In the beginning, there were lights – on a Christmas tree. And not much else. As a result, the 2014 holiday season came and went without a party. After all, there was nothing to celebrate.
In 2015, eleven of us gathered at a small bar in the East Village and celebrated a busy year of work that had ultimately culminated in the launch of VidMob’s initial mobile app in the Apple App Store. Months of vision refinement and hard work had turned into a product. We had grown into a tight family in the process, albeit a small one. We were already split across two offices, but the culture came easy. When everyone works with everyone else every day, your culture is just the lingering reflection of how you behave. We knew it was important, but it didn’t require planning in order to develop.
A year later, the staff had expanded by nearly 20%! Put less dramatically, we’d grown by two people. We’d been live now for a little over a year, and while VidMob’s creative marketplace was starting to hit its stride, that event had only happened recently and so our culture had only evolved slightly. We had big plans and believed in execution against our vision like it was the word from on high, but the team was still small. That said, we now had historical precedent, and so we planned for the 2016 holiday party with newfound gusto. The company was bigger and better, so the party had to follow suit. So we threw caution to the wind, moved the party to Soho West, and got a balloon. Actually, not just one balloon like some going-nowhere dime-a-dozen start-up, we got six balloons. When our friends and family came to join us and help celebrate another year in the books, they were greeted with six glistening beacons proclaiming just how real we were — V.I.D.M.O.D!
Sure it was misspelled. But imperfection is the gift that tomorrow hopes for, and so we entered 2017 with at least one easy area of improvement on the docket. Business picked up rapidly from there, and 2017 saw the closing of our Series A, our staff grew to 30 people, and revenue grew by ~10x. We were now squarely into the kind of growth that can start to bend and distort a poorly defined culture, but we were at least partially prepared. As I’ve written about previously, we had at least two secret weapons. First, we had been a mission-driven organization from the beginning . And a well-defined mission can go a long way as a cultural navigator. Additionally, we were nurturing a belief that corporations could be better than what the world had shown us in recent years. It was frustrating watching one company after another fail basic moral tests, all in the name of quarterly earnings and shareholder returns. For a while we talked about the need for companies that understood that ‘stakeholder’ was a broader concept than ‘shareholder’. Over time, it dawned on us that we actually had a platform – a small platform, but a growing one, and perhaps we could set an example for a new form of corporate responsibility. This nascent idea became our second cultural booster.
As the end of 2017 neared, it was clear we were into a new era. Now split across 4 offices and with new employees starting seemingly every week, we decided to invest in HR and begin to codify who we were and why we do the things we do. When it came to the year-end holiday party, that meant taking a slightly different approach to the day. Instead of just having a normal workday and then having a celebration that evening, we filled the afternoon with programming. We checked in on our mission, talked about the year ahead, and discussed how we were doing in terms of holding onto our values in the face of rapid growth. One of the events was a task around goal-setting. We asked everyone to write down goals for themselves for the next 3 months (immediate), 6 months (mid-range), and 12 months (the impossibly distant future). Everyone knew that these would be public, and they were told that these could be a mix of personal and business. Other than that, there were no rules. We posted all of these to the right of an internal month-over-month revenue chart, and then slipped into 2018.
The staff doubled again in 2018, and to stay ahead of things we decided to further invest in codifying aspects of our culture before they became issues. There were a couple of easy things:
- Free healthcare. VidMob had always paid for 100% of our employees’ healthcare premiums. People shouldn’t be pressed to choose cheaper policies so that they could save a few bucks net of their contributions on their monthly take-home earnings, so we decided to simply make this our policy.
- Unlimited vacation. Similarly, we had always given all of our employees unlimited vacation. In the age of email and smartphones, everyone works too much already. We’re not in the business of babysitting, and we believe people do better work when they’re fresh. So this was also codified as a formal policy.
And some that required a bit more thought:
- Vacation stipend. The problem with unlimited vacation is that there are all sorts of studies showing that, in general, people take less vacation when it is unlimited. So we had two options: Either (i) limit the amount of vacation to something more traditional and start tracking it, or (ii) come up with a more creative solution. Being a creative business, we obviously opted for the latter. We decided to offer a $1,000 per year vacation stipend to every employee. Use it or lose it. I’m optimistic that this will have better results in our goal of getting people out of the office a bit more.
- Offsites. This was actually the best thing we did. But the important thing to note is that these were not just normal corporate offsites. I’ll write more about this some other day, but this picture should help set the tone a little bit.
- Fireside chats. With an eye towards fostering a culture of full transparency, we began doing scheduled fireside chats. The team was counseled ahead of time that no questions were off limits, and they were also given a way to submit anonymous questions. With a number of execs who had lived through early days at places like Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, as well as who had started multiple businesses, these became worthwhile conversations for all sides.
- Company soccer team. We didn’t win a lot of games, but like the misspelled balloons in 2016, our futility has the benefit of leaving us plenty of easy room for improvement.
- VidMob exchange program. If you’ve ever been to New York, Chicago, or the Berkshires in January, the allure of a formal exchange program is probably not lost on you. But weather is just the incentive. The benefit of this program is in cross pollinating across teams, because when a company is growing quickly, one of the biggest dangers is getting isolated into silos.
Last week we all gathered in our new offices at 126 Fifth Avenue for the 4th VidMob holiday party (the first one doesn’t count because a party of one is no party at all). We were so excited about the new office that despite the fact that none of the work had been done yet to make it our own, and despite the fact that it was our busiest time of the year, we moved in anyway – four days before the party. Like the offsite, we programmed the day with a series of events that were distinctly VidMob.
In the midst of it all, we reviewed the goals from the 2017 event. Time seems to flow differently in a company that is growing exponentially, and the first thing that struck me as I read some of the highlights was how long ago it seemed. Conversely, I couldn’t believe how much we had accomplished in such a short time. One of the 3-month goals was to have “image / video recognition integrated into the platform for data capture”. The corollary to this was “use image / video recognition for driving new feature” as a 6-month goal. Well, not only had we succeeded on both, but we now had hundreds of clients using it, and had been invited to have 3 separate executives give talks at Re:Invent about that “feature”. We also checked the box for one employee who wanted to complete a month-long vegan diet, under the direction of our CMO. Someone else wanted to grow our Chicago office to 4 people, and succeeded, but only by having a baby, which may or may not have been cheating. All in all, across a few hundred goals, we had accomplished between 60-62% in each of the 3, 6 and 12-month categories. This consistency struck me as remarkable at first, but over time I began to believe that it was just about perfect. If we’d hit all of our goals, it would have been clear that we didn’t set our targets high enough. If we hadn’t hit any, it probably would have been safe to say that we weren’t any good at our jobs. But this seemed just right – reaching for the stars, with the knowledge that hitting the moon ain’t bad.
Now, as the days quiet down with the approach of year end, we find ourselves once again transcribing hundreds of goals. One thing is clear – it’s shocking how bad handwriting is getting in a digital-only world. But when you squint your way past that, a glimpse of the future is visible. With twice as many people, we have twice as many goals. We’re also better at our jobs, and we have the type of solid cultural foundation that forms the bedrock upon which to build. Past experience tells me that we’ll hit many of our goals, but I’ve learned to hope that we don’t hit them all.
2019 is going to be a big year for VidMob. I can’t wait to get to work.