5 NYC tech companies explain the special, weird things they do to build an incredible culture

by Anthony Sodd
March 30, 2016

Tech companies put a lot of effort and resources into building a good culture. For many companies, culture is the second most important thing to their organization — coming just behind their product. We spoke with five New York tech companies that take culture incredibly seriously. Here's what they had to say: 

 

We spoke with Jessica Haber, Generalist Recruiter at Trustpilot

First off, those are amazing American flag onesies, and I am incredibly jealous. But, more importantly, why do you think company culture is important? We think it's important to build a strong company culture because it allows us to hire and retain people as a team, rather than just employees. Since being founded in 2007, we’ve grown to over 500 employees across five global offices, with our sixth office opening in Denver in the spring. It’s a big group of people from all sorts of different countries and cultures, but each person embodies the qualities and the culture that make our Trusties great and unified, no matter which office or role they may be in. Our culture allows any Trustie to walk into any one of our offices around the world and know that we are all on the same team, on the same mission.

That's really cool. How have you managed to build that? We have found it imperative to define our culture and break it down into core competencies that allow any Trustie to be successful in our different roles. This allows us to evaluate candidates on attributes that we have found to be critical to success in our company. We can also make great hiring decisions because our new hires embody everything it is to be a “Trustie.”

We also celebrate all wins, no matter how big or small across the organization. We celebrate new deals, new product roll-outs, and new hires with clapping, gongs, and other noise makers. Although departments across the organization have different individual goals, we are all ultimately on the same mission to provide trust and transparency in the online shopping experience.

Have you found any pitfalls that you’d steer others away from? As the company grows, sometimes it is hard to plan events with everyone in an office. But we think it’s critical to have these events, so that people get to learn and grow with people from other departments and with different knowledge bases. Some of our coolest events are office-wide. Although they take hard work logistically to make them happen, they are typically the most remembered and talked about events.

Can you give me some examples of those sorts of events? We had an office wide Poker Night in New York where the office was transformed into a casino and employees were able to choose games to play and prizes were awarded to the winners. It was a cool way to talk with employees from other sides of the office and learn how to play new games! We also had a Field Day on Roosevelt Island last summer. We spent an entire summer day outside with our co-workers playing field games and soaking in the sun.

Have you found that company culture changes when you hire new people? With all the great people that we are hiring, our culture is always evolving. New hires easily assimilate into our company and our culture becomes further defined and increasingly dimensional.

 

We spoke with Seth Dotterer, ​Vice President of Marketing at SiteCompli

Why do you think it’s important to build a strong company culture? We believe in having an employee-focused culture, and the reason we think that is important is because employees are the most important resource of our company. We believe in celebrating our employees' successes, supporting their development, and providing them with perks, benefits, and rewards that excite them. When you invest in your employees, you're investing in your company. Employee engagement is directly tied to the environment you create for them, and that engagement drives a successful company. Plus, who doesn't want to come to work with happy, engaged, kind colleagues? 

What are some of the strategies you’ve found successful in building a good culture? We want our culture to be team-driven, focused on fostering connections and celebrating our employees. We also believe strongly in feedback; so we incorporate that into how we continue to work on cultural initiatives.

Are there any pitfalls you’ve found that you’d steer others away from? As we've grown, we've begun to think more and more about scalability. When we were under 20 employees, everyone got a surprise birthday party with their favorite dessert. That doesn't work when you're over 60 employees; we'd be eating cake every week!

We think a lot about what can we do that is sustainable but also generates surprise and delight. We now announce all employee birthdays in a particular month at that month's town hall (our all staff meeting) and give out $100 gift cards to employees with birthdays that month. Everyone is celebrated and announced, but it's in a forum that is easy to maintain. I encourage you to think sooner rather than later about how you'll scale your cultural traditions and how you'll continue to generate delight as a larger company. 

That makes a lot of sense, though cake every week doesn't sound half bad. What are some of the outside-of-the-box things you've done to build culture? We had a surprise puppy party (which was featured in the Wall Street Journal), where we rented puppies as a farewell gift for an employee who had been with us for over three years and was leaving to go to business school. We kept it a surprise from our employees and it was a huge success. Who doesn't love an hour of playing with puppies!?

Uh, that sounds amazing. I love the look on everyone's face in that photo. They're loving it!  Any other events that were particularly successful? Yes, our Annual Baby Photo Guessing Contest. Every summer we host a baby photo guessing contest where we ask all employees to bring in a baby photo. We post them on the wall and we all try to guess who is who. We're competitive, so there's a prize for the most correct answers. There's a wonderful feeling of delight in seeing your CEO as a baby, and it's impossible to not grin while looking at a wall of baby photos! This year we made it extra-special and rented the Coolhaus truck to supply sweet ice cream treats during the contest. 

As you've grown, have you found that company culture changes with the personalities of new hires, or are new hires inducted into the existing culture? Both! We're a community of problem-solvers who expect a high-degree of success and who value kindness and collaboration., but as we grow, our culture is bound to evolve and grow. We welcome that!

We believe the best way to introduce our culture to new hires is through a strong onboarding process. One important part of SiteCompli's onboarding is the meeting all new hires have with our CEOs. During that meeting, our CEOs give a presentation about our culture, what we value, and how we welcome and want employees to take ownership and give feedback. By letting people know what your norms are and what you value, you give them the opportunity to both support and change it for the better. Culture isn't something that stays set in stone and is static, it changes, grows, and evolves. It's a muscle, and one we want to be constantly flexing and improving. 

