Years ago when I was speaking at an engagement, someone asked me how to create good culture, and I responded without hesitation: “you can’t create good culture, but you can create the right environment by hiring lots of energetic people and packing them into a very small space.”
I was only half kidding.
Brad and I have built five billion dollar tech companies in the past 15 years – InnerWorkings, Echo, Mediaocean, Groupon and Uptake. Each has a good culture, in part, because they have lots of passionate people, filled with lots of energy, and, yes… they are all packed into pretty tight spaces. We have roughly 5,000 people in Chicago alone and, given how fast our companies grow, we are always moving people around, and office space is always at a premium.
But two of the companies, Groupon and Uptake, stand out. Both of their cultures are more than good, they are remarkable; and in many ways, they are very similar in that at their core, there is a sense of mission and purpose that guides each employee.
In the early years of Groupon, each employee felt that they were part of something big. Something bigger than themselves.
We were helping local merchants find new customers. We were helping them compete with national chains. We were giving them tools to reach entirely new audiences. We were helping the little guy fight the big guy.
Story after story poured in of local merchants that were on the verge of going out of business, who literally were saved by Groupon. And we didn’t just save businesses, we helped people start businesses. Storefronts popped up because of us, allowing small business owners to fulfill their dreams and open their doors, knowing they could leverage Groupon’s customer base to get off the ground.
And we were having an equal impact on the consumer side. Thousands of stories poured in of customers trying new experiences and enriching their lives by virtue of us making services affordable. We were responsible for first dates, marriages, and we were even given credit for a few babies being born.
Each of us was personally touched by the impact we were having. People would hear you work at Groupon and tell you their story. I remember vividly walking into a restaurant in Palo Alto and having a woman come up when she saw my Groupon bag, and ask me if I worked there. I told her I did and she immediately got tears in her eyes. She told me that Groupon had changed her life. She was overweight and single and needed some external motivation. One day, she saw a Groupon for half off spinning classes, and decided to sign up. Six months later she had lost 40 pounds and was now in a relationship. I remember thinking, “Wow, what we do really matters. We’re touching people’s lives in such a tangible way.”
We all felt that way (and still do).
These days, when I go down to the sixth floor of our building, I have those same feelings at Uptake. The culture Brad has created there is truly magical. Just walk up and down the aisles and you’re absorbed into Uptake’s culture. It’s palpable.
There is a feeling that each employee is solving real problems; that the work they do allows companies to gather mission critical insights from the machinery and equipment they have out in the world. And we’re not talking about little equipment – we’re talking about rail cars, and construction equipment, and copper mines, and airplanes, and on and on.
That sense of mission and purpose is what ultimately defines a truly great culture. It binds every employee; it’s visceral. It’s what keeps employees at the office late at night. It’s the reason they don’t quit when someone offers them more money. It’s what motivates them to hang out with their co-workers after hours.
It’s connective tissue; binding every employee to every other employee and binding every employee to the company itself.
And just like packing people into tight spaces (which is a controllable variable when laying out an office), great leaders can and do harness purpose and mission and find ways to inculcate every new employee as to why what they’re doing matters; why it’s important and how it touches people’s lives.
In a knowledge economy, where employees are transient by nature, it’s more important than ever to instill a sense of purpose and mission in the workplace. It’s more important than ever for leaders to focus on what makes their company or product not just unique, but more importantly – worthwhile.
Great leaders need to lay out why everyone is there in the first place. Leaving money aside, what’s the point? What does the company do that is special and worthwhile? Leaders need to ask themselves, “should this business exist?,” “does it sell something or perform a service that makes the world better in some way?”
The answer is almost always – yes. Through a broad lens, most businesses do some good. Gas stations keep cars moving, grocery stores feed people, online retailers provide goods to people all over the world, and so on.
There is something good in most businesses, as people typically start a business to solve a problem or fulfill a need, not make money.
When leaders are able to tap into that sense of purpose and mission, not in a hokey way but in an honest way, great cultures emerge. And when you have built a culture that is empowered and emboldened, your employees are supercharged, creating a durable and sustainable advantage.
Densely packed energy is powerful, but people armed with a sense of purpose and mission are nearly invincible.