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Built, Not Bought: 25 Examples Of Great Company Culture (2017 Update!)

Company culture is not a foosball table.

Perks are nice to have, and fun has an important place in the workplace.

But a company’s culture is more than that – it is the practices that reflect company’s core values, and nurtures its team. For this reason, culture is the lifeblood of a company.

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky relayed important advice from investor Peter Thiel – “don’t f*ck up the culture“, commenting that:

The thing that will endure for 100 years, the way it has for most 100 year companies, is the culture. The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.

We’ve put together a list of companies and the ways in which they hire and nurture their teams. Most of these practices cost next to nothing to implement.

1. Southwest Airlines – Top-notch Articulation

fun-luving attitude.
fun-luving attitude.

Warrior Spirit; Servant’s Heart, Fun-luving Attitude:

Southwest states its values in a succinct and powerful way – “Warrior Spirit; Servant’s Heart; Fun-luving Attitude.” These values aren’t abstract cliches on a plaque – they’re the warmth and enthusiasm embodied by employees.

“How did you respond to irate customers?”

In line with Southwest’s singular focus on service, Chief Communications Officer Ginger Hardage commented that she would ask potential hires what they did when they had to respond to an irate customer – “Not what they should have done, but what they actually did.”

2. Zappos – Everyone Spends Their First Four Weeks In The Call Center

zappos-customer-loyalty-team

Tony Hsieh will pay you $2,000 to quit.

Founder and CEO Tony Hsieh strongly believes that hires who don’t embody the company’s core value of service-mindedness, are best paid to leave.

Hsieh describes the training process for every employee:

Everyone that’s hired, it doesn’t matter what position–you can be an accountant, lawyer, software developer–goes through the exact same training as our call center reps. It’s a four-week training program and then they’re actually on the phone for two weeks taking calls from customers.

At the end of that first week of training we make an offer to the entire class that we’ll pay you for the time you’ve already spent training plus a bonus of $2,000 to quit and leave the company right now. The goal of that was to weed out the people that are just there for a paycheck.

Read next: Zappos’ service-centric marketing strategy

3. Dropbox – “You’re smart, figure it out.”

dropbox-psychobox

Great power and responsibility:

Dropbox is all about freedom. Jon Ying, one of Dropbox’s first employees, recounts working with co-founder Arash Ferdowski:

One day, Ferdowsi told him he didn’t want Dropbox’s “404 error” page to be so boring. “I remember you like to draw,” he told Ying. So Ferdowsi bought some colored pencils at the Walgreens downstairs, and Ying drew up “Psychobox“.

Ferdowsi’s next leap was, “If you know how to draw, you can do Web design.” So he grabbed a pirated copy of Photoshop, and Ying started doing early Dropbox design work.

Dropbox essentially operates on the principle of “you’re smart, figure it out”. Ferdowsi and Houston simply identified what people are good at and let them do it. They trusted their talent with important work.

Read next: How Referrals Built The $10B Dropbox Empire

4. Twilio – Everyone Must Code

twilio-everyone-must-code

Speak code, or learn:

In line with its commitment to innovation, Twilio expects its employees to be able to code. Each time Twilio hires a new employee, they must develop and present an app built on the company’s API. The demonstrations happen almost every Wednesday.

Some of the most interesting products are Callin’ Oates (call the hotline and choose a Hall and Oates song), and Twilio Latrine (check if the Twilio bathrooms were occupied without leaving your desk). 

What if you can’t code? Twilio’s engineers will teach you.

5. Moz – “I don’t care how dirty the laundry is.”

rand-fishkin-wizard-stache

Radical honesty from the CEO:

Founder and CEO Rand Fishkin is highly personal and open with the Moz community. In 2007, he proposed to his wife and posted about it that night on a company blog.  Recently, he also introduced a blog post by noting the state of his personal finances.

But the greatest instance of Fishkin’s radical honesty is his detailed account of Moz’s failure to secure a $24m VC deal in 2011.

Employees follow his lead:

And he realized employees were taking this aspect of their work home with them. An employee told him about disciplining her 3-year-old daughter: “She was thinking to herself, ‘No I shouldn’t give her feedback in this way. It’s not TAGFEE (the company’s core tenets). Right, like I need to be transparent with her about why we’re doing it.'”

6. T/Maker’s Heidi Roizen – Leading Employees Through Ethical Decisions

t-maker-heidi-roizen

“Tell the truth.”

Way back in T/Maker’s (now Broderbund) bootstrapping days in 1996, co-founder and CEO Heidi Roizen made a tough choice. When its entire inventory was destroyed in a sprinkler accident, Roizen could’ve claimed $150k from insurance by inflating the damages. The co-founders decided to tell the truth to their landlord, even though neither of them had cashed a paycheck in months:

All the fancy office furniture, designer juice bars and and swinging vodka parties don’t really matter. All that stuff is nice, and makes life more pleasant, but it does not change the core of who you are as a company.

