Illustration: Kevin Whipple

Illustration: Kevin Whipple

Roham Gharegozlou describes his company as “50 guys and gals from all over the world working on the coolest things we can find to work on.” It’s the kind of bland pronouncement that could apply to any Vancouver tech startup, which Axiom Zen happens to be.

But while other startups exist to fill a specific need—usually to solve a pain point or service a particular industry—Axiom Zen’s raison d’être is to create more startups.

Axiom Zen, which labels itself as an “innovation studio,” is one of a new breed of company, more akin to incubators—organizations that support entrepreneurial ventures as they grow from concept to a going concern—than traditional businesses. Twenty-nine-year-old Gharegozlou didn’t have a product to rally around when he walked away from his work with Silicon Valley venture capital firms to start Axiom Zen in Vancouver in 2013.

Instead, he assembled a team of tech-savvy individuals and tasked them with thinking up big ideas, which are then developed into products and eventually spun out as separate businesses. This company-building-companies structure also lends itself well to helping large corporations behave like startups while at the same time giving smaller businesses access to resources only available to larger firms. In this capacity, Axiom Zen does everything from developing software to building innovation practices within its organizations.

MORE INNOVATION PRACTICES: How to Foster Intrapreneurship at Your Firm »

It’s a hybrid business model that demands a unique corporate culture, a modern organizational structure, an appetite for risk and, most important, a talented and flexible team. That team consists mostly of developers, with some designers and niche tech experts mixed in. The company doesn’t hire for specific projects or roles—employees can pick what they want to work on, and they tend to jump between teams and projects. Nobody tracks hours and the hierarchy skews flat, as evidenced by the “Our Team” page on the company’s website, which is organized alphabetically by first name instead of by position. As a result, you’ll find Gharegozlou near the bottom of the page, but he is calling the shots. “Eventually you’re going to have to talk to Roham about how things are going,” explains Caleb Lai, a UX designer at MetaLab who worked at Axiom Zen for two years. “But there’s no manager role you have to definitely listen to.”

While the corporate structure sounds like anarchy, it’s producing results. ZenHub may be the best example of Axiom Zen’s startup creation model in action. ZenHub is a project management tool that acts as an add-on to GitHub, a database of open-source code used by developers to store and share their work. While GitHub is more of a reference tool, ZenHub acts as a sort of social network that allows teams to collaborate, visualize and organize their workflow, and assign and track tasks. It’s used by groups at the likes of NBC, Microsoft and Starbucks.

Given the organic way Axiom Zen operates, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that ZenHub developed by accident. It started as a way for Axiom Zen to solve the problems created by a team dispersed across continents and time zones. (The company also has offices in Silicon Valley and Santiago, Chile, and some developers worked from their home cities.) So a developer built a simple prototype, and the team began using it internally. “We showed it to a few of our close associates, and they liked it so much that we decided to put in the work and productize it,” explains Gharegozlou. Now that it has achieved product-market fit, ZenHub is likely to be spun out as an independent startup that will raise capital of its own, with Gharegozlou making an angel investment.

MORE DISPERSED TEAMS: How to Manage a Global Workforce »

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