Dec 062012

Book Short: Culture is King

Book Short:  Culture is King

Tony Hsieh’s story, Delivering Happiness (book, Kindle), is more than just the story of his life or the story of Zappos. It’s a great window into the soul of a very successful company and one that in many ways has become a model for great culture and a great customer service model.  It’s a relatively quick and breezy read, and it contains a handful of legendary anecdotes from Zappos’ history to demonstrate those two things — culture and customer service — in action.

As Hsieh himself says in the book, you can’t copy this stuff and believe it will work in your company’s environment as it does in Zappos’.  You have to come up with these things on your own, or better yet, you have to create an environment where the company develops its own culture and operating system along the broad lines you lay out.  I think Return Path has many similarities with Zappos in how we seek out WOW experiences and in our Core Values, as well as the evolutionary path we took to get to those places.  But as much as I enjoyed reading about a like-minded company, I also recognized the specific things that were different and had a good visceral understanding as to WHY the differences exist.

It is the rare company that gets to $1 billion in revenue ever – let alone within a decade.  For that reason alone, this is a worthwhile read.  But if you are a student of organizational culture and believe in the power of values-driven organizations, this is good affirmation and full of good examples.  And if you’re a doubter of the power of those things, this might just convince you to think twice about that!

Aug 022012

The Best Place to Work, Part 2: Create an environment of trust

Last week, I wrote about surrounding yourself with the best and brightest.  Next in this series of posts  is all about Creating an environment of trust.  This is closely related to the blog post I wrote a while back in my series on Return Path’s Core Values on Transparency.  At the end of the day, transparency, authenticity, and caring create an environment of trust.

Some examples of that?

  • Go over the real board slides after every board meeting – let everyone in the company know what was discussed (no matter how large you are, but of course within reason)
  • Give bad news early and often internally.  People will be less freaked out, and the rumor mill won’t take over
  • Manage like a hawk – get rid of poor performers or cultural misfits early, even if it’s painful – you can never fire someone too soon
  • Follow the rules yourself – for example, fly coach if that’s the policy, park in the back lot and not in a “reserved for the big cheese” space if you’re not in Manhattan, have a relatively modest office, constantly demonstrate that no task or chore is beneath you like filling the coke machine, changing the water bottle, cleaning up after a group lunch, packing a box, carrying something heavy
  • When a team has to work a weekend , be there too (in person or virtually) – even if it’s just to show your appreciation
  • When something really goes wrong, you need to take all the blame
  • When something really goes right, you need to give all the credit away

Perhaps a bit more than the other posts in this series, this one needs to apply to all your senior managers, not just you.  Your job?  Manage everyone to these standards.

Oct 052011

Building the Company vs. Building the Business

Building the Company vs. Building the Business

I was being interviewed recently for a book someone is writing on entrepreneurship, which focused on identifying the elements of my “playbook” for entrepreneurial success at Return Path.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had a full playbook, though I’ve certainly documented pieces of it in this blog over the years.  One of the conversations we had in the interview was around the topic of building the company vs. building the business.

The classic entrepreneur builds the business — quite frankly, he or she probably just builds the product for a long time first, then the business.  In the course of the interview, I realized that I’ve spent at least as much energy over the years building the company concurrently with the product/business.  In fact, in many ways, I probably spent more time building the company in the early years than the business warranted given its size and stage.  This is probably related to my theme from a few months ago about building Return Path “Backwards.”

What do I mean by building the company as opposed to building the business?

  • Building the business means obsessing over things like product features, getting traction with early clients, competition, and generating buzz
  • Building the company means obsessing over things like HR policies, company values and culture, long-term strategy, and investor reporting

In the early years, I did some things that now seem crazy for a brand new, 25-person company, like designing a sabbatical policy that wouldn’t kick in until an employee’s 7th anniversary.  But I don’t regret doing them, and I don’t think they were wasted effort in the long run, even if they were a little wasted in the short run.  I think working on company-building early on paid benefits in two ways for us:

  1. They helped lay the groundwork for scaling – what we’re finding now as we are trying to rapidly scale up the business, and even over the last few years since we’ve been scaling at a moderate pace, is that we are doing so on a very solid foundation
  2. The company didn’t die when the product and business died – because we had built a good company, when our original ECOA business basically proved to be a loser back in 2002, it was a fairly obvious decision (on the part of both the management team and the venture syndicate) to keep the business going but pivot the business, more than once

Starting about four years ago, for the first time, I felt like we had a great business to match our great company.  Now that those two things are in sync, we are zooming forward at an amazing pace, and we’re doing it perhaps more gracefully than we would be doing it if we hadn’t focused on building the company along the way.

I’m not saying that there’s a right path or a wrong path here when you compare business building with company building, although as I wrote this post, my #2 conclusion above is a particularly poignant one, that without a strong company, we wouldn’t be here 12 years later.  Of course, you could always argue that if I’d spent more time building the business and less time building the company, we might have succeeded sooner.  In the end, a good CEO and management team must be concerned about getting both elements right if they want to build an enduring stand-alone company.

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