Marching to Their Own Beat: Inside Company Culture at Groupon, Zynga and Dropbox


HR Market Analyst,

When it comes to building company culture in a post-dotcom era, many of today’s start-ups have realized it takes more than catered lunches, concierge services and open vacation policies to build a lasting company culture that drives innovation. While perks are undoubtedly awesome, the most successful start-ups are focused on offering their employees something better: personal growth.

As up-and-coming organizations develop strategies for attracting and retaining top talent, they are connecting with and empowering employees – in addition to rewarding them. I took a look at how three prominent start-ups – Groupon, Zynga and Dropbox – are growing their company culture to see what’s working and what’s not.

What Drives a Working Company Culture?

Perks are fun, right? They create buzz, get employees excited and attract talent (I definitely love our paintball outings and massage Fridays). But what happens if the perks are taken away? Beyond the fun and games, how do you motivate your team and inspire loyalty every day? As successful companies that have weathered their fair share of changes know – establishing the company’s values and culture early on are essential to building a lasting foundation. As we can see from the folks at Groupon, Zynga and Dropbox, there are a few key takeaways.

Hire the Right People and Let Them Do Their Jobs. As online storage provider Dropbox’s CEO, Drew Houston, can attest, hiring the right people for your organization is the most important step in building your company culture. For Dropbox, hiring fewer, but better, people reduced the need for company founders to be great at coordinating and planning employees’ every move. The company currently employs less than 40 engineers, all organized in small, loosely coupled teams. On the infrastructure management side, a few managers handle thousands of servers. And the site’s visual designer was actually hired as the Dropbox community manager. In fact, according to an interview with GigaOM earlier this year, he had no professional experience as a designer. “With start-ups, you just kind of have to get lucky and find the right people,” said Houston.

Having hired the right people from the start, the folks at Dropbox were able to focus on making work a place where people like to be. Sure, they also have some great perks like whiskey Fridays, free lunch and dinner, and the opportunity to build your own dream computer as part of your workstation. More interesting, though, is that company leaders don’t tell people how to get their work done. By offering a flexible schedule and giving employees the ability to choose what projects they’ll work on, Dropbox puts their people in the driver’s seat of their careers.

Build Trust and Provide Transparency. We all know that trust goes a long way to building loyalty. Groupon, the Chicago-based company that made coupons cool again, is a very well-oiled machine. Employing many members the local arts community, Groupon entrusts their team to keep that machine moving. Of the thousands that work there, each member plays a vital role in the day-to-day – and Groupon is quick to let employees know it. As such, their people seem to genuinely care about what they do – which means they’re more likely to do their jobs well and find satisfaction in it. In a post on the Groupon Blog, one employee went so far as to say, “the only recognition we need is to hear people talk about how much they loved their Groupon experience.

As we all know, however, trust is a two-way street. For a company growing as swiftly as Groupon (a whopping 2,241 percent in its first two years according to the Wall Street Journal), keeping employees connected isn’t always easy. As with any organization, however, it takes the dedication of leadership. In an interview with Forbes, Groupon’s Head of People Strategy, Dan Jessup said, “We’re big on transparency, and staying close to our roots, what we stand for, as we grow. With growth this fast, we have to trust and respect our people and show them that we care and that we are listening.” Considering the buzz their employee experience has created, I’d say they’re doing fine so far.

With growth this fast, we have to trust and respect our people and show them that we care and that we are listening. – Dan Jessup, Groupon

Share Ownership and Develop Talent. Social gaming guru Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga (developers of FarmVille and Words With Friends – my newest addiction), takes a rather interesting approach to ownership. In fact, he’s built the company culture on it. Each and every employee is expected to follow this core value in every endeavor: “Be your own CEO: Own outcomes.” In an interview with Fast Company last year, Pincus explained his reasoning. “I wanted to push the ownership and decision making to the people who were closest to the features, problems, and opportunities and empower them to go for it, to take risks and make mistakes.”

Although Pincus’ colorful and unconventional leadership style has ruffled a few feathers, Zynga has exploded into prominence in the social gaming sector. By empowering his team with this core value (and commanding them to “Move at Zynga Speed”), his company is poised for even greater success. Not surprisingly, traditional performance reviews don’t exist at Zynga. Instead Colleen McCreary, Chief People Officer, introduced what she calls “in-the-moment coaching.” In an interview with Teamly, she explained, “I don’t believe in performance reviews. They are super-negative. Instead, we make sure each manager has a quarterly conversation.”

In these conversations, Zynga employees talk about what they rocked that quarter, what didn’t go so well, what they want to accomplish in the next quarter, and what they want out of their careers. Though things are going well thus far, there are inevitably going to be hiccups along the way. What sets Zynga apart, though, is that they’re poised to nip those hiccups in the bud.

The Challenges in Evolving a Culture

With company culture as unique as the leadership driving it, challenges will no doubt emerge as you define your unique culture and integrate it across all aspects of your organization. Though the nuances of what makes a company great are totally subjective and unique to that organization, there are some common issues that we can all be aware of – Zynga, Groupon and Dropbox included.

Keep People Connected. In his interview with GigaOM, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston explained that one of the biggest challenges his company faces in growing is keeping people clued in via interoffice communication. Where his team was once small enough to fit in one room, and communication occurred naturally – things have become more difficult when that group is now large and maintains different work schedules. Houston said: “As we grew larger, we had to start deliberately trying to figure out how to get the right info in the right peoples’ hands.”

Dropbox CEO Drew Houston explained that one of the biggest challenges his company faces in growing is keeping people clued in via interoffice communication.

Communicating important information across departments and on multiple levels down the ladder can be a major challenge for any size organization, and Dropbox is no exception. As social networks increasingly dominate communications in our private lives, many businesses are adopting enterprise social networks for enhancing communication in the workplace. Services like those provided by Yammer or Salesforces’ Chatter give users the ability to view official company announcements, share important information, and communicate with anyone in the company.

Nail the Onboarding Process. For outsiders coming in, the culture at Groupon can be jarring. In an interview with Vanity Fair, CEO Andrew Mason says he still tries to make his company feel like a start-up. “As we get bigger, instead of being like most companies, conforming and becoming more normal, we want to become weirder.”

Known for being slightly weird himself, Mason understands the challenge new employees face when tasked with getting onto the Groupon brainwave. More importantly, he knows it’s vital to these employees’ success. As such, he is directly involved in the onboaring process. Every two weeks, he meets with a group of new employees off site. During this face-to-face time, Mason provides an overview of the company and gives new hires a chance to ask their burning questions to him directly.

Keep Entitlement in Check. One threat to Zynga’s company culture is the sudden wealth that could be created by stock offerings. As they prepare for the company to go public, officials are also concerned about the impact sudden wealth may have on their employees. Many employees may receive significant proceeds from sales of equity in the public markets after Zynga’s initial public offering, which Zynga officials reportedly fear may reduce the team’s motivation to continue to work.

While I doubt many businesses have to deal with sudden wealth amongst a large part of their workforce, the issue Zynga faces, isn’t about turnover. The potential impact on company culture is a bigger concern. In a Wall Street Journal article, Pincus stated that they “expect that this offering will create disparities in wealth among our employees, which may harm our culture and relations among employees.” Perks and incentives are meant to give employees a sense of value, not entitlement, and Zynga’s now faced with the challenge of finding a balance moving forward.

Perks and incentives are meant to give employees a sense of value, not entitlement.

Company culture is such dynamic topic, and one I could write about all day – but I’d rather hear from you. What are some of the challenges and successes you’ve had in building and cultivating company culture in your organization? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thumbnail image created by Tobyotter.

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