Five years ago, short-track skater Apolo Ohno became the most decorated US athlete in Winter Olympics history, midfielder Andrés Iniesta helped bring Spain its first World Cup title, and GiveForward co-founder Ethan Austin met Zappos founder Tony Hsieh. Lifelong dreams were fulfilled on all accounts. At an event, Austin spoke with Hsieh, one of the leading minds on and practitioners of values-based culture. Not coincidentally, that year marked GiveForward’s first employee hire and its relentless devotion to its culture.
Flash forward to 2015 and Austin appears to be less a disciple of Hsieh, and more his successor when it comes to rethinking what great company culture looks like. As with many startups before it, GiveForward provides unlimited vacation and pays for continuing education. Yet it also hosts a two-day company offsite during which talk of work is prohibited. Throughout the year, there are burrito-eating contests, handwritten holiday cards and annual tubing trips. But all this fun belies the productivity that comes out of the deeper cultural principles at play. Its 45 team members have enabled millions of donors to raise nearly $200 million in donations to pay for loved ones’ medical emergencies and expenses.
In tech, culture has become largely synonymous with nerf guns, table tennis and unlimited snacks — and often written off as the cost of retention. It’s rare that startups can draw straight lines from their culture to actual business impact. In this exclusive interview, Austin outlines how GiveForward’s culture has become its competitive advantage across four areas: hiring, retention, fundraising and partnerships.
The VP of Operations at Cars.com. The CTO, Head of User Experience and Senior Director of Brand Marketing at GrubHub. Executives at Groupon and the Obama campaign. These people aren’t on GiveForward’s Board of Directors or Advisory Board. They’ve left those organizations to join GiveForward as full-time employees. “I think hiring is definitely an area where culture has allowed us to punch above our weight class,” says Austin.
Many companies make the mistake of thinking their culture is revealed during the first interview, onboarding or during an employee’s first week. Austin knows the company’s first impression is made much earlier. “It’s not like meeting someone in-person. Whether you like it or not, your first impression is made before you’ve even met your candidate,” he says. “That’s why we put our ‘weird’ job descriptions out into the world.”
Weird and loud is good. Weird and quiet is a losing proposition.
Weird how? A recent GiveForward job description for a QA Engineer introduces the company, covers the role requirements, describes its values and illustrates them. Most companies stop at the first three elements, post the opening and call it a day. Here are excerpts from the JD showing how GiveForward infuses its job descriptions with cultural hallmarks:
Language Describing Culture
- “We put our customer at the center of everything we do and we believe in empowering compassion in technology.”
- “We value empathy over ego, talent over title, and collaboration over documentation.”
- “It’s an amazing opportunity to make a significant impact in the emerging development of crowd-giving and to solidify our position as a leader in the industry.”
- “And best of all, your expertise will truly change people’s lives through the products we create.”
Language Demonstrating Culture
- Include examples that backup exposition. “This is what we do. This is why we do it. Last year we showed the world that love will always triumph over violence, that honesty truly is the best policy, and that when 1000 strangers decide to pay it forward, life can unfold in magical ways.”
- Illustrate your values and mantras: In the case of GiveForward, it wanted to convey its core value of “authenticity” and its internal mantra of “weird is good.” Here’s a few ways how: “It would be mucho bueno if you had all of the above. Of course we recognize that this is a long list [of requirements] and you will not have all of these skills. You should apply anyway. This is going to be transformational. We pinky swear.”
- Show commitment to your personality — and your quest for a superb candidate. The job description includes a section at the end in all caps entitled: “STILL READING? GREAT, THEN LET’S MAKE HISTORY TOGETHER.” And at the bottom: “ *If this role isn't right for you, please pass it along to the best human you know.”
Most people think of a job description as a request sent out into the world. GiveForward inverts that relationship, acting as if it’s putting its own resume out there to get a job with with best candidate. By making an extra effort to convey its core values — authenticity, fun, compassion and empowerment — the startup equips candidates to filter themselves and self-select before applying. This makes the process more efficient for everyone involved.
Weird job descriptions weed out the boring, stuffy people and bring us the weird, creative and fun folks we want to work with.
When candidates receive an offer letter from GiveForward, the team uses its culture to close them. “We write our final candidates a personalized ‘Letterman Top Ten’ list. It points to the main reasons they should join GiveForward,” says Austin. “It draws from our experience with them as candidates, as well as weaves in facets of our mission, vision and values. We want to show that we already know them as well as take another opportunity to remind them of who we are.”
