Street Culture: How Placeable Employees Own the Company’s Culture

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“Own your accomplishments and own your failures.”

It’s a basic statement that Ari Kaufman says with emphasis (pretty much how he says everything, it seems). It’s important, and part of what motivates him and his employees at Placeable, a four-year-old location marketing company based in Denver.

“We want people to not be afraid to stand up at an all hands [meeting] and say, ‘I have an ownership moment. I f***ed up. This is what happened,’” Kaufman says. “Say, ‘I need help. Or, here’s who helped me.’ Don’t make this mistake. Make a new mistake.”

Placeable, employer of 43 people in the fast-expanding RiNo neighborhood just north of Denver, has grown to just the right size to start dropping the ball on culture, Kaufman says. Knowing that – along with his experience managing multiple location-based companies such as LocationInsight and LookSmart – has stirred a bottom-up style of management training.

“We recognize that companies at this size will generally fall down on accolades, on acknowledging and celebrating smaller successes and giving feedback,” Kaufman says. “They usually fall down on management training and people move into management roles because they’re good at being players. But rather than getting players to be better managers — though we do do that — we put effort into teaching employees to manage up.”

Kaufman says that an employee who doesn’t know if his work is appreciated is responsible for searching out that information.

“What I want people to recognize is: don’t wait for someone to come give you feedback. Poke your head into your supervisor’s office and ask, ‘How am I doing?’” Kaufman says. “If you wait for your manager to come to you, it might be in firefighting mode, which means you became a fire. If you don’t know what your manager’s perspective is on your performance, it’s your fault.”

Placeable’s theme is to train everyone to be constantly aware of how well they are doing their jobs, how can they course-correct, and how they can do the right thing more often.

“That’s one of those lessons that you can use for your whole career,” Kaufman says.

Kaufman expects workers — especially millennials — to job-hop. But even so the company offers a number of perks, including membership stock shares making each employee an equity owner — which means that Kaufman has written at least one check to a leaving employee for upwards of $60,000.

“That’s the kind of tactical ownership that we’re going for,” he says. “Make everyone own a piece of the company. This is your company. Give a sh*t about it — it’s yours.”

Kaufman knows that employees will eventually leave, and there’s another initiative that is designed to help them get there in the best shape possible.

As he explains, Kaufman picks up a bullet-shaped pen from the conference table in his office.

“This pen is fashioned out of a bullet,” he says. “If you look at a resume, there’s usually a list of bullets, accomplishments, what [a candidate] puts in front of you when they want to be hired. But what do you want the bullets to say on your resume when you leave Placeable?”

Each January, on the white bricks in the office kitchen, employees write their “bullet” for the upcoming year. Bullets are goals, and can be job-related or not. One employee wanted to learn Japanese. Another wanted to promote environmental sustainability and implemented a building-wide recycling and energy-saving program that earned Placeable a sustainability certificate from the city of Denver — the second one awarded to any software company in the city.

“As a startup, it’s very important for us to constantly be attracting talent. There’s a lot of competition [for talent] and having people be directly engaged in the company, having a flexible open work schedule, it helps,” says Katie Flannery, director of marketing at Placeable. “The interesting thing that we’re connecting to is that millennials, they’re changing the workforce. They’re demanding more, they expect that the companies they work for are going to be involved in the local community. They expect flexible scheduling. They’ve never been required to wear nylons and skirts, like I was at my first job.”

At some point, she says, larger companies are going to start adjusting their policies to reflect these demands of younger workers, whether they have to or because they truly recognize the impacts it can have.

“They are going to come back in that direction, or they’re going to start losing some of that talent,” Flannery says.

Kaufman stresses that it’s not just about having the policy though — it needs to be more than words printed in a company handbook.

“There’s a difference between selling culture and living it,” he says. “I think we genuinely live it. When a candidate comes to an interview, you’re going to meet five people. You’re here to interview us. You’re making the choice too. When people go through the interview process and they’re done, they’ve experienced the culture. They can feel it.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.