Building a Culture That Counts

Startups are some of the most amazing organizations on earth. You come together with a group of people to create something from nothing. It’s stressful, insanely difficult and it consumes you completely. Maintaining momentum and focus, as well as keeping it all together during the good and the bad, is the role of culture at your company.

I've worked at a lot of different companies over the years and have seen a lot that has worked and quite a bit that hasn’t. I wanted to take a chance to talk a little bit about the culture we’ve created at Urban Airship.

In the Beginning

When Adam, Michael, Steven and I started Urban Airship we knew we wanted to build a company that promoted transparency. Where people worked hard because they love what they do and they have a fantastic time doing it. Our first office was a shared space with other startups and we occupied two desks. Yeah, that's four people and two desks. To this day we don't have any private offices and it's one of the reasons we moved into the wide-open space of our current office last year.

Urban Airship founders Steven Osborn, Scott Kveton, Adam Lowry and Michael Richardson

Meetings: Stand and Deliver

I hate meetings just for the sake of meeting, but they are necessary. We have a couple of standing meetings but my favorite ones are the weekly Monday morning stand-up and the Friday Happy Hour.

On Monday morning at 10am the entire company gathers together for a five minute stand-up meeting. We talk about the week ahead, introduce new people, mention guests visiting the office, etc. This is a great way to set the tone for the week.

An engineering standup meeting at Urban Airship

On Fridays at 4pm we have Happy Hour (you have a keg at your office, right?!). Friday is a chance to look back at the week. We do this with ad hoc presentations from different parts of the company with video conferencing linking our PDX and San Francisco offices. Engineering might share how they are scaling push on iOS. Sales will talk about a specific deal and what it took to get it closed. Marketing might preview the latest campaign to drive new leads. It’s also a great time to talk about any general issues that might be surfacing. There isn't a better time to share with each other than over a good Portland beer…or a PBR, as is often the case.

Open house party at our new San Francisco office

Transparency…for Real

I'm going to say it even though I realize it’s beyond cliche. We’re pretty damn transparent. Tell me this, do the people at your company know about the different parts of the business and how they work together? Do they understand how leads fill the pipeline? The relationship between marketing and sales? The challenges with scaling infrastructure? Current revenue? Burn? Cash on hand? Outstanding shares? From day one we worked hard to do just that and I share all of this and more during our weekly Happy Hour meetings.

There is No Fence

I’m sure you’ve worked at companies before that have a fence. Maybe it’s a fence between product and Q/A. Sales and marketing. Finance and the rest of the company. Yeah, we don’t really do that here. A really good company knows that all of those parts of the business have to work together in order to be successful. There’s no “well, that’s not my job” attitude at UA. You roll up your sleeves and get done what needs to get done. If something is broken like a process or we have an outage, we address it in a way so as to learn from the mistake.

How do we accomplish this? I think we make it clear across the board that we’re working as a team here. While I may be the CEO, I still take direction from the board, our advisors and the rest of the team. Same goes for product, marketing, sales, business development, ops, admin and finance. A well-oiled team that collaborates effectively can move mountains and we do everything we can to continue that trend.

Free Friday

Once a quarter we do something called “Free Friday.” Steven saw Atlassian’s success and we decided to mimic it.

Free Friday starts on Thursday at 4pm and employees are encouraged to work on anything they want. Seriously. Anything. The only requirement is that you have to be prepared to share what you worked on starting at 4pm the next day (and yes, this maps conveniently to Happy Hour). You can work individually or in groups. The entire company is invited to participate and we witness everything from building games to building out new features for the platform. Some of our best new ideas for features came because of a coding spike done to prototype something. My personal favorite was what I worked on during the last Free Friday–the Urban Airship BBQ. That totally counts.


Know the KPIs

What are the real Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for your business? For a long time we thought it was the number of notifications we were sending. While interesting, and certainly an indication of growth, we view the total number of pushes being sent as just one of the KPIs.

