In 2010, on one of the most epic road trips of my life, I was passing through Las Vegas and visited Zappos, a year or so after it had been acquired by Amazon. I spent 4 hours visiting headquarters, taking pictures, chatting with executives, and getting the full Zappos experience.
If you have never heard of Zappos, it’s a vibrant company founded by Tony Hsieh. They sell shoes. How boring is that? They have a website, and they sell shoes. However, they did not become popular due to the quality of those shoes. They became popular in our industry for their outstanding corporate culture.
To give a few examples, employees had free food and drinks (excluding Red Bull) available 24/7 at headquarters, a car wash service on weekends, massage sessions at the end of shifts. And surprisingly, for an e-commerce company, employees were not evaluated by sales volume or the number of calls they took during support shifts. Performance was only tied to customer satisfaction, as measured by independent post-sales surveys.
Other companies made headlines for their fancy policies. Apple has the most amazing headquarters on Earth, Facebook offices are also great, and Google was featured in a movie called “The Internship,” which was a comedy mostly about the unusual culture at Googleplex.
My visit at Zappos was a blast, and I raved about it for months and years. At the time, I was working for a startup in Vienna that had recently been sold to a large French corporation. I was so enthusiastically impressed by Zappos that I tried introducing some of their practices. Every experiment failed miserably. My repeated attempts and failures in changing the work practices of my team resulted in a clash with upper management, and I left the company.
In the five years that followed, I discovered through other experiences that free drinks, free food, and unusual methods to measure productivity are the consequence of something deeper — a unique set of values that are at the foundation of outstanding companies. They are like Hawaiian shirts. They make total sense if you live in Maui, but wearing a Hawaiian shirt when you work in a bank does not make you a surfer, and it will probably end in a serious chat with your boss.
A few weeks ago I was in Park City, Utah, meeting 400 coworkers at our annual Grand Meetup, a yearly business retreat where we have the chance to spend a week together under the same roof after 51 weeks scattered all over the world. The Grand Meetup schedule is packed with meetings, chats, work sessions, classes, and fun activities. On the first day, Matt Mullenweg, our Founder and CEO, gave opening remarks in a 15-minute speech. It was not super formal, but the tension during kickoff was strong.
Do you know what I remember from those 15 minutes? “Be nice to each other. Grand Meetup can be intimidating for new Automatticians, make sure you are welcoming. Pick up trash on the floor, and be nice to the wait staff of the resort.”
I knew Matt Mullenweg for years before joining Automattic, and one thing that always struck me about him is his kindness. Many times we shared a dinner table at conferences. Matt is the guy who makes you feel good about yourself because he pours water for other people before drinking himself. He’s the one who opens doors, and says please and thank you with absolute sincerity.
When I joined Automattic, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of my colleagues. The first three weeks of support rotation were challenging, but at any time of the day I only had to ask for help and a bunch of people would come to the rescue. The same is true today, with 200 more people on the payroll.
The foundation of corporate culture is the shadow of the founder. So if you are a founder, pay attention to how you behave, more than your corporate policies. If you are joining a company, do a background check on the founder. It’s unlikely you’ll find a pleasing working environment if you and the founder don’t share core values. Steve Jobs was known as a difficult person to deal with, obsessed with details. Look at Apple now: the shadow of the founder is present in every connector, charger, and icon. Of course, the company changed after Steve Jobs, but the legacy is strong and Apple has a long history of ups and downs.
Things change. But people don’t like change. We like to settle in and get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable. Accept the idea that things need to change and when it’s time, it’s time. Think about life, the most important changes just happen. You get a new job, you get fired, you meet that special person, you get married, you have kids, you have to let someone go. Life and death do not follow a schedule. When it’s time, it’s time. So why would your company wait until next quarter to change? So it better fits your Excel table?
Get over it and learn to embrace change.
When I joined Automattic, there were just over 200 people. Two years later on our 10th anniversary, we crossed the 400 mark. I have personally seen many practices get introduced and dismissed, new teams formed and disbanded, projects shelved and picked up again. It’s a good way to keep things spinning and to stay alert and ready for new challenges. We are in a marathon, not in a sprint.
Since the beginning, the motto at Facebook was: “Move fast and break things”, until they got big. Then it changed to “Move fast with a solid infrastructure.” How easy do you think it was for Mark Zuckerberg to go on stage at F8 and announce the new motto? Deep thoughts were behind that announcement. The company followed him because of the culture he built over time.
A few years ago I worked at a company that hit rough waters. After a summer with limited liquidity and a series of pay cuts, employees were asked to make a difficult decision: voluntarily work half time to avoid layoffs. We were all pretty weary but the spirit was strong, and we agreed to go half time. In addition, the CEO asked us to concentrate our efforts and be at the office from 9 to 13. It was difficult to accept, as a few of us typically got to the office at 10 or 11.
On the first day of this new schedule, we were all on time. Even those not happy about waking up early were at the office at 9 am sharp. Except one. The CEO showed up at 11 am. There was absolute silence when he walked in the door, holding his usual Starbucks latte. After a moment of hesitation, he said: “There was a hell of a traffic today.” Three people, including me, resigned in a matter of weeks. A single act of disrespect broke months and years of trust.
If you want a healthy company culture, lead by example. Every action you take as a founder, more than just words, sets the tone and makes a difference.