The year is 2010 and Dave Gilboa is hard at work designing Warby Parker’s very first homepage — in PowerPoint. He’s sitting among stacks of inventory in his co-founder Neil Blumenthal’s tiny apartment (the same apartment that would double as the company’s first showroom). That’s the moment Mara Castro walks through the door, starting as Warby’s first official employee just hours after receiving her offer. She jumps in with little more training than, “Ask us if you have any questions.” Just as suddenly, employee experience becomes a top priority.
Eight years later, Gilboa and Blumenthal have learned a lot about what makes a startup successful. Their website is managed by a team of professionals, and the apartment living room’s been replaced by two offices (one in New York City and one in Nashville), an optical lab, and more than 60 retail locations across the US and Canada. One thing remains the same, though: their conviction that creating an extraordinary employee life cycle is just as important as developing a killer product.
“One thing I’ve always found surprising and unfortunate is that as companies get bigger and have more money and more ability to invest in the employee experience, they actually become worse places to work,” says Gilboa. “That terrifies us.”
At First Round's recent New York Founder Summit, Gilboa dove into five areas where startups need to double down to make sure scale doesn’t ruin all of the things that make them great places to work — to make sure they continue to feel small, compelling, close-knit and rewarding. Read on for the tactics that have made Warby Parker one of the most sought after employers in the world.
Many of the most memorable moments in any employee’s life cycle happen at the very beginning. Everything is new. Everything makes an impact. They either feel supported and excited or lost and bewildered. They feel initiated or left out. In a way, this sets the tone for how they perceive your culture and the rest of their time at the company. “You have to make people feel special and welcome from the very first moment they interact with your organization,” says Gilboa.
Don’t just sweat the details — be original. Warby Parker’s welcome packet includes standard-issue fare like an office map and style guide, but also something unexpected: A copy of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. “The name Warby Parker came from two early Kerouac characters,” Gilboa says. “We want to make that heritage part of the employee experience from day one. It’s something utterly unique to us that will always stand out.”
Make new employees the most approachable people in the office. Being new can suck. You feel like you have to prove your value right away. Everyone around you has some degree of shared history, inside jokes, and institutional knowledge. To help your new employees break the ice, you want to take pressure off their shoulders and make it easy for your existing team to induct them into the culture and conversation.
Warby Parker does this in a few ways. The first is a quirky variation of something often done at large companies, but seldom at their smaller counterparts. They designed a custom helium balloon that features an illustration of a steak with a pair of glasses on. It says: “Nice to meat you!” These balloons are affixed to every newcomer’s desk for their first couple weeks. Other employees are conditioned to treat the balloons as beacons so they’ll introduce themselves and strike up conversations with newbies.
For similar reasons, new employees are asked to introduce themselves during all hands meetings, so that they can seed commonalities and inside jokes in front of the rest of the company. As part of this intro, they’re asked to share ‘a fun fact’ about themselves. “They’ve ranged from someone who held Michael Jackson’s baby to a 5’ tall woman who announced she had the colon of a 6’ tall man,” says Gilboa.
By asking folks to share something memorable (and occasionally bizarre), you can help them become more recognizable to their colleagues and equip everyone with a hook to get to know each other better and strike up conversation around the office. People don’t do this for themselves as proactively as you think they will. You need to build it into their first days on the job to make them as approachable as they’d like to be — without putting the onus on them to forge a bunch of connections on their own.
Make training an executive priority. Way too many companies delegate new employee onboarding and training to junior staff or the human resources team. Some even outsource it. But Gilboa says that good leaders don’t even dream of relinquishing this crucial task. “We think it’s vital for the most senior people at the company to be involved in this process, including me and my co-founder,” he says.
The presentations might seem repetitive after a while, or below the C-suite’s pay grade, but having them drive onboarding sends a strong message that new employees are extremely valuable to the company. Beyond that, a startup’s leadership team tends to have all the important institutional knowledge at their fingertips — from the origin story to governance structure. Also, when company values are articulated, explained in detail and reinforced (ideally with examples) by a founder, they carry far more weight than they might when simply written on a piece of paper or a poster on the wall.