While it may seem to be more art than science, GiveForward takes pride in its precision to integrate all its values. “The letter with the list demonstrates that we live a lot of our values just by writing that letter,” says Austin. “We show our emphasis on authenticity and fun because it’s a goofy gesture. It conveys compassion because we’ve listened to them and care enough to go the extra mile. And it shows empowerment, by listing out the many reasons — quoted directly from interviewees — that show why they’re right for the job and will be able to run with it.”
Over the years, these top ten lists have proven to be one of the best recruiting tools for the company (see below for an example). “I think people seek to join a startup with a clear mission and vision. They want to be inspired by the work they’re doing everyday,” says Austin. “We’ve heard of candidates forwarding these lists to their parents or their spouses, proudly adding ‘Hey, this is the company I’m going to join.’ If they were on the fence, this usually brings them our way. Over and over, people join because the mission and values align with what they stand for.”
For tech startups, if there’s one thing more challenging than hiring talented people, it’s keeping them. GiveForward learned early that retention is not driven by financial compensation (despite popular assumption). “I think back to our first two years when we were bootstrapped. It was 2008, before Kickstarter or the word ‘crowdfunding’ really even existed. We couldn’t raise money,” Austin says. “ We weren’t taking salaries and only had interns at the time. We didn’t ask them to, but a couple of them stayed on for a year and a half without pay. Even when it was supposed to be a three-month internship.”
Culture evens out the inevitable ups, downs, starts and stops a company goes through. Even rocketships have refueling stations in space. Culture’s what you lean on.
Today, Erica — one of those interns — heads GiveForward’s Customer Service group, one of the startup’s biggest departments. When asked why she stayed for so long unpaid, she said she felt that the company was going to be a force that changes her generation and the world for good. What’s more, she was just as fulfilled without getting paid as she had real ownership over her corner of the company — and at one point much more.
“One of our values from the beginning is empowerment — we best sum that up as ‘being the CEO of your position.’ At the time when Erica was an intern, it wasn’t a stated value, but something we were living,” says Austin. “The first vacation that [my co-founder] Desiree or I had in two years was Desiree’s wedding. For four days, we left Erica in charge of the business. We came back and and it hadn’t crumbled or fallen apart. An intern ran our company!”
The bottom-line is to make everyone — from the interns to the second-in-command — equal partners in the business. That may not always come along with big title changes, but rather clear and evergreen opportunities to own important choices. Even if they’re small, that doesn’t mean they’re trivial. Here are some of the specific practices that not only drive and define GiveForward’s culture, but also make its employees want to stay and work harder:
- Link personal priorities to corporate values. GiveForward periodically grants its employees a surprise day off to do something that recharges them, feeds their souls and makes them happy. This helps connect and fuse employees’ personal and corporate values.
- Empower through budget. One of the company’s mantras is to "create unexpected joy" for its users. Each employee is given full discretion over $500 to boost a GiveForward campaign or delight a user with a personal gift. One employee sent a care package with clothes and supplies to a single father whose kids were starting school. How many people get to say that they touched or changed a life at work today? GiveForward gives its employees this incredibly rare ability.
- Make it a habit to come together to deepen impact. When the beneficiary of a GiveForward campaign passes away or is going into surgery, the team handwrites and sends cards via snail mail or digitally drops “hug bombs.” In this practice, a user happiness rep will rally team members to express words of encouragement via a string of posts on a user’s campaign page.
“Ultimately, people want four things at a company,” says Austin. “They want a sense of purpose, knowing that the business has a positive effect on the world. Second, people want to be more than a cog and have an impact within the company. Third, they want to be learning from and inspired by their coworkers. And lastly, they want to genuinely enjoy being with their colleagues enough to want to hang out with them outside of work.”
No one cares about what you do. They care about why you do it. Similarly, people don’t really buy what you make. They buy your reasons for making it.
Polished pitch decks and warm introductions aside, GiveForward has been most successful fundraising when it’s channeled its authenticity. In many ways, Austin can see how the funding the company’s raised to date can trace back to a few very open and honest moments with Techstars managing partner and angel investor David Cohen. “The goal is to make investors fall in love with your company,” says Austin. “You can only do that by being vulnerable, and showing them not only what's in your head but also what's in your heart.”
As recounted by Austin, Cohen first supported GiveForward after its founders were direct and forthright with him about another investor’s term sheet. Austin and Desiree Vargas Wrigley were encouraged by the prospect of cashing GiveForward’s first check as it needed the funding, but had significant reservations. The investor had offered GiveForward $1 million at a $2 million post-money valuation. In a move you don’t see from tech founders everyday, they decided to confide what they were feeling in Cohen. He told the founders to trust their gut. They did, and GiveForward later closed a $500,000 seed round with Cohen and a group of angels.
