At Liftoff, a Classic Formula for Company Culture

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A 4.9 rating on Glassdoor is impressive. It’s the rating that mobile app marketing and targeting company Liftoff has earned, and it might be the best Glassdoor rating of all the companies that have ever been featured on Street Culture since spring 2015.

It’s just one metric measuring a formula of company values, employee sentiment, and individual reviews, but the company has also won multiple unrelated awards this year for being a great place to work, including rankings on Inc. Magazine‘s list of Best Places to Work and on Entrepreneur‘s list of Top Company Cultures of medium-sized businesses. Mark Ellis, Liftoff’s CEO, says that the company’s culture is applied from many of standard startup-common values: transparency, humility, “going fast”, and collaboration.

Liftoff is five years old, and as of mid-July, it employed 86 people, and expects to grow to around 110 by the end of 2017.

“All I would say about growth plans is that we’re tripling our revenue year-over-year,” Ellis says.

Founded in August 2012, the company grew to its current size from a co-founding team of three: Ellis, Phil Crosby, and Harry Robertson. Ellis says that they began the company with intentional focus on transparency and humility. The transparency aspect actually began as transparency about their product, offering clients, partners, and investors full insights into what was happening with each iteration of what Liftoff was offering.

“But it also means that my fellow teammates should know how we’re doing as a business,” Ellis says. “At the end of each month we do a meeting to go over how we’ve done. When it comes to the product roadmap, how we’re tracking our plans for each quarter, everyone gets the ability to impact the roadmap. We solicit ideas from everyone.”

Though some cite “cog in the machine” mentalities at bigger companies, which can reduce the efficacy and autonomy of individual employees, Ellis says that Liftoff’s focus on transparency doesn’t stem from a negative place.

“I’ve been impacted positively by managers and leaders in my professional and my non-professional experiences,” he says.

Seeing previous leaders use transparency as a tool spoke to an implicit commitment that the employees themselves have agreed to – a standard work ethic that runs throughout personalities of workers who are at the top of their respective games. These employees already have the drive and ambition to be effective in their roles, and a culture of transparency inspires growth and vision in the workplace.

“I think it makes the job more interesting,” Ellis says. “[Employees] feel that they’re a part of a broader mission. They’re not wondering because they already have the story of what’s going on. They’re happier, they feel more respected; it works all the way around.”

This also ties in to another cultural value, around having the courage to change.

“We don’t assume we have all the answers, or that what has served us well in the past is necessarily going to be the exact same setup for decisions that will get us through the next one or two or three years,” Ellis says.

Being transparent about why decisions are made the way they are helps encourage employees to understand how the company got to where it is now, and provides perspective to help them develop visions for improving how the company operates.

“We want them to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing the way that we’re doing it, and then we encourage you to rethink the process,” Ellis says.

This long-term base of cultural values is something that has grown over time, and Ellis says one of the tests it withstood was as the Liftoff team grew into offices in opposite time zones. Liftoff employees work out of the headquarters in Palo Alto, in New York City, London, Singapore, and is launching a new office in Tokyo this month. Being on opposite schedules meant that staff had to adapt to a new communication style.

“In the regional offices, we couldn’t rely on informal communication,” he says. “We had to overcome that and write things down. I think what overcame that challenge is that, at this point, we have lots of best practices that we had to think through.”

Liftoff also has a goal of maintaining 30% to 40% of its team on the engineering and product side, Ellis says. That goal is the data component of having an otherwise arbitrarily-defined tech-driven company. Ellis says that though it’s been a healthy challenge to maintain the numbers, the company couldn’t lead with its product any other way.

“I think that if we truly are a technology-driven company, we need to have the right capacity to build and refine our product to meet a feedback loop and cycle that is coming from our commercial folks and the broader industry,” he says. “So it’s an ongoing focus of ours to continue to attract the best and brightest on the engineering and product side.”

It’s never too early to be intentional about establishing and promoting the key values you want your team to emulate, Ellis says, and that will help shape the company’s culture over time.  It provides a set of criteria against which to assess candidates from a cultural fit perspective, as well as a rationale for promoting certain employee behaviors and discouraging others that aren’t consistent with the values.

Humility is one of Liftoff’s values that speaks to the startup founder working from a garage, a basement, or someone’s pink-walled, frilly-curtained living room.

“Don’t think of yourself as better than anyone else,” Ellis says. “I try to look at it through the lens of it just being a good way to live life. Stay humble, realize you can learn from others and impact others in a positive way.”

Even more critical, he says, is to have a consistent value code to return to as a company scales – especially if team members begin distributing around the world.

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.

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