Company Culture

At the best companies, "company culture" is more than just a buzzword. Here's how the most innovative companies make company culture real.

To get started, you may want to read articles about specific companies like Zappos, Amazon, Shopify, Wistia, and Buffer.

Are You an Unwitting Audience to Productivity Theater?

Before Curtain at the Theater

A productive office is supposed to be a buzzing hive of activity, right?

But as a manager, a workplace that’s always humming with constant activity is not what you want to see — because it’s a sign that something has gone awry. It means that people are putting on a show to look busy all the time.

You know the trick: when someone walks by, you quickly switch tabs to bring up the spreadsheet or report you’re supposed to be working on, or engage in theatrics like looking very annoyed or walking briskly like you’re a very important person who can’t be bothered.

Welcome to Productivity Theater. Even though it’s impossible for human beings to be working nonstop, that’s what’s expected at the workplace. Looking busy becomes how you get recognized for doing a good job. The result is a show put on for the managers — and proceeds largely according to their expectations, scripts, and direction.

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Don’t Preserve Startup Culture in Your Growing Company

startup culture like peter pan

Like seeing your kids off to college for the very first time, it’s always a bit jolting for startup founders who see their company grow beyond the plucky “move fast and break things” startup culture of its youth. It’s hard not to get a little nostalgic about that exciting age when everything was new.

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Phil Libin has seen his company Evernote shoot up from a small startup to a billion-dollar company in six short years. Growing the Evernote team from just tens of people to 400, Libin worried over what such fast growth would do to the young company culture.

When he talked to Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO, who’d seen his own company grow precipitously, he asked him how to preserve the company culture that had helped get Evernote to such a successful start. Costolo’s answer was completely unexpected.

Don’t, Costolo said.

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Why Getting Personal Matters for Getting Professional

karma team

Even if transparency is one of your official organizational values, how do you actually make that come true?

Karma has a company culture of openness and sharing, one that reflects its mission to make connecting to the internet easier for everyone. That philosophy of accessibility permeates the company — whether in sharing their journey with their customers, providing weekly — yes, weekly — updates to their investors, or how they get stuff done together.

Company culture isn’t what is written on a poster or slide deck but what happens day-by-day. And what the Karma team has figured out is that transparency doesn’t just happen by itself. The kind of information-sharing it requires depends on people’s willingness to be open with each other, day in and day out — and one of the best ways to do it is tell each other about their day.

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When CEOs Are Proud to Be Powerless

powerless ceo

At Menlo Innovations, a software company in Ann Arbor, bosses aren’t the major decision-makers — even over how to hire and fire.

When James Goebel and Richard Sheridan founded Menlo, they went all in on their ideas of decentralizing power and rethinking modern management that they’d implemented at a previous workplace. In doing so, they crafted a strong identity and culture at their new company. The “Menlo way” is remarkably open, collective, and democratic.

One of the best tests of those ideas took place when Goebel, who is the COO, had a niece, Erin, who worked as an admin at the company for a few months.

The company’s employees wanted to let her go — having collectively decided that nepotism wasn’t something that fit the Menlo way. Firing someone is always a serious decision, and firing the boss’s family member can be particularly thorny. But the rules applied equally — Goebel wasn’t able to object to the final decision to fire her. “Actually, my niece lives with me,” he told New York Magazine. “And she was really pissed….it was a little frosty for a while.”

For CEOs and bosses reinventing the traditional top-down way of running a company, being a strong leader means less power. Their proudest moment is when they are weakest.

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3 Lessons on Business Longevity from the Oldest Company in the World

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is the oldest company in the world. Founded in 705 A.D., the Japanese hot spring hotel has operated continually for an astonishing 1,300 years. Think about it: this company has existed since before Charlemagne became the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Charlemagne crowned by the Pope The company’s founder, Fujiwara Mahito, was the son of a close aide to Emperor Tenji, Japan’s 38th emperor, and he built the hotel in a mountainous village in Hayakawa, Yamanashi Prefecture. It’s said that some of the most famous shoguns and samurai soaked in the hot springs there, so that when you go for a dip, you’re in good historical company.

Having survived a mind-blowing 52 generations of successive ownership within the same family, the hotel is no doubt a study on how to achieve longevity in business. Learn these three vital lessons from the hotel on building a business that lasts.

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This Startup Pays You to Learn How to Code

Jeff Vincent Wistia

Learning the new literacy of the 21st century doesn’t come cheap.

Hack Reactor, a code school in San Francisco, costs a breathtaking $17,780 in tuition for 12 weeks of instruction. A semester at Cornell Engineering costs $23,525.

But if you learn to code, the rewards are great. Hack Reactor boasts a 99% graduate hiring rate at an average annual salary of $105,000. A fresh, 22-year-old recent graduate of the computer science from Cornell can expect a salary around $95,670. In short, learning to code is one of the most valuable skills you can develop.

Companies like Wistia are offering a brilliant way around the expensive world of software engineering education. Wistia actively looks to hire non-technical people who want to learn how to code, pays them to work in customer support, and trains them on how to become a software developer. In time, the skills they develop rival what they’d learn in school, the employees are in a position to become professional developers, and they’re well-compensated to learn and grow in a supportive, practical setting.

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A Remarkable, 10-Year-Old Email from Tony Hsieh on Zappos Company Culture

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In early 2005, Tony Hsieh was a relative unknown.

Zappos was a fast-growing company, but it was far from being the household brand that it is today. While it hadn’t yet come up with its core values for which it is famous today, the company had a growing sense of its own culture and identity. They were on the cusp of something big.

It was against this backdrop that Hsieh emailed this never-before published update to investors, employees, partners, and friends of Zappos. It’s an awesome behind-the-scenes look at what drove Hsieh and kept him up at night. In this glimpse into how Hsieh thought about building a company, you can see the seeds of what would grow into Zappos’s world-famous company culture and brand.

Within five years, Zappos would hit $1 billion in revenue and Hsieh would author Delivering Happiness, a #1 New York Times Bestseller, which would catapult him into being one of the most influential business persons in the world. But here is an unfiltered look into the mind of Tony Hsieh, before the notoriety and fame.

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This Deli Makes $50 Million a Year By Staying Small

smallgiants

It’s crazy to learn about a deli that makes $50 million dollars a year. It’s stranger yet how they’ve done it.

Most restaurants grow their revenue by opening more locations and eventually developing a franchise model like Subway. You sell more and more sandwiches as you open more and more stores. The problem is that the quality inevitably declines. Your restaurant becomes more about volume than great food and remarkable service.

Zingerman’s, a deli based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, faced this fork in the road: open more locations or face continually stagnating revenue growth. Instead of choosing the conventional franchise path, they blazed their own trail.

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What Will Fast Company Write about Your Startup’s Culture?

zappos startup culture values

Successful entrepreneurs like Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, exhort startups to write down their core values on Day 1 and make company culture a first-order concern from the very beginning.

Have you tried it? The problem is that after you look at what you wrote, you’ll probably see a bunch of boring clichés. Many of your company values might sound suspiciously similar to Zappos’s and Netflix’s. Your company couldn’t sound less exciting.

Molly Graham, former Head of Mobile at Facebook, who worked with Mark Zuckerberg to define Facebook’s company culture in 2008, recognized this common pitfall. She came up with an ingenious solution to the problem, rooted in a simple trick that Amazon uses to build its products, that helped Facebook own the Hacker brand that defined the company through its IPO.

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