March 1, 2013 in Company Culture
This is part of a two-month series on the importance of company culture. Find more posts about culture here.
BoomTown is a company that might be called Salesforce for realtors. It doesn’t sound like a sexy company (neither does a customer service & customer feedback company). But when you talk to them or even go to their website, you realize they exude energy, a unique style, and an obsession with company culture. I recently had the opportunity to interview BoomTown’s Julie Edwards and Tim Wolf about this obsession.
A little background: BoomTown is located in South Carolina. Although Julie’s role is Manager of Client Services and Tim is Director of Engineering, they both consider themselves a big part of the cultural movement at BoomTown.
Evan: First off, could you describe the culture at BoomTown?
Julie: If I had to sum up the culture at BoomTown, I’d wrap that up in the phrase “The BoomTown Family.” People here will not only end up being some of your best friends, but they’ll communicate openly with you, just like a family will. We’re a smart fun group of people striving to create amazing experiences. It’s easy to accomplish big things when you’re excited to come to work.
E: When did culture become a big focus for you?
J: Well, when we were 10 people it was clear that we had a very specific, strong culture. But we really felt we were too small for any sort of formalized values. We felt it would be a little too soon. But once we hit 35 people and growing, we realized we were in a dangerous place where we could lose our culture if we didn’t proactively try to maintain it. So we took the plunge.
Tim: I was very skeptical and reluctant initially. I came from a very corporate background where company values meant nothing. But absolutely everyone at the company was clearly bought into both the values and to formalizing them, so I became a convert.
E: How did you figure out what actual values went on your list?
J: We used the Mountains and Valleys method (made by Culture Sync and mentioned in Tony Hsieh’s book.) Basically it asks you to evaluate your happy and lowest moments as an individual and look at what contributed to you being that way. From there certain themes came out like a lot of us were unhappy when we weren’t empowered or most happy when we were empowered. We took those themes of what was important to a majority of us and turned them into our core values. [Editor's note: check out our tips for defining values here.]
E: Do you make culture a part of your hiring process?
T: Absolutely. We have regular interviews and then we have separate culture interviews, where we’ll grab a couple of random employees and have them talk to the potential hire. Often the first round of interviewers let the culture interviewers know what values they’re concerned about.
J: They basically just shoot the shit, try to get to know the potential hire on a more personal level. Questions like “what do you love and hate about your current work environment” can get some very telling responses from people.
T: It’s not just “will I like you” but: “Will you be a jerk? Will you live the same values we do?” While obviously avoiding anything that’s not legal, like questions about religion, marital status, etc. [Editor's note: check out our tips on hiring for culture fit here.]
E: And does culture actually sometimes prevent you from hiring someone?
J: Definitely. If we see red flags, we generally won’t hire them.
T: And if we do have concerns, we sometimes mention them. We say “listen, we like you a lot and we’d like to try this out but we have a very specific, strong culture here. If we don’t feel you’re a fit – or if you don’t feel we’re a fit for you – then it’s time to move on. We’ll help you find some connections, help write your resume, whatever.”
E: Have you actually fired people because of a culture misfit?
T: Yep. Some people get 3 paychecks and they’re out. It’s just not worth it to have a bad fit.
J: And it’s not about being controlling or pretentious. It’s about sharing passions. You don’t just want someone to be right for BoomTown…you want BoomTown to be right for them. We don’t want them to be unhappy here.
E: How do you maintain your culture?
T: Well, everyone’s empowered to do it. It’s not out of line to pull someone aside and say “hey, can I talk to you in private? I feel like we weren’t quite living up to our values there.”
J: And we just try to live it every day, even when it’s not easy. We had a weekend where we lost some customer emails and we told them the truth about it. It shows the staff that we mean it when we say that “communicating honestly and openly” is one of our values. And the customers loved our transparency.
E: If someone is trying to build a culture at their company, what is the #1 thing you’d tell them to do?
J: Great question! For me, it’s listen to yourself first. Find what’s important to you, then communicate, communicate, communicate. See what your teammates have in common with you as far as what is really important goes. Then, make sure you’re committed before jumping in.