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

By in Tips & Guides on August 23, 2011

This is a guest post by Kyle Lagunas – HR Analyst at Software Advice - and does not represent the official views of Yammer.

How do you motivate your team and inspire loyalty? I mean, everyone loves perks. A fully stocked kitchen, an in-house concierge, and unlimited vacation time all sound really nice – especially if you’re asking me to work 70 hours a week. But what happens when you take away the fun and games? In a move to improve their talent retention, the most successful start-ups have begun focusing on offering their employees something more: a connection to the company. Four prominent start-ups – Groupon, Zynga and Dropbox and Yammer – stand out as serious culture-building innovators, each cultivating lasting company cultures that have gotten them through their make-or-break years. I’ve taken a look to see what’s working and what’s not, as I think there are some valuable takeaways for any organization.

Share Ownership. Employees great and small at Zynga (developers of Farmville and Words With Friends – my newest addiction) isn’t expected to just carry their weight. You see, CEO Mark Pincus holds them all to the same mantra: “Be your own CEO: Own outcomes.” Zynga’s company culture is built on Pincus’ heavy emphasis on ownership. In an interview, he explained to Fast Company that he “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.” And this empowerment has seen serious results. Moving at Zynga Speed, Pincus’ company is poised for great success.

Build Trust and Provide Transparency. We all know that trust goes a long way, especially when it comes to building loyalty. Groupon couldn’t have made coupons cool again without their people. How did they do it? Among other things, they trust their team to get the job done. Not surprisingly, their people are personally invested in what they do – and genuinely care about their work. “The only recognition we need,” says one employee on the Groupon Blog,  “is to hear people talk about how much they loved their Groupon experience.”

But Groupon doesn’t stop there. Trust is, as they say, a two-way street. “We’re big on transparency, and staying close to our roots, what we stand for, as we grow,” said Groupon’s Head of People Strategy, Dan Jessup said in an interview with Forbes. “With growth this fast, we have to trust and respect our people and show them that we care and that we are listening.” Dan, I have just one question for you: Where do I sign up?

Hire the Right People and Let Them Do Their Jobs. Hiring the right people for your organization is arguably the most important step in building your company culture, as online storage provider Dropbox’s CEO, Drew Houston, can attest. Hiring fewer, but better, people reduced the need for Dropbox founders to be great at coordinating and planning employees’ every move. As such, they were able to focus on 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 – which, as a Gen Y’er, is my favorite style of retention strategy.

Nip Entitlement in the Bud. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley employees get some outrageous perks. In fact, many Zynga employees may receive significant proceeds from sales of equity in the public markets after Zynga’s initial public offering. So much so that Zynga officials are concerned about the impact sudden wealth may have on their employees. But the issue Zynga faces isn’t just turnover. Zynga officials fear this may reduce the team’s motivation to continue to work “at Zynga Speed,” and it’s this potential impact on company culture that concerns them most. 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. Does potential wealth become their main motivator?

Nail the Onboarding Process. The culture at Groupon can be a little jarring for newcomers, and in an interview with Vanity Fair, CEO Andrew Mason makes no attempt to hide it. “As we get bigger, instead of being like most companies, conforming and becoming more normal, we want to become weirder.” Fortunately, Mason knows that getting onto the Groupon brainwave is vital to new employees’ success. To ensure every teammember is drinking the Groupon nectar, Mason involves himself in the onboarding process, he meets with a group of new employees off site every two weeks, provides an overview of the company, and gives them a chance to ask him their burning questions directly.

Keep People Connected. One of the biggest challenges any organization faces in growing is keeping people on the same page. Dropbox is no exception. When the team was small enough to fit in one room, communication occurred naturally. But building an organization is no cakewalk, and things have become more difficult now the team is bigger (remember everyone maintains a different work schedule). “As we grew larger,” said CEO Drew Houston, “we had to start deliberately trying to figure out how to get the right info in the right peoples’ hands.”

In order to enhance communication in the workplace and keep employees connected to the company, many businesses are adopting enterprise social networks such as Yammer. There are certainly kinks to work out (i.e. communicating the difference between mainstream social networking sites and an intra-organizational communication tool), but the move towards a social platform for company communications have proven invaluable for many organizations.

And who better to facilitate interoffice communications than Yammer? After all, information sharing is an integral part of their company culture. In an interview with the New York Times’ Corner Office, CEO David Sacks says he encourages dissent in his company. “You’ve got to constantly ask your reports whether they think we’re on the right track,” he says, “whether the strategy you’ve laid out is right, what they think about the strategy, where things aren’t going well.” As such, he’s created a much more dynamic work environment where everything is far more collaborative.

While I could talk all day about company culture (’til the cows come home, even), I’d rather hear from you. What strategies does your company employ to cultivate culture? How are they leveraging technology to keep you engaged?

This article was modified from an original article available at SoftwareAdvice’s blog

Photo credit: Zoetnet

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