If something seems obvious to you, repeat it until your mouth is numb. Then keep repeating it. Beating the drum on your organization’s few top priorities creates focus for everyone.
Meet weekly. Warby Parker still has weekly all hands meetings. A lot of companies assume that cadence only works for very small startups, but that’s not the case in Gilboa’s experience. It’s kept all employees at Warby feeling connected, informed and engaged for years. They aren’t planning to ditch it anytime soon, and recommend it as a tool for all companies.
“It’s ironic that as companies get bigger they tend to communicate across their organizations less frequently rather than more,” he says. “That's headed in the wrong direction to me, and we’ve seen how valuable it is to do the opposite.”
Warby’s standing meeting is every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. EST, and it’s a can’t-miss affair. Led by both Gilboa and Blumenthal, it features appearances by department leaders from across the org. “We talk about new developments, themes we want top of mind for the team, company-wide priorities, strategic milestones, etc.” The proceedings are also recorded and posted so that those who can’t be there can watch after the fact.
Monthly — and definitely quarterly — meetings are too spread out, in Gilboa’s opinion. When you’re building an ambitious company, things change much faster than that. It’s easy for divisions to lose visibility into each other’s work. There’s no sense of where collaboration might make a big difference, and many smaller wins and celebrations get glossed over.
Instituting a weekly touchpoint that everyone shares gives people more of a common foundation, more opportunities to reward and feel rewarded, more surface area to ask questions and connect with leadership, and more clarity and transparency.
Find ways to say the same thing many different ways. As the company launches new stores and labs, employees are constantly moving around and might not be able to watch a full all hands. So the founders invented a new communication vehicle to get them the information they need while on the go: The Weekly Briefing.
“Neil or I record something roughly three to five minutes long — basically a highlight reel of what was shared during the all hands meeting, but just the need-to-know content,” says Gilboa. “It’s a way for us to convey the key messages to everyone in the company on a weekly basis — it’s really easy and quick to consume — and it really does serve to make us feel like a smaller, tightly-knit community.”
His advice for founders: Think through your employees’ schedules. Who might be missing out on key communication touchpoints and why? Are they constantly traveling? Do they not have a lot of time? Are they working remotely? Create new communications products that fit their particular habits and needs. Get them the information they need how they need it.
And get it to them through multiple channels. In addition to weekly all hands meetings and The Weekly Briefing, the leadership also circulates Warby Weekly, an internal email newsletter featuring a calendar of events, news about launches, details of new features, and more — yet another opportunity to repeat themselves and make sure employees are internalizing where the company is headed and how.
Create direct lines to your customers or users. Remember that most people joined your company because they were inspired by the idea of creating impact for someone — your audience of users or customers. But the bigger companies get, the more removed most employees become from the people who they feel strongly about serving.
Companies with engaged workforces close this gap between employees and end users.
A lot of startups have programs in place where new employees field customer service calls or tickets — or perhaps everyone rotates through that at some point. This isn’t enough, asserts Gilboa. You need to create regular opportunities for your staff to connect with customers, ideally over the phone or in person. And not just when something is going wrong. Enlist people to help with user research and focus groups.
Very importantly, don’t exempt your senior leaders from this experience. “So many big companies fall victim to their top decision-makers moving further and further away from customers and customer data,” says Gilboa. “Neil and I still take shifts on the phone talking to customers.” They have a program called Customer Connection that ensures team members from every department regularly take shifts in Warby Parker’s retail locations. “When people see very senior people doing this, the ethos of engaging with customers trickles down to everyone at the company.”
Rallying your team for play is just as — if not more — important than rallying them for work. But the logistical challenge of this inevitably grows as your team grows. People get busy. Projects seem urgent. Fewer people pay attention to individual wins.
Founders must make sure even small victories get their due. It makes an outsized difference in employee happiness.