 

 

We spoke with Casey Ashenhurst, Manager of Inclusion and Engagement at Stack Overflow

Why do you think it’s important to build a strong company culture? This is a hard question to answer in short-form... As a People Team person I think about this all the time, but I think part of the trick is having a strong culture without constantly beating people over the head with it, so it's hard to articulate. But, it's definitely important to have a strong culture to keep your employees happy and engaged, which helps with hiring and retention. 

What are some of the strategies you’ve found successful in building a good culture? Doing what we say and saying what we do. If you say that something is an important part of your culture, make sure there's action behind the sentiment! 

For example, we champion remote work all the time (externallyon our blog, for our community and customers), and we work hard to make our culture as remote-friendly and inclusive as possible. We want to be sure that our remote employees are on equal footing with our in-office employees. 

Besides things like using chat and Hangouts constantly to work across our teams, we also think about environment. We provision our remote employees with Aeron chairs and adjustable-height seating, just like in our offices.

We try to translate this remote-work culture into our fun too. While each office has a Summer Party during working hours, our remote employees get a 'Summer Fun Day' that's an extra day off to use as they like — though we hope they do something summery and fun with it!

We have beer bashes in the office, so we also started doing remote Bev Bashes. We traded beers for other beverages to be time-zone sensitive, and once a week there's dedicated time for people to hop on a hangout and just shoot the breeze with their coworkers. 

So, if you're constantly saying that something is a really important part of your culture, make sure you're walking the walk when you're talking the talk — even, and especially, when it's hard or inconvenient. 

Wow, you don't play around! I've been a remote employee for years, and definitely know how hard it is to stay connected to coworkers and company culture. What are some of the pitfalls you’ve found that you’d steer others away from? Free food, drinks, parties, and video games does not a culture make. Think about your culture as an extension of your values, not your perks. However, also keep in mind that a lot of the time people are willing to try new things as long as there's a break for food. 

What is the most creative, fun, outside-of-the-box, event you’ve put together to build company culture? One summer, for our New York sales team's quarterly awards event, we put together a middle-school style Field Day/Color War type event. We had it in a park in Queens right on the water overlooking the city. Relay races, water-balloon tosses, tug-of-war, barbecue/picnic style food... the works. Everyone had a team, and we got shirts and colored bandanas for everyone themed with their team. The managers got 'staff' shirts and whistles like camp counselors. We wanted to make sure we had something for everyone. I think it went really well! 
 
In your experience, does company culture change with the personalities of new hires, or are new hires inducted into your existing culture? I think it's a little bit of both... I mean, our different offices all have a slightly different feel, and I'd say we have team-based 'sub-cultures' to a degree. I think as your company grows your culture will grow along with it. Things will feel different when you're 100 people rather than 30. But, if you have a strong onboarding process and you're sticking to your values and letting them guide you when hiring, the culture will stay more consistent.
 

 

We spoke to Alexandria Castillo, People Operations Manager at Splash

Why do you think a strong company culture is important? 'Experience is everything' is our company motto here at Splash, and we don’t take that lightly. If people work in an uplifting, supportive, collaborative and inspiring environment, then they’ll be their best selves and produce their best work. Simple as that.

What are some of the strategies you’ve found successful in building a good culture? Two things have helped us build a strong, collaborative culture here at Splash:

  1. Share your WIP (work in progress). At Splash, we discourage employees from waiting until their idea/initiative/project is perfect before sharing it with the team. To us, a WIP is a good thing. You can get it out there, and talk about it openly without any judgement or fear. We’re all here to help.
  2. Be a lighthouse. If someone has a hidden skill set or a connection to a helpful resource, employees are always encouraged step outside of their role and make it known.

What is the craziest event you've put together to build culture? Around Thanksgiving, we threw a team-building holiday event at our office called the 'Stability Supper.' We held our own version of a ‘Wok & Wine,’ which is a collaborative eating experience. We all gathered around the candle-lit center table for eat-with-your-hands shrimp and white wine. It was an amazing bonding experience. 

That sounds simultaneously amazing and very messy. Have you found that company culture changes with new hires? When a new employee joins Splash, we have a fun ritual at our Tuesday scrum. We welcome them, and then celebrate the fact that we’re a brand new company. I think employees acclimate to our existing culture very quickly, but I love that we grow, change and adapt with every new hire.

 

 

We spoke with Joe Speiser, Co-Founder & CEO, LittleThings

Why do you think it’s important to build a strong company culture? It's important to invest in company culture, and begin early. As a media startup, we didn't procrastinate on office branding. We created an identity early to establish a positive vibe and showcase the LittleThings brand to potential clients, vendors, and employees that visit the office. 

What are some of the strategies you’ve found successful in building a good culture? Don't micromanage. Hire competent, driven, and smart professionals who thrive in controlled chaos. We're on internet time, so things move fast. If anyone tells you the first few years of a startup aren't chaotic, they're lying.

Are there any pitfalls you’ve found that you’d steer others away from? In order to build and sustain a strong company culture, a key (and often overlooked) variable is personality. Make sure you avoid hiring people that you feel have the wrong personality for the brand/company. You don't always have to hire the smartest or most qualified individual, but rather the most driven person that you believe closely aligns with the company culture. 

What is the most creative, fun, outside-of-the-box, event you’ve put together to build company culture? How did it go? Poker tournaments. We host one every few months with professional tables and dealers, with lots of food and drinks. We give out prizes for the champion, runner-up, first loser, and knocking out the CEO. The employees really enjoy the competition and camaraderie. 

Does company culture change with the personalities of new hires, or are new hires inducted into the existing culture? Since we're constantly expanding, we aim to hire professionals that fit the LittleThings mold... and that means people with the right attitude. Although since we are still a less than 100 person organization, new employees will continue to have an impact on our culture and environment.

Have a news tip for us or know of a company that deserves coverage? Let us know or tweet us @builtinnewyork

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