Street Culture: Booker CEO on Interviewing for Fit and Creating Company Values

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Street Culture is a new feature where we take a closer look at the office culture and people at some of the most dynamic startups in the hyperlocal industry.

In late 2010 and with about 30 dedicated employees, Josh McCarter helped spin out a new commerce platform, now called Booker, from its parent company. Fast forward five years, and Booker, which helps salons, fitness studios and other businesses in managing relationships online, has raised over $75 million and now has 280 employees.

McCarter, the company’s chief executive and a veteran of the tech startup industry, says that as the company has grown, the team constantly looks for new ways to keep people engaged. But a big part of maintaining a healthy culture, says McCarter, is to make sure new hires already have a similar mindset to the current team.

“Creating our own culture when we spun this business out was important to us and it’s something that we’ve invested in,” McCarter said. “When I interview, I’m interviewing for fit. Skills and competency and willingness to learn, those all come after fit.”

McCarter said that some basics support a collaborative environment in the workplace. Booker’s office structure has an open space plan instead of placing each employee in an office. There are communal areas for lunches, discussions and brainstorming. And for Booker, as with many startups, in-office beers are a perk that employees appreciate and don’t abuse.

Sudden growth often creates cultural problems for startups. Often, startup culture includes driven people who are independently working 10 or 14 hour days, McCarter said. New hires who are used to structure and hierarchy might not be comfortable taking charge of their own schedule, and if mindsets are misaligned, it can undermine any type of developing culture.

“Think through the values you have as a company,” McCarter said. “As you bring new people on board who have similar values, the people you already have are reminded of some of those things that your company stands for.”

As Booker grew, different groups and committees formed to encourage workers to celebrate the company’s culture and find new activities.

“Last year, we had summer Olympics,” McCarter said. “Teams were broken up so members of different departments were all on a team. We had relay races and corn hole, a dunking booth for the executives, and finished off with solo cup boat races and beer. We were trying to get people to break down barriers, open up communication by having a good time. “But what we did last year is not the stuff to do this year.”

McCarter said that he also works hard to help his employees give back to the local community.

“I talk about this at company meetings,” he said. “As a group, we have to recognize how privileged we are to be living and working the lives that we are right now. To be in a transformative technology company, to be in an amazing city like New York, to have the opportunities that we do, the investors that we do, we really need to stop and take a moment to recognize and think about different ways to give back.”

Vinny Pizzimenti, a product manager at Booker, helped bring a special kind of recognition to New York City students by volunteering as a tutor. His initiative helped inspire other employees.

“I volunteer with the Job Opportunity Program, an initiative of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund,” Pizzimenti said. “The program specializes in teaching basic skills to help prepare kids’ entries into a dynamic workplace.”

Pizzimenti helps young people write resumes, teaches tips on how to interview successfully and other general professional development skills. He’s volunteered more than 100 hours during his time at Booker, and six other employees have also participated.

Salary does matter when it comes to retaining good employees, McCarter said, but many other factors matter more. A workforce should feel good about their leadership, maintain open communication, get constructive feedback and have opportunities to learn and grow.

“Last year we had 60 promotions,” McCarter said. “Providing those types of opportunities for people is a big part of how you build a good corporate culture.”

April Nowicki is a contributor to Street Fight.