Embrace every opportunity to have fun. As companies mature, they inevitably put more formal process in place. In many areas, that’s a good thing, but not for celebrating wins. No one thinks it will happen to them or their company, but it always does: specific budget gets allocated to celebrating milestones, and suddenly acknowledgement becomes very cookie cutter. People get balloons or a gift certificate, or a cake — or whatever has been mandated to be sufficiently rewarding. There ceases to be anything custom, bespoke or culturally authentic about it.
Don’t let growth make celebrations (particularly spontaneous celebrations) a casualty of routine. Spontaneity is a huge ingredient of celebrations that are truly nurturing to teams. Keep this in mind as you grow. Make it part of your company’s DNA. Give the leaders on your team license to surprise, delight, and reward people for their achievements in a way that feels personal.
Mark milestones. If you want your employees to have an emotional bond with your company, you need to acknowledge milestones the way you would in a friendship or relationship. Warby Parker never misses an employee’s work anniversary, adorning desks with balloons so that people are drawn to come over and offer congrats. Similarly, if an employee has milestones in their own life — a wedding, a child, etc. — you need to pause and celebrate this moment as well. This goes a long way toward creating an incredible employee experience, and gives people even greater permission to bring their whole selves to work.
Make this a two way street by giving employees ample opportunity to celebrate company-wide milestones. You want to create as many common experiences for people as you can to keep them feeling cohesive even as your headcount expands into the hundreds. “When we turned five, we threw ourselves a half-decade parade,” says Gilboa. “We found the shortest street in New York and even hired a marching band. The whole team was involved, and it was a ton of fun.” When they reached 1,000 employees, Warby Parker unfurled a banner in its headquarters that included every employee’s name, in the order they were hired.
Identify and anticipate those moments that either mark the passage of time or a certain amount of scale. Each is an opportunity to bring everyone together, celebrate contributions and make memories.
Put your values at the center of celebrations. Some of the most important milestones on your team occur when an employee does an act — big or small — that exemplifies your company’s core values. If you want to encourage the behaviors that make your company great, acknowledge them publicly, noticeably and uniquely. At Warby Parker, this takes the form of an award named for their unofficial mascot: the blue-footed booby.
“Employees can nominate any of their colleagues for a Blue-Footed Booby Award for going above and beyond,” he says. “On a monthly basis, we select three winners, and they get their choice of prizes valued at roughly a few hundred dollars. Then, on a quarterly basis, we select an overall winner.” That winner gets a trip to any city where Warby Parker has a presence — making it both a chance to connect with colleagues and a well-earned vacation. Leadership is so consistently vocal about the importance of the award that they always get a few hundred nominations per month.
It’s especially important to celebrate great employee qualities and values when and if they change; or, incidentally, when you want to emphasize a new competency or priority that aligns with your stage of growth. For example, as Warby Parker has grown to require more cross-functional project teams, they’ve added a new award: “We created Breakfast of Champions so that people can nominate whole cross-functional teams and the winners get a big, catered breakfast to celebrate.”
“The number one reason that we hear people want to work for us is our social mission,” says Gilboa. “It’s the fact that we’re a for-profit business that’s also focused on doing good in the world. So we’ve seen how absolutely critical it is to connect the work that goes on every single day — whether it’s an engineer shipping code or an accountant signing a check — to our overall mission: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.”
Have them see it firsthand. Warby rewards employees who have been at the company for three years with a mission-driven perk: a chance to travel internationally to see the company’s Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program in action.
“We group them into a handful of trips per year,” he says. “Employees who go meet our nonprofit partners, go out in the field, administer eye exams, and meet the people who have been receiving glasses through the program. It costs us a couple thousand dollars per employee to do this, but we’ve seen how transformative the experience has been for a number of people on the team.” There’s no better way for them to connect with and live the mission of the company — and it sticks with them, showing up in their work, after they return.
When you go out into rural Guatemala and talk to a person that never thought their sight would be better, and you watch them put on that first pair — that’s one of the most powerful experiences you can have. It goes far beyond the impact of any cash bonus.
