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Home » Jay Wilkinson on Company Culture at TEDxLincoln (Full Transcript)

Jay Wilkinson on Company Culture at TEDxLincoln (Full Transcript)

Jay Wilkinson

Here is the full transcript of Firespring’s CEO Jay Wilkinson’s presentation on Company Culture at TEDxLincoln conference. This event occurred on November 10, 2011.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Jay Wilkinson on Company Culture at TEDxLincoln


Thank you very much. I was worried that you all might forget to do that after the break, because people were off talking and forgetting things.

So in 2002 I was fired as the CEO of my own company. In June of this year, just a few months ago, as the CEO of that same company, I was able to celebrate as we were named as one of Inc. Magazine’s top 50 small company workplaces in America. Thank you.

The journey has been a fascinating experience, very humbling, very exhilarating and I’ve learned along the way that people more than business plans or physical assets are really what makes a strong company. And I’ve learned that leveraging by deliberate design a company culture, a company has opportunity that goes far beyond what they can imagine. But let me go back to the beginning of the story.

In the mid-1990s, many of you may remember this: Al Gore had invented this thing called the Internet, remember that. And it was a fascinating time; the world around us was changing at a rapid pace. And people were starting to use websites for the first time in a commercial way for our companies and for our businesses. And we were really excited about this. We were able to create an opportunity to launch a company that developed websites and we were one of the first in the United States that was doing this in a commercial level. We called it Level 100 Communications and when we started we spun off of a printing company that I had owned at the time and about four or five of us literally operated in the basement of this printing company. There was no air conditioning, no heat, nails were sticking out of the ceiling, we basically took a concrete mess and cleaned it up and we called it home.

And our biggest fear at the time was if one of our customers might want to come and visit us, because we were terrified at the thought of them figuring out where it was that we lived. So we developed quickly some really fantastic tools and opportunity. We were able to build technology that made it possible for people to modify and update their website with the click of a button and just drop and drag simple. And at that point in time no one else anywhere in the country was doing something like that. And we were very excited about all the things that we had in front of us. In fact, we were so excited that we decided we wanted to leverage and ramp things up.

Back in these days, if you recall, was before the bubble burst and companies like ours were getting really high ridiculous valuations and we decided we want to take advantage of this and we were going to leverage and grow quickly. I’m going to go court some venture capitalists. So I spent many many late nights till three, four in the morning with kind of an unhealthy Daily-ians with Microsoft Excel, building spreadsheets and forecasts and models and did lots and lots of business pitches. And we finally found someone who would give us the money. And it was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had in my life to date. When I remember logging into my bank account, the day after we closed that and I looked and I saw that we had more than $1 million in cash sitting in our bank account waiting to be spent.

So I spent it. We added technology, we added lots of people in our company. Perhaps the biggest thing we did is we expanded quickly into 10 cities all around the United States by adding people and offices everywhere we could reach. And we started to really think this is where our growth is going to be; this is where it’s at. And we started to really quickly learn the difference between our vision of growth and what the money guys that had come in thought we should be doing.

One of the first things you learn when you have other people’s money and you’re running your business using other people’s money is that you don’t always agree on how you’re spending it. The thing is when I look back all these years later, I know that they were right to a large degree. And we started this infighting and jousting back and forth over what we should be doing and what we should be doing and in the middle of all this 9/11 happened. The economy completely tanked and one by one like dominoes falling, the offices that we’d opened up all across the United States started to fail and closed down.

And the infighting with my investors and board continued and got worse and worse — until the guy from the money shop we were working with called a meeting with our Board of Directors. There were seven members of our board and there was a 4-3 vote and they voted to remove me as CEO of the company because I wasn’t managing it properly and replace me with a management committee. You can’t even imagine how it felt to walk out of the office that afternoon which I did with a couple of co-workers that I was really close to, and went over to a local pub. And I sat down and I told them, “Look, I’ve been fired. I’m not the CEO anymore. What are we going to do?”

Over the course of the next several months I leaned very very heavy on the people in our company. The people that I had learned to grow and trust, the people that were there with me in the beginning and we started to slowly figure out how to get control of this. And over time we were able to put a plan together and with the help of some other people, including my father and my brother who are my business mentors, we figured out how to find new capital, private investors and some bank financing and eventually was able to regain control of the company.

So all of this time went by, now fast-forward seven years, Firespring today is a thriving and profitable company. We have more than 75 employees, 3,000 customers around the world in 12 countries and we’re just now preparing to begin to build out of our new corporate headquarters at 1201 Infinity Court here in Lincoln; we’re very excited about that. It’s been a long journey.

And what I’m going to share with you today is how that amazing ride that I’ve taken, how we were able to get from there to here. And the first thing we did in this process was literally open the kimono and share everything with our team. We told everybody everything. We told them the things we did right, we told them mostly about the things we’d done wrong and we shared our financial statements which is something we still do to this day. Every month we get together as a team and we share our financial statements with our company. We share everything. We open the door, we’re authentic and we’re genuine and we’re real about what it is we’re experiencing because we knew that the only way we could make this and get through this is if we had this mentality that we’re all in this together.

Because, you know, building a company culture, it’s not about having free soda in the breakroom. It’s not about putting food out on the table so people feel like you’re giving them these fringe benefits. It’s not about that at all. Building a company culture is about building a team of people who are committed to the same purpose, the same passion and the same ideals. And building a company culture is something that is possible if you’re really focused on doing all those right things. And it has a huge ROI.

I’ve been so inspired by a lot of the business leaders in our community and one of the things that we did during these years is we opened our mind to education to learning. I think the first sign of intelligence in someone is they start off admitting they’re stupid. And when you start off that way, you know that you can learn from everyone. There’s not a person in our company that I don’t feel I can learn something from. And so I look around the community and I see this amazing business people, some from a distance, some I know well, people like Steve Kean who were building just amazing companies right here in our backyard. And today I’m so inspired by friends of mine that are building these amazing companies like Eric Dinger and Bradley Walker and all the people that are really working hard to make a difference, because we all know that building a company with a powerful culture has a huge ROI, a big return on investment.

So we asked the question: Is a company’s culture determined by default or design? How much work do we have to put behind this? Well, to put it straight and simple bluntly, it takes a lot of work to build a company culture. If you don’t build a culture by deliberate design and what happens is it defaults into taking on the personality of whoever your most vocal employee is. So you really have to think about it.

Let me give an illustration of somebody in our company .This person here in the middle name, her name is Wendy Schuman, she’s classed being a ball of rice at lunch and learn we did on making sushi. Wendy started in our company nine years ago. She basically was coming on board as I was getting fired, thank goodness she didn’t know it at the time, she probably wouldn’t have accepted the job offer. So Wendy last year got a call from a company that was looking for programmers and people that did what she does. And she was an average, she talked with them. They offered Wendy a substantially higher amount of money than we were able to pay her in our company. She toiled over it for days and she came in and talked to us about it with tears in her eyes. And I don’t know what to do. She talked with her husband, went back and forth and finally made the decision that it was in the best interest of her family if she takes this job. So she shed more tears, she gave us hugs and she said goodbye and Wendy went off into the sunset.

72 hours later, the phone rang and it’s Wendy. “Can I come back?” She was whispering from the desk of her new job. Well, she had to have a couple more days there to work out our first week but she came back. We now affectionately refer to this time period in our company as Wendy’s vacation.

And here’s the interesting thing. In our company today, 10% of our entire workforce are people that have worked for us in the past, gone on in their careers to do other things and then come back home. That is a testament to culture.

And today I’m going to share with you three steps that we use at Firespring to design a sustainable company culture that we can build around and do something big with.

And the first thing is to define our values. We first need to know what values are. Values are the guiding principles of your company, the things that are median tangible that you can really understand and sink your teeth into. And once your values are clear, decisions are easy. There are typical core values that most companies tend to subscribe to, and I’m showing a list of them here: innovative, team player, excellence, integrity, passion — I bet that your company probably has at least one of these in their list of values.