We have a big board in both of our offices (inspired by the one at Panic just down the street) that displays our real-time KPIs across the entire company. This is more than just up-time and number of notifications, but metrics like revenue, pipeline, incoming leads and average time to close that show we are on target with our plan. These are real KPIs and they live on our big board which everyone passes by several times a day.

As a joke back in 2010 I got a custom engraved bell that hung near the sales team. It says “Urban Airship – ring in case of sale.” We put it up and rang it from time-to-time but then it actually became something that we did for big deals. It was about closure for a sometimes hard-fought deal or one that was really going to move the needle. Now when people hear the bell ring the ENTIRE company knows that we just won a significant deal that will continue to move the ball forward.


Don't Skimp on your Office Manager

We have Barb. Barb kicks ass. Barb joined the company early on (employee #7, I believe) and she came in to handle all of the little things. That’s pretty early considering it was me, one inside sales guy and a handful of engineers. I know people that wait much longer to make this hire but I’d never recommend that.

Akasha and Barb keep the airship flying high

A good chunk of the executive team travels and having someone that is there every single day with their finger on the pulse of the team is critical. There are countless times when Barb has said “the boys look a little stressed out, we should do something nice,” which then leads to an off-site, a scavenger hunt, impromptu parties and a general continuity that is so important to stress-heavy startups.

When we acquired SimpleGeo, Barb migrated to SF for two months to get the office in order and to help integrate the new team members into our culture.

DO NOT SKIMP ON YOUR OFFICE MANAGER. Sure, you could get somebody cheap, fresh out of college to help with AR/AP, keep the fridge stocked with drinks and greet people at the door, but don’t bother. Go the extra mile and pay a little extra to get someone that knows how to run an office. Your office manager should be the right-hand person to whoever is running Ops or to the CEO.

Perks Don’t Cost You All that Much

We started catering lunches over a year ago. We did two days a week to start and now do three days a week in the office, which still leaves time for our team to explore their love for the PDX food cart scene. Meals are healthy, diverse and always include a vegetarian/vegan option. Sales mingles with marketing, who mingles with engineering. This is a good thing, and while it costs us $10/head/meal it’s well worth it. Let’s do a little math.

UA Lunch Timelapse @15fps, sound from Steven Osborn on Vimeo.

In our Portland office we have 53 people. Lunch is served promptly at Noon and people are usually back at their desks by 12:40pm at the latest, and they aren’t rushed at all. Twenty minutes x 53 people is 17 hours of saved time a day. The cost for that meal? $530. For the week we get:

$530/day x 3 days = $1590/week
20 minutes x 53 people x 3 days = 53 hours saved/week (or 1 hour saved per employee per week)

That adds up and while this is a “perk” for the team it happens to turn a fantastic ROI for the company, both in real dollars and especially culturally.

We don't have a vacation policy. It’s something we borrowed from Netflix. You take the time that you need when you need to take it and you put it on the shared calendar for the entire company to see. People know when you’re going to be gone and we can plan accordingly around gaps and releases. If people abuse this policy (and no one has) then there are bigger issues to be dealt with.

Play Just as Hard as You Work

Luau party. The People of Walmart party. The all-day scavenger hunt scouring Portland for all things geeky or otherwise. Hiring a choreographer to come in and teach the team the Thriller dance to do during our Halloween party. Getting a REAL Santa to come in for the kids of the company. They are fun, they create culture and they bind the team together.

Urban Airship Zombie Ball Dance from Jason Grigsby on Vimeo.


The blueprint for our day off in PDX

Airshippers on the road

You’re going to spend a full third of your life working. Why not do it at a place that challenges you with hard problems, let’s you have an insane amount of fun and has a real business model in a burgeoning space? While these are the tactical elements that make up the Urban Airship culture I think the ethos of “work hard, play hard” is at the root of who we are. If you get a chance to stop by the UA offices in SF or PDX I’d be happy to show you what it looks like in practice and you’ll see for yourself that Urban Airship really is a special place to work.

Oh, and we're hiring.