Three months after GiveForward closed the round, Austin wrote one of GiveForward’s first investor updates, which he titled ‘The Power of Hugs.’ The email recipients included a billionaire, a successful executive whose name is on a business school building at the University of Chicago, a founder with an IPO under his belt and a few other serial entrepreneurs. “I was terrified about sending it out because I thought I’d get laughed out of the room. Was I really going to send a note about hugs to these seasoned investors and founders?” says Austin. “I mustered up the courage to hit the send button and hid under a desk hoping that I didn’t just end my career.”
Cohen, famous for his three-word emails, replied to all with this response:
The angel signed off with:
...and soon similar feedback from the other investors rolled in. “For us it was such a boost to confirm that we had investors that embraced our weirdness and rewarded our authenticity — basically, synced with our cultural values,” says Austin. “That gave us the confidence to build the company and culture the way we wanted to create it without being second guessed."
The bottom-line is that the faster you show your true colors to your investors, the quicker they’ll become part of your team — or find the door. Both outcomes are good to establish early. Cohen has not only been a great fit for the company, but also is a critical connector. “There’s a multiplier effect. Our current investors now make fundraising so much easier,” says Austin. “David [Cohen] really fell in love with GiveForward, and when it came time to raise our next round, he was the one who made most of the introductions to our current investors. It was vital to have intros from someone like David, who is so well respected. It all came together because we were able to be authentic.”
Culture’s just a fancy word for giving people something to believe in. It means clearly saying what you stand for as a company and then creating the infrastructure that empowers your team to believe in the same ideas.
As with investors, corporate partnerships can also significantly change the growth trajectory of a startup. And similarly, the key is to show not tell. You can give a presentation or pitch, but most will want to touch the product or download the app. When culture is your product, you must find ways to make it tangible.
“It's not enough to live your values. If you hope to build partnerships with companies that share similar values you need to create digital assets like blog posts and videos that document what you believe in,” says Austin. “Potential partners aren't going to take your word that you ‘cultivate through compassion’ or ‘take fun seriously.’ They need to see it for themselves to really determine if your culture is something they want to align with.”
GiveForward recently announced its biggest partnership to date with insurance company Nationwide. Showing its culture in action was critical to getting the deal done. “Our work especially resonated with them after we shared a video of a family benefiting from a GiveForward campaign. Friends and colleagues raised money and surprised the family with a $35,000 check. We didn’t use marketing or edit the clip. Just the original.”
If the video didn’t tip the scales, GiveForward’s Director of Business Development Ariana Vargas wanted double down to bring the team’s core work and values front and center. During her second meeting with Nationwide, Vargas created unexpected joy by arranging a surprise, in-person visit from a Giveforward user who shared her own story. When she fell ill, her wife was embarrassed and didn’t want her to have a GiveForward page. Her spouse did a complete 180 when donations and words of encouragement poured in from the community.
The lesson: find a way for partners to directly experience your product and culture. They’re more likely to see your work as an extension of their mission. “We could see in their faces as they saw their slogan — ‘On Your Side’ — take on a new meaning. It wasn’t just about taking care of a person, but also about the people he or she cares about,” says Austin. “The goal is to go beyond regular insurance to help people rebuild emotionally and financially.”
The partnership just clicked. We collectively realized that crowdfunding is insurance after the fact and insurance is crowdfunding before the fact.
A company’s culture has virality, especially in communities that share common stories and causes. “The new community-driven product direction of Giveforward — that caught Nationwide’s attention — has spurred more than 1650 new campaign pages and tripled user engagement during a two-month beta test,” says Austin. “There are millions of members that are part of the Nationwide community that we can help care for and financially support. All this happened because they saw how we create unexpected joy for our users — and them. They, too, want to show their members that they’re behind them and the people they care about.”
Looking ahead, Austin and Vargas Wrigley see GiveForward scaling through partnerships with organizations that not only share their values, but also make people’s lives easier when they need it most. For example, partnerships, product features and integrations that enable grocery delivery, housecleaning, childcare and transportation arrangements are on the horizon.
As we’ve written before, culture isn't kumbaya stuff. It’s the bedrock, put in place by founders even before a startup’s early employees “get in on the ground floor.” If done right, it won’t be the small boost, but the reason you hire a candidate, retain your star talent, get your lead investor, and close that deal. Your culture will grow alongside you, but will always sprout from the values you lay down as the foundation of your business.
“Don’t write your values down on day one. On Day One, they’re aspirational. They don’t mean anything then,” says Austin. “Write them down on day 100 or 180 or 365. Write them down when they actually mean something, and your culture is draped over them. Every startup has its starts and stops, but it will be there. It’s both the drawing board and the framed masterpiece. I know. It’s the thing we’ve got and what will bring us everything we’ll get.”