Of course not every tech company has a social impact bent — or one as fundamentally life-changing. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have opportunities for employees to see the impact their mission is having on people. The key is to move them, emotionally, by observing the positive impact their work has on others’ lives. “Consider what outcomes are most important to your employees — ask them directly. How can you use observation or participation in these outcomes to reward them in a way that surpasses cash compensation?”
This means that if your company makes SaaS software for database companies, that you connect your mission with the humanity of your customers. Your employees aren’t going to feel rewarded purely because they saved another corporate entity or made a process slightly more convenient. Think a level deeper. Perhaps your product saves your users time — time that could be spent with their families or enriching the world in some other way. How can you surface those stories for your employees and bring them to life? Maybe the companies you serve have a social mission that inspires people — allow them to partake in the work that your product is enabling. Be creative. It keeps employees engaged in miraculous ways.
Create a community mission. The commonly-used term “mission driven” doesn’t only have to refer to your company’s purpose. Even if your mission is to deliver slightly improved widgets, employees want to know that their leaders and company believe in something bigger and have an overarching mission to make the world a better place.
Happy employees feel that they can play a positive role in people’s lives as part of their work.
The easiest place to start is in your own community. “We started a program called Pupils Project in New York City and Baltimore, where we go into schools in low-income areas and distribute glasses in conjunction with those cities,” says Gilboa. “We give our employees a couple of paid volunteer days to go into these schools and help out however they can, whether it’s related to glasses and vision or not.” The important components are: making sure your company empowers employees to do this kind of work (with time off or funds), and having them see for themselves what positive impact they’re making.
Keep an eye out for these chances to give back. And whenever possible, connect doing good with your company’s product or purpose. For example, when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, Warby Parker’s team there saw an opportunity and knew HQ would back them up. “Our store there was fine, but instead of having a grand opening celebration, we paid for our employees there to volunteer for a month at local organizations.” The company gives every store staff the funds to donate to local orgs when they hit key sales targets.
Continuing education is non-optional if you want people to continue to feel engaged year after year. But that can’t be dry coursework or some learning and development lipservice. Warby Parker has built in systemic ways for employees to constantly try new things and grow their skill sets.
Give people the chance to diversify. One of Warby Parker’s cultural touchstones is an annual internal conference called “WarbyCon.” “People get to teach a crowd of their colleagues through TED-style presentations about anything they want to talk about.” There have been impassioned discourses on the history of pop music and how to make the perfect gin and tonic, as well as segments related to people’s day jobs. It gives people who may not speak publicly or present often an organic opportunity to sharpen those skills.
They also have a “Special Projects” program, which operates similar to an internship program but for employees. Departments can propose a project that they need support on (or overseen entirely) and post an internal application, to which other employees can apply. After a round of interviews, the selected employee then works with the department for several months.
These projects are often impactful and complex; for example, a retail store employee recently helped Warby Parker’s Vision Technology team test and launch their new Prescription Check app, which enables people to get new glasses prescriptions using telemedicine.
Learn, grow, repeat. Finally, be sure that learning and development flows both ways in your organization. Your leadership team and founders need to be consistently taking in data and internalizing what employees want to get out of the experience of their work, how they’re feeling about it, how much energy they’re bringing to it, and why they remain excited.
“We give employees the chance to provide feedback on a weekly, monthly and biannual basis — and many of our questions are focused on the employee experience,” says Gilboa. “It’s so important that you stay agile when it comes to creating an environment and culture that make people excited to come to work every day. Just like with product or engineering, you have to keep taking in data, testing, and making decisions accordingly.”
That’s not just the right thing to do — it’s also good business. “Investors and board members ask a lot of question about business results, but those things are actually lagging indicators,” says Gilboa. “They’re the results of work that your team has done in the past. Investing in your team and keeping your employees thrilled to come to work is the best way to make remarkable results possible.”
Image courtesy of Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment.