MayJune 2015 SXSWorld


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5 2 S X S W o r l d | M AY / J U N E 2 0 1 5 | S X S W. C O M t the Portland, Oregon headquarters of the vacation property management startup Vacasa, any employee who can name every co-worker in the room during a weekly staff meeting wins a cash prize. This is actu- ally harder than you might think. With a three-year growth rate pegged by Inc. magazine at more than 16,000 percent, Vacasa is expanding so fast that it can introduce two or three new employees at its headquarters each week. While this kind of success is something that any startup founder would probably love to have, it raises some problems. "How do you bring that original culture that made Vacasa special … when your average tenure for an employee is three months?" asked Vacasa chief revenue officer Scott Breon. "We're pushing the growth and culture question about as far out as you can go." Vacasa is an extreme case, but any growing startup is faced with similar questions: how do we reorganize to accommodate growth? Can we keep attracting talented people if our work environment seems less like a startup and more like a tradi- tional big corporation? Is this even the same company it was when it started? Besides making money, what are our goals? Presenters at SXSW V2V in July will argue that these questions aren't just for massively successful companies like Vacasa; in fact, these questions about company culture are what every startup founder should be asking continually from day one. Culture is the set of rituals, procedures, norms and attitudes that defines a workplace. Paying attention to it is important for attracting and retaining talent, and for helping a company keep track of its goals as it grows. However, when companies take the wrong approach, the results can be stifling. That is when you end up with company job titles like "Head of People and Culture" and according to Emily Tsiang, co-founder of San Francisco's Culture Labx, when job seekers should run away, and CEOs should take another look at their companies. "Culture is not held by any one person," Tsiang said, "It's the outcome of the dynamics and interplay of everyone within the orga- nization, so everyone is responsible for it. When someone is identified as being in charge of the culture, other employees feel like they don't have any ownership of it, and that's a huge problem." Culture Labx helps its partner businesses solve and avoid prob- lems related to workplace culture. Tsiang's presentation at V2V, "Scaling Startup Culture: Stories from the Frontline," will discuss some of those. Case studies will examine Blue Bottle Coffee and General Assembly's struggle to sync new office branches with local customs, as well as Lyft and its attempts to nurture its culture among a diffuse group of employees. To some, the problems of big companies like Lyft may seem beyond the scope of more early-phase startups. Bud Caddell, with NOBL, begs to differ. His V2V talk, "How to Survive Exponential Growth," will discuss companies like Google and Nasty Gal, but he said its les- sons apply to all startups. Culture is just a filter for decision making, he explains. Defining who you are and who you want to be means that decisions will be made that support that vision. Without such a cultural filter, bad things can happen. "It's death by a thousand cuts," he said. "Because growing a company is making 1,000 decisions a day, and if you don't have a filter … you can find yourself sliding away from who you were." Caddell's NOBL (pronounced like "Nobel Prize") is a consulting company that uses a pool of creatives as well as analytical profes- sionals who help companies with whatever challenges they may be facing. Examining culture is one way to do that, and Caddell said he has seen many companies become hidebound as they grow and lose sight of their vision. "It's one of those things where 'startup' becomes less a definition of resources and more a definition of attitude," he said. "Plenty of companies that we work with … there are elements of what they do that are still a startup mentality." He added, "There's some value in being big, but there's also a mindset that can creep in, a sensitivity to risk. You start to only look at your competitors. Startups, while they're competitor-focused, are also vision focused … You can't chase a vision unless your culture is attached to it." Vacasa, despite its growth, is still innovative and "thinking like a startup," which in turn feeds its growth and success. As Vacasa's Breon explained: "We asked our executive team, 'Are we still a startup? What are we?' … We came up with, 'Yes, we are a startup, and it's a mentality.' It's not defined by if you've taken investment, or whether you say you're a startup; I think it's really defined by change. When you're a startup, you might change your entire business model overnight, which [Vacasa founders] Eric [Breon] and Cliff [Johnson] did." In other words: vision is what helps a startup stay innovative, and culture helps a startup keep that vision on the right track. SX S W V 2V w il l ta ke p la ce J uly 1 9 –22 , 20 1 5 in La s Ve g a s , N eva d a . Fo r m o re info rm a t io n, in cl u d in g re g i s t ra t io n, h otel d e ta il s a n d t h e p ro g ra m - m i n g s ch e d ule, v i s i t s x s w v2 m . An Enviable Problem: Managing Company Culture in a Growing Business by Rob PReliasco A Va ca s a's te a m C O U R T E S Y O F VA C A S A

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