Happy Employees, Happy Customers: Creating a Company Culture that Works

Happy Employees, Happy Customers: Creating a Company Culture that Works

Company culture is back in the spotlight, thanks to a renewed focus on better work-life balance and workplace rewards beyond the paycheck and benefits. Perhaps there’s no better example of culture-at-work than in the fast-paced, high-growth environment of the modern technology startup. Today, we talk with Alan Neveu, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer for Certify, about cultivating a company culture that marries great products with a great place to work.

Please describe your philosophy on corporate culture. What is it important?
Oftentimes employers and employees view work-life balance as though work and life two entirely separate things. But there's something that always drives me, and it's life itself. Why should work be any different? The way we look at it, why would we want work to be something less enjoyable than the rest of life? Why not create our own future? And since this is in fact a startup, you know, we set out to start a company where right from the get-go everyone loves being here. We want to make the work itself just as enjoyable as some of the other aspects of life. For Certify founders and employees, work-life balance is really about building our own destiny in our own environment, with our own dreams.

Culture isn’t simply about turning a buck. In this world of technology and startups, it means we can create a product that didn’t exist previously to offer real value for customers and employees. Ultimately, this is the reason we’re here. With strong ethics, good morals and shared values among the team, we’re able to create not just monetary or practical value, but a work environment that's actually an enjoyable place to be. We also believe that happy employees are essential for making customers happy. So, from a business perspective, your level of success will be determined mostly by the corporate culture that you create.

Certify headquarters are in Portland, Maine, with offices in San Diego, two relatively unconventional locations for a software company. How do these unique cities help contribute to Certify’s culture?
The world is more connected today than ever before. You can pick up and move to another state and find that you’re in touch with friends and family just as much as when you lived right around the corner. That being the world we’re living in, I think as long as there continues to be enough talent to pull from and expand as needed, Portland, Maine, and San Diego are fantastic places. More than that, operating in these cities can actually be a really great thing in terms of the benefits and quality of life a place like Portland in particular offers residents. It’s the same thing with San Diego. Not to disparage New York City or San Francisco, but in terms of the cost of doing business and the talent wars with the great technology firms in those cities, you might turn the question around. Like, why would anyone start a company in a place where you're going into it facing huge operating costs and other disadvantages? In 2015, the connections factor matters a lot more than it ever used to, and people can now really pick a place where they want to live and have every opportunity to thrive there.

With so many employees throughout the country, what are some of the ways you’ve been able to maintain culture across time zones? How do you bring everyone together under one vision?
As much as technology keeps us connected, getting together in person to celebrate the team and celebrate company success is critical to building and maintaining a strong culture. Two things we’ve always done are our summer beach olympics during which all employees gather for a week at our Portland headquarters for trainings, company meetings and strategy sessions. Once we get through the office time, then it’s literally a full day of partying at the beach, competing with each other and just having a really great time. Then we bring everyone back together again at holiday time to celebrate the season and get ready for the year ahead. As you can imagine, getting the whole company together for both of these events is a major investment. It costs hard dollars to fly everyone in and put people up in hotels for five or more nights, and everything else that goes with that. But it's an investment that's worth making because it helps us all come together and see the big picture and enjoy one another. When it’s over and we all go our separate ways, we're able to tap into that experience at any point over the course of the year. It just really sets a solid foundation of trust among us all to have enjoyed one another as people first.

Describe a moment when your company culture, or your belief in it was challenged. What were the circumstances? How did culture help your team persevere?
We have a large boat bell in the office and the sales team rings in celebration with every new customer win. We all celebrate together, and there's this tremendous happiness that comes with being part of a winning team. Of course, we don’t win every deal, and I remember one in particular not too long ago that we all worked very hard to win. It was a large deal and we were really excited about it. It seemed like we had it in the bag, and then we got the news that Certify was not chosen and that the customer went with a competitor. It’s one of those dark times when it's easy in the moment to lose track of all those other bell rings and feel like the kid who got picked last in gym class. But I was quickly reminded of one of our ten company values, that is, to celebrate our wins and learn from our losses. And so we all kind of told ourselves to snap out of it and use the opportunity to get better, not bitter. In that difficult moment, we all made the decision together to learn from this loss. Our core values took years to distill, but it's real life stuff like this where all the time and effort and thinking behind it really pays off.

You’re both chief technology officer and leading cultural ambassador for Certify. Where do these two worlds intersect, and what do you like most about your dual role?
The intersection is literally in every conversation, it’s in every email, every Zendesk support ticket, every Jive discussion, and it’s in every interaction. Whether we’re having a conversation with a co-worker or customer about some issue you're trying to work through together, we are going to start that conversation enjoying one another. We start with a foundation of trust. These relationships and conversations where we’re able to have trust and openness are the foundation of how we get things done at Certify. And that's really the intersection of our culture and the actual work that we do. It’s about letting information flow rather than trying to control information and control relationships. We want to share and be open, and we want to partner with people like that. And I think what I like most about my role is really that I’m allowed to think about these things. There’s so much more to running a company than pure economics or technology decisions. As co-founder of Certify I’m able to set the stage to say what it is we’re going to value as a company, and then do it and lead by example.