How you act – and how you reward or punish the actions of others – will determine how everyone else in the company will act.  And that in turn will set the culture – honest or cheating, respectful or disrespectful, friendly or mean, trusting or mistrustful.

7. SumAll and Buffer – Salaries and Board Meetings Are Open Information 

buffer-open-salaries


Salaries are public information:

At SumAll, not only are employees given a cut of company stock, they also know how much everyone else is making. Board meetings are held in front of the whole company.

Buffer takes it a step further – founder Joel Gascoigne opened his formula for determining each salary.

8. Evernote – Quirky Practices Include Officer Training

Crash any meeting:

Probably the most noteworthy (ha.) thing about Evernote is its Officer Training program. Employees who sign up with Officer Training attend up to two extra meetings a week, in departments they don’t work in. During the meeting, ‘officers-in-training’ get to participate and ask questions.

This is entirely in line with Evernote’s commitment to a flat corporate hierarchy.

Interact with the HQ:

Evernote has a video wall that lets the studio office interact with the HQ. It’s about connection – Libin specifically “wanted to avoid the feeling that if you’re not working at headquarters, you’re in a second-place office.”

Communication skills are a must:

For Libin, communication skills are a make-or-break for potential hires:

“We want you to be able to explain what you mean; we want you to be articulate. That cuts out a lot of people, because a lot of people are probably pretty good technically, but if you don’t have excellent communication skills it’s going to be very frustrating for you and for other people. “

Read next: How Evernote Gained Millions of Users Through Word-of-Mouth

9. Birchbox – apply only if you’re hopelessly optimistic

birchbox-founders-katie-hayley

Co-founder Katia Beauchamp describes herself as a “yes” person, and she expects all employees to have the same go-getter attitude:

If somebody is negative at all about anything, it’s done for me. If they describe a past job as not fun, I am literally done because it’s your job to make your life fun, and it’s in your hands. If you didn’t figure out how to make something of it, you’re not going to figure out how to make something of it here.

Read next: How Birchbox grew from 200 to 850,000 subscribers in 3.5 years

10. Medium – Revamping The Interview Process

medium-your-text-here

“Teach me something.”

Gabe Kleinman wrote a piece on Medium about the ways the company is experimenting with the interview. Medium believes that its interview process needs to reflect what the company values in employees.

From the number of experiments it ran, it found that “Teach Me Something” was the best way to evaluate a candidate’s taste, dynamism, and influence – exactly the qualities Medium wants in its employees and its content.

“No people managers.”

Medium is also a radical adopter of the Holocracy model, which is primarily about “No people managers. Maximum autonomy.”

11. Twitter – Employees Attend The Twitter University

twitter-university

“Keep learning.”

Twitter believes that employees should end the week feeling like they know more than at the beginning of the week.

The engineering team decided that training should be a core competency of the organization, acquired Marakana (a company dedicated to open source training), and set up the Twitter University. Now, Twitter is running hundreds of classes for its employees.

“Explore crazy ideas.”

On top of that, Twitter runs a quarterly Hack Week that lets employees collaborate on any crazy ideas they have for the company. Krikorian, VP for platform engineering, says Hack Week is really about allowing people to have concentrated time to go wild. This “resets” what would otherwise be a constant background annoyance.

Read next: 50 ecommerce founders you should follow on Twitter

12. Costco – Took Employee Welfare to Congress

Joe Biden with Costco co-founder Sinegal
Joe Biden with Costco co-founder Sinegal

Going the political mile:

CEO Craig Jelinek believes that it literally pays to put employees first. We’d take his word for it, considering that America’s second largest retailer has been enjoying phenomenal success without significant labor troubles.

“I just think people need to make a living wage with health benefits,” says Jelinek. “It also puts more money back into the economy and creates a healthier country. It’s really that simple.”

In February, Jelinek wrote to Congress, urging it to increase the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009 – “We know it’s a lot more profitable in the long term to minimize employee turnover and maximize employee productivity, commitment and loyalty.”

13. Continental – “You can’t treat your employees like serfs”

herb-kelleher-continental

The customer is not always right:

Costco isn’t the only company that follows through on employee welfare. Continental Airlines’ Elmar Degenhart is a strong champion of “The Customer is Not Always Right”, and has consistently put its money where his mouth is.

The former CEO has dismissed an unreasonable customer without hesitation – all he wrote to her was “Dear Mrs Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.” (See other epic decisions Continental CEOs have made.)

14. Etsy – Increased Female Engineers By 500% In a Year By Introducing $5,000 Grants

etsy-female-engineers

Nurturing women engineers:

The company managed to increase its number of female engineers by 500% in just a year.

