Tchai Introduces: Deepdive Dialogues

Conversations about the genuine connection between people and brands.

Four times a year, Kim Tchai and Vera van Beaumont delve into topics such as  retail & hospitality, creativity & business, ownership & leadership and everything else that comes up. A podcast on paper? Why not! Including some sharp questions along the way to keep things on edge. In this first edition they zoom in on Tchai and how to gain more control over a business by letting go as much as possible.

Kim and Vera, let's start with the why-question: why an online series with fairly in-depth interviews?

Kim: "At Tchai, we create brand spaces for retail and hospitality; physical places where the brand comes to life. There’s always a story behind that. It's essential for genuine connections with the target audience. So, storytelling is the essence of what we do, but our own story has received less attention lately. A series of interviews seems an excellent approach for us to share our vision in a significant and accessible way."

Vera: "Since we completely changed course in 2017, we've been getting a lot of questions about how we run Tchai. Two women, no management team but self-managing teams, and an organizational chart in the shape of Feng Huang (a mythical Chinese bird). It sparks curiosity. We like to share our experiences. Not because we think we have all the answers, but because we believe our journey can inspire other entrepreneurs. For us, it's a continuous process of letting go and experimenting. That's what makes it so interesting."

You mention that there was a complete turnaround at Tchai in 2017. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Kim: "Tchai is a family business, founded by my grandfather in 1961. My grandfather and my father were both quite top-down managers with directive, masculine energy. When I took over the company in 2017, I really wanted to do things differently. I strongly believe in personal responsibility as a driver of development and growth and wondered: what would it be like to have no hierarchy at all? I was reinforced in my ideas by the books of Ricardo Semler (‘Semco Style’) and Frederic Laloux (‘Reinventing Organizations’). At some point I knew for sure: self-managing organizations are not extreme at all, they have been around for a long time and with great success. I'm just going to do it, my way."

Vera: "When I met Kim, she had recently had her 'unboxing event': a gathering where she had symbolically handed over Tchai to the employees. From that moment on, there were no more positions, no managers, no management team. I thought that was incredibly badass of her. I had just left jewelry brand Buddha to Buddha, where I had worked for 13 years as General Manager and Director of Operations. Here, I had gained a lot of experience with situational leadership. Instead of being directive, you focus much more on what someone needs to move forward. I got into a conversation about that with Kim, and there was an instant connection."

Kim: "We hit it off so well, that I really wanted Vera to be part of Tchai. There was just one minor issue: we didn't have a vacancy at that time, haha! So I just asked her if she wanted to set up our new ERP system and from there, we'd just take it as it comes."

Vera's first job was to set up a new ERP system, isn't that thinking in the old systems you were trying to let go of?

Kim: " It was actually archetypal of the challenges you face when you say goodbye to familiar organizational structures. Our aim wasn't just to streamline processes and increase efficiency but also to make the work more fun for everyone. More freedom, more autonomy, more control. A smoothly running ERP system can certainly contribute to that. The only question is: how do you ensure that such a system serves a self-managing organization and doesn't end up working against you? We didn't have any examples, we just started setting it up on the job."

Vera: "For me it was a great way to get to know the organization. I talked to a lot of people to assess exactly what they are doing. How do you operate now? What is the essence of your work, and what changes would you like to see? I wasn't the ultimate ERP specialist, you know. I just loved how Kim was transforming everything and wanted to be part of that."

Kim: "It always boils down to the same thing: are you doing things a certain way because that's how they've always been done, or because you genuinely believe it's the best approach? At Tchai, no one is stuck anymore in the mindset of "This is how we do things around here" and that’s incredibly liberating."

But if everyone gets to determine everything themselves, won't you inevitably encounter conflicting ideas?

Vera: "Yes, and the teams will solve that themselves. Look, the two major misunderstandings of self-managing teams and democratic management are that there would be no more leadership and no frameworks. Of course there is leadership, it just arises in a different way. Project thinking is essential here.

With each project, a team re-evaluates what is needed to achieve the best result. In doing so, knowledge and experience are much more important than hierarchy. You don't take a leading role because your business card says 'project leader', but because, for example, you have managed to create a pop-up store for a phone brand four times within an impossible deadline."

Kim: "Exactly, it's about ownership. You make the project your own, feeling responsible for the best possible outcome. Then, the team performance becomes more important than your ego constantly whispering in your ear that you should be in the lead."

