Now, I could naively wax poetic about how easy it is to hire someone and have faith that it’ll work out, but it never does. The reality is that growth of a company, and the subsequent hiring of employees, is typically an awkward uphill climb. It’s too many bodies in the studio twiddling thumbs or stressed, overworked (and ultimately unhappy) employees.
I’ve found that the saying, “Culture breeds creativity*” seems to ring true for a boutique creative studio such as ours. We’re too small to jump into quick hires and there’s too much on the line to make rash decisions. So it’s quite the process for us. We vet new members primarily on character and talent comes in at a close second… after all, we’re creating a culture above all else. If I can’t create an atmosphere where my creatives feel comfortable and respected, how can they create to their full potential?
I was in San Francisco last week with a client whom I’ve come to respect in our time working together and meeting. In the shadow of the Giants stadium, sipping coffee, he asked me what I wanted Nelson Cash to become. “To be quite honest,” I told him, “we’re not sure yet. What I do know is that I want to create an atmosphere where my creatives can come to work and feel free to create the best work they possibly can and be pushed by each other to create even better work. I want to create products and work that everyone in the studio is proud to put their name on and feels good about what they’ve done when they look back on it.” If we can’t do that, then what the hell are we doing?
So how do we build this culture? How do we sift out those who merely want to exist in a studio and those that want to grab the oars and help row our ship to shimmery shores?… (sorry, I’m a product of The Once and Future King and The Chronicles of Narnia)
Cognitively choosing culture
Well, I doubt I have any incredible insight on this one, though in my experience, it happens one decision at a time. In our case, we determined to focus, first and foremost, on building the type of environment where we ourselves would want to work. This seems like a very obvious point, but the reality is that you need to make a conscious effort to do this, daily. It’s really easy to start taking more and more from your employees and giving more and more to yourself and over time, your company rots from the inside out.
For our space, we focused on building a hybrid between work and home. A place where you felt equally comfortable working or sleeping, because frankly, sometimes you get burned out. We’ve had work nights that run until 5am, you occasionally need a nap. We chose a loft with a pimp kitchen, a casual atmosphere, a neurotic greyhound and the world’s greatest-slash-weirdest collection of vinyl.
For our team, we’ve laid an even groundwork. We gave solid paychecks, copious amounts of vacation, bonuses based on profits, the resources for continuing education to become experts in their field and, last but not least, a fully stocked bar.
And for how we interact, everyone’s voice is heard. We decided (again back to my King Arthur past) to work from a proverbial round table. No head. No foot. Every voice is vital in determining the next steps of our studio… we’re a team. Are we focusing on innovating our own products, incubating startups or branding and marketing work? Team meeting. Do we want to work with this or that client? Team meeting. What’s for lunch? Team meeting.
Ultimately, we found that, especially in the beginning, you have to be willing to look past the initial bottom line and focus on building the best team you can build who can put out the best product possible. The profits will follow. We’ve now been focusing all our efforts and dedicating profits back into the studio for four months… and now there are monster clients knocking at our door. We’ve raised our prices twice since starting and we still turn away more work than we take on. We’re on the cusp of innovating things that could change the way the world interacts with the internet as we know it. All of this, I attribute to building a great culture where people can take ownership of the studio, enjoy coming to work and are pushed to put out better work than the last time.
So how do you know if you’re building a great culture? Well, what I have learned from my experiences, the experiences of those I trust around me, my life and business mentors and movies… you know it in your heart, you can feel it… and for those of you who are less sentimental, it’s instinct.
*Quote: Roman Titus, July 5th, 2011