Etsy introduced grants of $5,000 each to help talented young women engineers enroll in Hacker School, a three-month hands-on course designed to build better engineers.

Almost immediately, the number of female applicants shot up 9200% (from seven to 651). From that pool, Etsy has plucked more than a dozen rising stars for its team – all for a fraction of a typical placement fee.

This diversity, in turn, changes the company’s culture and attracts the male talent Etsy is looking for:

The men who come into our organization are excited about the fact that we have diversity as a goal. They are generally the people who are better at listening, they’re better at group learning, they’re better at collaboration, they’re better at communication. They’re particularly the people you want to be your engineering managers and your technical leads. – Etsy CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea

Read next: Etsy’s marketing strategy

15. Treehouse – Four Day Work Week

treehouse founders
Ryan Carson and Alan Johnson. Image: ThinkProgress

“If you put them in a race with someone for one month, and one works 60-hour weeks, and one works 32, then yes, the person who worked 60 hours is going to get more done in that one month,” he said. “How about in 12 months? How about in seven years?”

Coming from a relentless startup environment in the past, Ryan Carson, CEO at Treehouse was regularly burnt out and was unable to work to his maximum productivity. Learning from the lessons he gained working in such an environment, Carson decided to play the long game.

Instead of squeezing every last effort from his employees, Carson believes in improving his employees’ productivity in the long-term by not overworking them.

This was the basis of his four-day work week. However, that does not mean his employees have the license to slack off.

“I think hard work is great. I mean, I work really hard, you know — Monday through Thursday.”

The side benefit of emphasizing work-life balance for his employees also improves the chances for his employees to create that “eureka” moment to help grow his company (the online education world is a competitive space.)

16. Shopify – Creating an internal tool to recognize peers for great work

shopify unicorn
UNICORN Tool. Image: Shopify

In a previous research by Deloitte, they discovered that employee engagement and productivity was improved by about 14% if recognition occurred in the organization. A more interesting discovery was that peer recognition was valued more than senior leadership recognition.

And we get it — how many times have you gone to work without anyone complimenting you for a great job well done? If anybody notices your work, it usually has to do with you screwing up something.

To curb this problem, Shopify developed their own internal tool, nicknamed UNICORN. This tool allowed employees to praise each other if they discovered something was well-done.

Tobi Lutke, Shopify CEO describes the scenario:

“When we hit 20,000 followers on Twitter, someone noticed and posted a message on UNICORN thanking our social media manager. Right away, there were high fives in the hallways and the person responsible was walking around with a huge smile on her face.”

The UNICORN tool even allows employees to give each other cash bonuses if they liked what each other were doing.

17. Warby Parker – Deliberately Setting Up a “Culture Team”

Warby Parker is known for its company culture — and it was NOT a accidental design. In fact, Warby Parker takes deliberate steps to plan for great company culture.

How?

They assign an entire team to dedicate themselves to improving company culture.

The “culture team” is in charge of planning company outings and themed luncheons, making sure that there is always an upcoming event for the entire company to look forward to.

18. Adobe – Remove Employee Ratings And Allow Managers To Function Like Coaches

Image: Adobe

Adobe and creativity.

Besides the fact that the two words rhyme, the brand Adobe is synonymous with creativity. Thousands of creatives use Adobe’s products daily to design, create and produce content and products.

It shouldn’t then be a surprise that the Adobe team themselves prize free-spirited innovation. They do this by removing the kind of hierarchical rankings prevalent at many big companies:

“The kind of creative environment that we work in thrives on innovation and where every individual is contributing in their own unique way, we felt stack rankings were not a fair process of judging their capabilities. We felt it had a negative impact on work and the required cooperation and teamwork was compromised upon and so we did away with the curve.”

Managers also function like coaches — and their main job is to encourage every employee to set their own goals and objectives and motivate them to reach it.

19. Quora – Continuous Deployment

Image: Quora

Continuous deployment is the idea of shipping out new code constantly.

In many companies, new code has to receive approval by the upper management before it can be shipped.

In Quora, continuous deployment is the norm. New hires are paired with mentors and as quickly at the end of the first week, the new engineers are already deploying each other’s code.

This constant tweaking and feedback allows Quora’s code to keep on improving — as well as forces employees to learn from each other all the time.

20. Morning Star – No More Managers

Morning Star is an unfamiliar name to many, but it is actually the world’s leading tomato processor.

(This also shows that unique company culture practices aren’t limited to just tech companies or startups.)

Morning Star’s ultimate goal is to make all of its employees a self-managing professional active in initiating communication and coordination with their co-workers.

The only “boss’ Morning Star employees report to is the Morning Star mission. Every employee is expected to create a personal mission statement that outlines how he or she will contribute to this mission — and they are encouraged to manage themselves to achieve it.

Morning Star believes in self-management so much that they even have a self-management institute (complete with white papers!)