What’s the most common thing or what’s the most important thing to know about this list of values? Well, they’re unimaginative, they’re uninspired, they are bland and they don’t work, because people don’t internalize these things. They’re too generic. Everybody says this: think about it — can you think of a single company on the planet who wouldn’t say they’re innovative? Yeah, we tend to be more stifled here at our company. We’re not really innovative. And integrity, that’s not really our thing. More cheaters, liars, stealers whatever. I mean companies say they have all of these things, right? So don’t start off with the plain simple, dig a little bit deeper and in the words of Apple: think different.

Here’s how to discover your values. This is the exercise we use at Firespring to go through the process and I call this the reality show exercise. And think about doing this in your company, gather the people in your company together and put them around in a room, and say that you’ve got a reality show coming in and they’re going to be filming three of your employees every minute of the day all week long, everything that they do. And they’re going to be filming them based on their actions because there’s no audio on this film. When we watch it back, we’re not going to hear anything. We have to see by their actions. So you need to choose three people in your company who best embody the values that you believe in, the things that you want to be known for as a company. Have everybody in your company do this exercise and think in their heads, they don’t have to say the names out loud, that gets a little creepy, right? But they think of the names and they start writing the words down, they envision themselves watching the tape back and writing the words down that they think of when they’re watching this employee.

At the end of that exercise you have a really good idea of what your company values and it comes from everyone inside the company, not just the CEO or one person thinking about it. And then you put it through this test, you decide: is this value distinguished? Is it different? Is it unique? Are you obsessed with it? Can you build an obsession around it? Will it outlive you, the owner or the manager of the employees of the company? Can you actually live this value every day? And are you willing to sacrifice profit to protect it? If you answered yes to all five of these things, then you have an opportunity to build around that value. It’s that simple to create it.

The second thing we went through as we started focusing on hiring for our values, this sounds a lot simpler than it really is: to hire for your values. Back in the day, in those dark days as we call them now, when we were going through the struggles, there were a couple holes on our management team. I had to go out and impress venture capitalists which is a hard thing to do. And I thought the best way to do that would be to hire a few people that could fill in some of these holes, they had big impressive-looking resumes. But you know what? I knew from the day that I met them and started the conversation in my gut that they were not good culture fits for our company. But I did it anyway because I thought well they look good on paper and we need these people. There are things they know that we don’t know. And I knew from day one that they weren’t good fits and every time I’ve made that decision or any one of our managers in our company made that decision we’ve lived to regret it. We’ve lived to regret it every time. So now we hire first for culture fit and second for skill fit.

And we all know that there are angry people in this world, right, the people that come up behind you in the car, start leaning on their horn, screaming around, maybe if there’s a wheelchair ahead of you, they are nasty mean people. You know, haters gotta hate, they’re everywhere. They’re crawling around in the subculture of the internet creating havoc and they’re all over the place.

Well I have two ways to deal with haters and it’s a silver bullet. You might want to write this down because it’s really a great way to deal with these people.

Number one: don’t hire them. And I know that sounds really simple but you can get a really good sense of who complains all the time in an interview just by asking the right questions.

Number two: If it’s too late, fire them immediately. These are the people in your company that become cancers, that make it impossible for you to build a culture around.

And the third thing that we did is we began to live our values every day. At Firespring we have a daily meeting called the firestarter and it’s at 11:11 everyday that lasts for 11 minutes. So tomorrow’s going to be a cool day on 11:11/11/11/11, right? So we have this meeting every day and everyone in the company, one person from every department will report on the different things that they’re working on as a company to make sure that we’re staying on track. So we all know what everyone else is working on all the time.

And then we recognize each other, we call each other out in public. This person did a great job, they’re really caring, this person’s accountable, we actually share how we’re interacting with people in the office every day. And then on an ongoing basis we have this grid and I love this grid, it’s one of the most important discoveries that we’ve made as a way to really understand and assess how we’re doing as a culture.

So at the top of this grid you see your high-level performers. At the bottom you see your low-level performers, that’s pretty simple, right? You’re going to put everybody in one column or the other. And then from right to left we have people who live our values to people who don’t live our values. If you do the exercise, even if you’re an employee at your company, and you’re not the boss, put everybody in your department and your team in one of these boxes and see where they fall. And then it’s easy to evaluate from there.

