotels in Tokyo”. One former editor claimed Culture Trip paid as little as $5 (£4.02) for one article she commissioned to a writer in India.
So, while unique monthly visitor figures are high for a startup, former senior employees say people often spend little time on the website and on average don’t read more than one article per visit. Statistics in internal emails show bizarre fluctuations in the number of monthly unique visitors to the site. While visitors from Culture Trip’s core markets of the US and UK nearly halved from 11.7m to six million between July 2018 and February 2019, those from the rest of the world more than doubled from six million to 12.1m.
Sources say that this is because most of the site’s traffic comes from search engine optimisation – over 50 per cent, according to a company-wide email from February – and on paid posts on Facebook. (Google and Facebook regularly update their algorithms impacting publishers; in June the Daily Mail said it lost half of its website traffic due to Google’s changes). To lower the overall spend on paid social media advertising, the company has increasingly relied on paid traffic from the global south, where the cost per click is lower than in its core markets of the US and UK, former senior sources said.
“On the business side, we are very confident that our fast increasing branded content revenue, and the launch of our Online Travel Agency in July, allowing our engaged monthly audience of 18M to book places to stay and experiences, will propel our business to the next level,” the company spokesperson said.
In recent weeks, Naudts has been on the charm offensive, first writing a company-wide email to employees on May 28 and then doing the Forbes interview, in which he says he was “sometimes lacking in empathy” (in an all staff email following the publication of the piece he said some of his words had been “distorted and turned for effect”). In the email he says the company will now focus on becoming “a great place to work with an excellent, data-driven performance and people culture”.
He then goes on to list a number of initiatives, including weekly company meetings and using “short and long-term objectives and key results (OKRs)” to improve its working practices. According to Culture Trip’s 2018 internal survey, which it did not provide details of how it was conducted, 99.1 per cent of staff said they approved of the CEO.
A Culture Trip spokesperson also says that in response to concerns raised by past and present employees the company has in the last month “opened up channels for feedback and two way communication between leadership and staff”, and “re-launched our values”. “We are launching an employee survey as we speak, which will be quarterly,” the spokesperson said. “Everyone at our company is 100 per cent committed to making Culture Trip an outstanding place to work.”
It is hard to know the extent to which the introduction of these initiatives will significantly change the atmosphere at Culture Trip, or address the concerns many employees have. Following WIRED’s approach to Culture Trip for comment on the issues raised in this article, the company’s general counsel emailed us saying “many of the allegations are false or inaccurate, in particular the allegation that Kris Naudts bullies staff.”
Naudts sent staff an email saying a “short article” would appear on WIRED UK, “highlighting and amplifying things we have got wrong in the past”. The email goes on to say that the article, which had not been seen by Naudts as it had yet to be published, “could certainly be more nuanced and balanced, and fairer”.
What is clear is that the company continues to bleed talent, particularly among those who are charged with fixing the company’s culture. Since March, at least 13 people have left the HR and recruitment departments, including the diversity and inclusion manager. Both Naudts’ personal assistant and executive assistant also resigned in the last few weeks. In the email sent to staff, Naudts announced the chief marketing officer, Mike Fox, and the vice president for global growth marketing, Sarah Conrad, were also leaving Culture Trip.
Among some former employees, there is little faith in Naudts’ ability to change the course of the company. One former vice president even said: “The only meaningful cultural change he could make would be to step down”.
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