The Unique Cultures of 10 Hugely Successful Companies
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Corporate culture means a lot more than it used to, especially in this new age of technology. Successful tech companies are often celebrated for their uniquely designed, state-of-the-art workspaces and company perks (travel incentives, flexible schedules, team retreats, stock options, etc), but the culture of a workplace has to resonate emotionally with employees to make a successful company.
Over the past month as I've been hiring employees and determining what I need to do to grow my business while maintaining what I fit as an amazing company to work for. I've done a bit of research on a few companies that inspire me due to their culture.
Despite many of the greatest companies currently in the industry starting in a garage, or, in the case of Airbnb, an apartment, they have evolved into organizations that represent truly unique, revolutionary company cultures.
Here are ten companies that are innovators in creating a unique company culture worth replicating:
It’s hard to turn down an interviewer when he says that working for him is going to be the most fun job a person will ever have -- even when he has not yet revealed the salary. Former CEO Paul English left his mark on this thriving travel company in the form of a philosophy that states that personal engagement between employees and customers fosters a more intimate work and travel experience.
Their 150+ team gets perks like travel bonuses, team excursions, flexible hours, drinks and games but they never lose sight of who they are working for at Kayak. Every employee picks up the phone and handles service calls. Every employee is hired on the basis of being the smartest person that somebody knows. Every employee is encouraged to think beyond the company line and put their ideas to the test.
In their open-concept office, decision-making meetings do not require more than three people because Paul English has never believed that it takes more than three heads to come to a decision.
2. W. L Gore
The makers of the perennially time-honored fabric, Gore-Tex, may not have all the trappings of the modern-day corporate playlands that are often mentioned in articles about Google and Warby Parker. However, the absence of themed lunches has not prevented this 57-year-old company from appearing on Fortune’s "100 Best Companies to Work For" list every year since 1998.
Unlike many startups with great cultures that prioritize young, fresh ideas, Gore has kept some of the same employees for over 20 years. In fact, older employees are known as The Wise. These kinds of titles have replaced typical office terminology: employees are called "Associates," and rather than "managers," Gore has "leaders.” This is in keeping with their slogan, “We don’t manage people, we expect people to manage themselves.”
The closest thing they have to a showy, off-the-wall office is their proudly touted Gore Capabilities Center, a cross between a science center, museum and workspace. It features interactive modules that educate potential partners, buyers and employees on fabrics and fluoropolymers.
SolarCity was founded by brothers, Lyndon and Peter Rive (cousins of the superstar-genius Elon Musk) in 2006 and is quickly climbing to the top of the renewable energy sector. This rapidly growing solar energy provider is hiring aggressively, and they have expanded into 17 states across the United States, including their massive HQ in San Mateo, Calif.
Specifically listed in their hiring page are positions for military veterans, which is an overlooked group in the workforce, as well as college and university students who have a passion for reversing climate change. With such heavy social and global responsibilities built into the product and the organization’s culture, the main motivator for SolarCity to continue to innovate is a shared passion towards renewable energy sources.
As Lyndon Rive once said, “What’s important is the mission. If I wanted money, I would have cashed out a long time ago.” All of their (enormous) cash flow is reinvested into growth, which is how they have been able to expand so quickly. With their bottom-line desire to make solar energy more accessible and cheaper than fossil fuels, it is not hard to see how they succeed in building a strong, unified company culture.
4. Edward Jones
Another mainstay on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, Edward Jones is the financial services firm that has placed a high value on making sure their customers are as happy as their employees. They have put their money where their mouth is to ensure this is the case. Every associate has the opportunity to become partner (7,944 branch office administrators have been promoted to partner). During the recession of 2008, the giant firm worked together to cut costs and managed to keep all of their employees.
They are a 100-year old firm with more than 11,000 branch offices in the United States, but they are not to be confused with the bigger banks that seem to be guided by their Wall Street bottom lines. In contrast, most of their associates live in the small cities and towns where they do business. Edward Jones also prefers to run the opposite of the cold, male-centric office environment that is propagated through the finance industry. Instead, 63 percent of their employees are female.
5. KalpTree Energy
KalpTree Energy is moving up the ranks of admired companies for its innovative technology to completely revolutionize batteries, as well as open the door to new types of products. This would not be possible without their culture, which is anchored to an innovation management approach. The underlying objective is to create things that make life progress in new directions and in interesting ways. To truly foster innovation at KalpTree, leadership built a team from the ground-up who are self-motivated and are not afraid to fail. From there, the focus has been to develop a positive environment that is centered on setting specific goals with a timeline.
To bring innovation to market, the KalpTree team encourages what is called CPR, which stands for Collaboration, Persistance and Results. To generate this encouragement requires communication, talent alignment to the job requirement, challenges, midcourse corrections (if necessary) and reward for results. The team at KalpTree knows that this cannot all be accomplished by non-stop work. Instead, everyone has to make time for fun as this opens the mind and stimulates the creativity and free thought necessary to drive the innovation process.
He argued that culture is the most important part of the company and that, when a company lives its core values through all aspects of what they do -- from hiring, sending out emails, programming APIs, and shipping products -- the less corporate processes a company needs. When commissioning a design for their San Francisco headquarters, they invited their interior designers to become a fabric of the offices for four months to experience the culture and take part in the activities.