Well, these are your high-level performers and live your values; these are your superstars you want to build your company around them. These people down here that are low-level performers but have great value, let’s coach them and teach them how to do their job. The people down here in the corner: why are they in your company? They should not be there. Move on, move past them. It’s this upper box, the one that causes 95% of all the problems in every company, every one of the companies that we worked for, these people that are high-level performers but they don’t live the values of our company, they’re like a cancer eating away at the culture of our business. And that’s what we need to focus on and get rid of those people.

So few things on Firespring in action here. This is just some pictures of around our office. When somebody comes to our office, they see that we are a fun culture, we like to have a good time, we like to poke fun at ourselves. And we really value learning as well but we also do very serious things. We have a theme every quarter that makes it possible for us to rally the entire company around a common goal. And last quarter it was about 300 wows. We wanted to get our customers to say “Wow” or “Amazing”, “You guys are great” or something — we had some approved phrases and every time they did we’d write it down on a piece of paper and add it to the wall of wow. We had over 500 by the end of the quarter. It was an awesome promotion.

And we have a group in our company that is the arbiters of culture, we call them the culture club. And our culture club is not led by Boy George, it’s led by my boy Randy here. And Randy and I have worked together for nearly 20 years and we can nearly finish each other’s sentences so I trust him implicitly with being the steward of our company culture. And together as a team the culture team makes decisions about things that go beyond planning the company party. When we have to make a decision on updating or renewing our insurance policy, these people sit down and they help us make the decision of what insurance carrier we’re going to use.

And then we have things like Cinco de Mayo. Well this year we changed it up to Cinco de mustache and we gave an award to the person that grew the best mustache; congratulations Brian, that was pretty awesome. And we have the Firespring Pub & Putt Classic where the whole team gets together and they build out holes and people come around in groups of four and they golf and we give awards for the most creative and most inspiring and most challenging holes. Last year the group that won the most creative was a group that themed their department around a fraternity party and they all had matching shirts and paddles and of course they had a composite with their housemother Oprah on it as well. And the winner of the green jacket is somebody that’s revered throughout the year because it’s a coveted award. We paid a dollar $1.54 at a thrift store somewhere and this is one of the most coveted awards we have every year.

And yes, we have a holiday party but the thing that’s most important to us is the one that we created back in the days when we had no money, we had no ability to do anything and the employees created their own party on their own money. They used — they brought potato chips and beverages and did their own thing.

My favorite tradition of all time, though, is our thanksgiving event. We get the entire company around one table. The company provides the turkey and the staff all brings the sides and the desserts. And it’s really an opportunity to create fellowship among our staff.

So to us like life, culture is a journey, it’s not a destination. It’s about all the little things you do in life and I’m very inspired by Steve Jobs and his commencement address in 2005 at Stanford, many of you probably, I’m sure, have watched that. He said your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking; don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it and like any great relationship it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

The fascinating thing to me is that — we know that the things we really need to be passionate about are friends and family and faith, the things that are core to our being. But the average person spends more waking hours at work than they do anywhere else. Why wouldn’t you want to live in a place that feeds you rather than deplete you of energy?

And so I’d like to finish with just this email that a coworker shared with me. This came to me last August just out of the blue. And it says: “Jay, I was getting ready for work this morning, excited for the waffle breakfast. And it occurred to me that I look forward to quite a few things that are related to my job. I have a tendency to gush about Firespring, I rave about the company: the work, the people, our clients, the fun things we do. Sometimes I get so enthusiastic I feel like a cheerleader on speed. I’m so eager to express my happiness and contentment to family, friends and neighbors but I realize that I’ve never actually told you, the person who made it all possible. This is my thank you. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to work at such an extraordinary company, my cup runneth over.”

So how would you thank you — how would you feel if you woke up every morning knowing that this is the sentiment of the people you work with? This — these are the values that you live every day and this is an average common day. This is what happens when you don’t leave culture to chance. This is what happens when you don’t settle. This is culture by design and any one of us can be the architect.

Thank you.

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