21. NextJump – Encourage Friendly Competition Amongst Co-workers (And Win $1000!)

Image: Inc

You would think that after developing all sorts of wellness initiatives and investing in gyms will make their employees wayyy healther.

Unfortunately, not in the case of NextJump. As they discovered (like many other companies), getting employees to participate in wellness programs is tough.

To get their employees to utilize the wellness resources created by the company, NextJump split their employees into different teams that pit against one another to win $1000 each week.

Every team has to log their workouts in an internal computer system where every co-worker can see the data. The team that works out the most each week wins $1000.

And it works:

“While the program helps with employee health care costs, Kim said, workers are also more engaged and energized. And, they recover from stress much more quickly than they would otherwise, Kim added, boasting that his engineers bounce back from the occasional all-nighters required for the job quicker than most.”

Another benefit: The company gets letters from employees’ moms, saying thanks for “making their kids healthier.”

22. Scripps – In-house Massages & Other Health Benefits

No other company can say they walk the talk like Scripps. Scripps, a healthcare company took offering health benefits for its employees to the next level.

Employees get:

  • Doctors on demand
  • Medical coverage
  • Free food
  • On-site massage therapy

Plus…

Scripps also pays their employees’ pet insurance — so that they can minimize the stress faced by their employees when their pet gets sick.

23. Patagonia – It’s Surfing Time!

Patagonia is a firm believer in the idea that employees must fully believe in the products they sell.

Since it was started in 1973, “let my people go surfing” has been a standing policy at Patagonia. Located near the beach in Ventura, California, the policy allows employees to leave the office when there is a perfect surf (or for other outdoor activities), even if it is during offfice hours.

(There’s even a daily surf report and a stock of Patagonia towels.)

It isn’t all for fun only though. By employing this practice, Patagonia also helps re-affirm the employees’ faith in the products Patagonia sells:

“Other than helping to refresh the mind, encouraging employees to leave the office for outdoor activities fosters a strong belief in the product they’re selling with employees being encouraged to test out their apparel regularly. If an employee really believes in the product, it will come across to the client.”

24. Atlassian – Shipit Days

Image: Atlassian

“24 hours to innovate.”

For 4 days a year, Atlassian employees are given 24 hours (called ShipIt Day) to devise new ideas. During a ShipIt day, employees are told to drop normal work and spend time on any creative project they can come up with. According to Atlassian, anything can be a ShipIt.

And so far, they have created a Jira Service Desk, better bulbs, DIY video studio, better homebrews and a faster Jira.

Looks pretty good, if you’d ask me.

25. Whole Foods – Get More Discounts If You’re Healthy

Another company that walks the talk.

As part of the company, all employees are entitled to a 20% store discount on store purchases.

However, they are entitled to even more discount (up to 30%) if they keep themselves healthy and meet criteria for blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking status and body-mass-index (BMI) screenings.

Whole Foods has even provided a company website that allows employees to track their own eating habits — keeping them healthy.

Conclusion: It pays to think about cultural practices critically and rigorously.

Beware ‘mirrortocracy’.

The ugly side of hiring to “cultural fit” is mirrortocracy – the term that Kapor Capital’s Mitch Kapor coined to describe white male founders who hire the people closest to them, ie. other white males. Mirrortocracy happens when “culture” is poorly thought out, and when an affinity for craft beer is mistaken for a shared value.

Shanley Kane argues that an arbitrary company culture often contains the subtext:

We are able to reject qualified, diverse candidates on the grounds that they “aren’t a culture fit” while not having to examine what that means – and it might mean that we’re all white, mostly male, mostly college-educated, mostly young/unmarried, mostly binge drinkers, mostly from a similar work background. We tend to hire within our employees’ friend and social groups. Because everyone is a “great culture fit,” we don’t have to acknowledge employee alienation and friction between individuals or groups. 

She also emphasizes the importance of cultural critique, with the example of flat corporate structures – “In places where there is no formal hierarchy, you actually have to pay more attention to power dynamics. This is because power is an aspect of every human interaction, even if you don’t have managers.”

Finally, MemSQL’s Carlos Bueno shares a useful way of rethinking “cultural fit”:

Instead of demanding that others reflect your views, reflect on yourselfTry to remember the last time someone successfully changed your mindTry, just for a moment, to suppose that it’s probably unnatural for an industry to be so heavily dominated by white and Asian middle-class males under 30 who keep telling each other to only hire their friendsHaving supposed that, think about what a just future should look like, and how to get there. 

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Read Next: How 13 Successful Companies Fought For Their First Customers

Melissa Tsang

Melissa Tsang is a writer and speaker on the social impact of ecommerce and technology. She's also a bit of an impulse shopper. (A bit.)

1 comment

  • I love this post, but Herb was never a CEO for Continental! He’s Southwest Airlines through and through 🙂

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