As a result, the headquarters building is stunning: a completely collaborative space that prioritizes green spaces and open areas with many different types of culture walls meant to inspire their employees. The kitchen belongs in someone’s home, and their meeting rooms evoke living rooms. This encourages a real exchange of ideas where each team member is able to take on their own projects with the intent of developing better tools and processes.
For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, one host decided to open up her home for free to anyone who was stranded. This inspired a team of eight Airbnb employees to create a way for other hosts in New York to offer their support. In the end, 1,440 hosts in New York provided homes for the temporarily displaced.
Etsy is well-known for its vibrant, diverse and purely stunning corporate culture. Much lauded (and envied) by Buzzfeed, Fast Company and a handful of other publications, Etsy is mostly recognized for its hyper-aestheticized Brooklyn headquarters. Most of the furniture was built in their own woodshop. There is a meditative “breathing room,” company meals are locally-sourced and organic, a “greenhouse” communal workspace is lit by windows and lined with houseplants, a board game library, tapestries and crafts on the wall and everything else you can imagine at the home of handmade products.
However, the main driving point of their corporate culture extends far beyond its Maker Funhouse aesthetic. Their initiatives include aggressively hiring female junior engineers, maintaining a gender-balanced senior team, keeping track of their diversity metrics, working with the Hacker School and B-Corp to train and educate employees as well as hire managers, and decreasing the management hierarchy to make sure all employees have a voice.
It is with these core values that that Etsy has helped this 10-year-old company sustain its success and go public as a leader of a new consumer-facing marketplace.
Though under recent heat for some of their culture, much has been written about Zappos’ eccentric CEO, Tony Hsieh, a multi-millionaire who prefers to sleep in an airstream trailer with his alpaca in a downtown Las Vegas trailer park he set up to accommodate visiting coders and tech entrepreneurs. Though Zappos emerged as one of the largest shoe retailers in the world (it was acquired by Amazon in 2009 for a reported $1.2 million), Zappos may be better known for its company culture.
At their Las Vegas headquarters, there is very little of the traditional management structure. Instead, it operates through a social governance system called Holacracy where all 1,500 employees define their job titles and everybody has a voice. Employees conduct their work and report to teams rather than managing individuals, and they learn new skills by earning badges. Call center employees are encouraged to speak without a script, and there are no limits on call times. New hires are given something of a quitting bonus so that, if they feel after training that the job is not for them, they are offered $3,000 on top of the wages that they have already earned.
While Hsieh has been fighting some controversy since implementing Holacracy (14 percent of his staff left after being offered a generous buy-out option), these efforts have resulted in a unique work environment with only the concerns of Zappos employees and customers in mind.
In 2009, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings (who is also the former Chief Hiring Officer) put together an exhaustive 124-slide document that has since become legendary in tech culture, garnering over 11 million views and being hailed by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as the “most important document ever to come out of Silicon Valley.”
This document was called the "Netflix Culture Deck," and it outlined the corporate values and hiring strategies of the now-behemoth media company. Netflix pays well and honors freedom, trusting their employees with a no-questions-asked expense policy (for more on its philosophy, please see “Act in Netflix’s Best Interest”), unlimited vacation time, flexible work schedules, no traditional yearly performance reviews and top-end pay.
However, they only keep the best employees, the pro league players and the A+ performers. For example, one of the slides clearly states: “Sustained B-level performance, despite "A for effort," generates a generous severance package, with respect.” Netflix encourages its employees to ask their managers, “If I told you I were leaving, how hard would you work to change my mind?”
By following their highly demanding process and hunger for passion and consistently high-performing employees, Netflix has transformed from a DVD rental service to one of the biggest entertainment and content producers in the world. And, more than office kegs, foosball tables and adult play-pens, Netflix’s values have led to a sustainable and successful corporate culture.
They also recently announced that they have a year maternity leave for all employees leading many more people to love their company culture.
It’s no surprise that one of the most important movie animation studios in history makes the cut for a list of unique company cultures. Much has been written about Pixar’s 22-acre campus in Emeryville, California. Its headquarters have secret speakeasy offices, statues of the studio’s most beloved characters, cereal bar, soccer field, swimming pool, gourmet cafeteria, billiards and foosball tables and other dream amenities for the top animators and engineers in the country.
However, fancy things do not necessarily create a productive culture, and staff members have admitted that they “have a problem with the parent coming in and saying, ‘You’ve been studying a lot, I think you need to go out and have a social life.’”
The real advantage of working at Pixar is that they have the means and passion to foster creativity and ideas on a larger scale than any other company. For example, to fully understand what goes into making the scene from "Toy Story 3" where Buzz and Woody are running through a garbage incinerator, management set up an inflatable hallway full of common detritus for their animators to run through. It is this kind of attention to detail that leads Pixar alums to stay the course as successful entrepreneurs, lead national healthcare initiatives, and tackle creative endeavors in the entertainment industry
Company culture is more important than ever before in driving innovation, disrupting industries and creating a real competitive advantage. All of these companies have been extraordinarily successful because behind the scenes, there is the leadership, vision and talent, but there is also the company culture hard at work to guide the talent.