Vera: "That only works if you're willing to hold each other accountable. Keeping agreements is crucial for us. It sounds basic, but it requires continuous attention. If something isn't going well, you discuss it. You talk to each other, not about each other. That way, you create a safe environment where everyone dares to take risks. We also have an internal coach who ensures that everyone can speak up during meetings, including the less extroverted employees. It's a continuous trial and error, trying to see what works. If things aren't going well, you need to be honest with each other, and with yourself."

Kim: "I was just about to say that! For greater autonomy among employees, it's essential that they know themselves well. You need to know what you're good at and what makes you feel comfortable. Then, you'll gravitate towards things that suit you and find direction for your development."

Vera: "I just mentioned two misunderstandings: no leadership and no frameworks. Obviously, there are frameworks as well. For example, we have divided the organization into teams that are completely equal to each other and and each has its own color. There is no hierarchical organizational chart; we have visualized the organization very organically in the shape of our phoenix, Feng Huang. This mythical Chinese bird is formed by eight colored parts that correspond to the colors of the teams. For example, the head of the bird is Team Purple, Kim and I, always looking around and ahead. And the legs are the customer teams, the foundation of the organization. The teams are self-managing but work closely together. Together we form Tchai. The bird itself is a powerful representation of our Chinese roots."

So much self-awareness and self-direction, that must suit some people better than others. Have any employees dropped out yet?

Vera: "Certainly, but we expected there to be more. Today, we have 55 permanent employees and 25 'regular' freelancers who are excited about the way we do things."

Kim: "In the beginning it was a real challenge. I personally found it very difficult to let things go and delegate tasks. I would often think that another solution was better, and I had to keep reminding myself: 'Kim, there are many roads to Rome. Let's just try it.'"

Vera: "You really did go radical too didn't you, Kim! Later, some structure did return to certain aspects. Not only did we say goodbye to job descriptions, but also to performance and assessment interviews - where you fill out a standard form together. Now, it turns out that many people still want to track and visualize their personal development in a certain way. To meet that need, we recently implemented a new appraisal and reward system, which better appreciates performance, encourages growth and provides more financial perspective."

Kim: "It may surprise you, but it's mainly the younger employees who want this. They want to advance in their careers and still see it confirmed in a certain way. It's fascinating to discover all these things along the way."

Finally, what do customers think of your approach, do they notice anything?

Kim: "I want to make one thing very clear: it's not that we set out to organize our business in an innovative way. It's the result of the goal we're pursuing with Tchai to enable genuine connections. Connection between people and brands. But also, connections between people, and the connection with yourself and everything that drives you. Customer connection is also part of this. We believe that maximizing autonomy and minimizing hierarchy helps to enhance all these connections and make work more fun."

Vera: "In a more direct response to your question about what clients notice, I would say: they always sensed a certain energy at Tchai. The energy you feel when you work with us, when we're engaged in projects. Kim, you also received that feedback from clients, when you took over Tchai. You then conducted serious research into your heritage and that of the company. What makes Tchai distinctive comes partly from your Chinese roots."

Kim: "Exactly, I discovered the significance of chi in Chinese philosophy, the life energy that flows through everything and is so fundamental. And yes, that’s what clients feel when engaging with Tchai. It feels distinctly different with us, compared to walking into a big corporate company. To make the chi more personal, within Tchai we speak of Tchi, with a 't'. We try to cultivate it in many ways. For example, considering it’s intangible nature, we invite an artist every year to interpret their tchi."

Vera: " We understand that this spiritual aspect isn't for everyone. But clients truly see the value in connecting with their target group. They appreciate our dedication to understanding what links people to their brand and how we manifest that physically in brand activations. The client who comes to us solely to tick boxes as cheaply as possible doesn't quite align with Tchai anymore. That's the consequence."

Kim: "For clients, the added value is in the connection. We ourselves ultimately want to make the world more beautiful through genuine connections. ‘More beautiful’ can be aesthetic, through certain design or materials. But ‘more beautiful’ can also mean more sustainable. We don't create anything for eternity, so thinking about sustainable solutions is incredibly relevant to us."

Vera: "For us, sustainability encompasses not only the environment but also people. But, uhm, shall we discuss that next time?"

Kim: "Sure! That will be sometime in late July, at the next Deepdive Dialogue."