Street Culture: Blind References Help Weed Out Drama at Zaius

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Zaius, a business-to-consumer marketing and analytics company based in Boston, was founded in 2012 and launched commercially in 2015, and is led by a startup enthusiast: Mark Gally.

“I actually love startups,” says Gally, CEO of Zaius (pronounced “zay-us”). He’s been with three others: software companies Merced Systems, VideoIQ, and TribeHR, which was acquired by NetSuite.

So Gally is no stranger to the challenges that come with startups, and cites a number of elements about company culture that he says Zaius works continually to sustain.

“In the hiring process, we often use the terms ‘smart, hungry, and humble,’” he says. “This notion of being humble is really a critical component of culture. We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take our work extremely seriously. We feel comfortable challenging each other, but there’s a ‘No Drama’ policy associated with it.”

Startups are often putting out fires all day long, managing through chaos, Gally acknowledges, and people have to leave their egos at the door.

“They have to be comfortable with testing and failing and also be comfortable with doing that very, very fast,” he says. “As we hire people, we often think about, ‘Are they going to row an oar?’ Everyone has to contribute to the company. Whether they’re an individual employee, a team lead, a manager, or someone from the overall executive team, everyone has to get in the boat and row. Even our executive team. We’re in the trench digging side-by-side with the rest of them.”

The “No Drama” policy was instated early on in Zaius’s lifecycle, when members of a very lean team had to sometimes drop what they were doing and handle things that maybe weren’t exactly in their job descriptions.

“It took some individuals out of their comfort zones,” Gally says. “We just sat everyone down and had a very open, transparent conversation with them. It wasn’t a sense of panic, it was much more like, ‘Hey guys, we need to do this for the success of the company.’ And it was just done in a very factual, reasonable way.”

Eric Keating, Zaius’s VP of marketing, calls it the “floor sweeper value.”

“We don’t formally have this value in place,” he says. “There’s really no job here that anybody feels above. Anybody from the top to the bottom will sweep the floor if it’s better for the company. For example, our engineering team doing customer success, which ultimately turned into one of the best things to happen to engineering, exposing them to the day-to-day life of our customers.”

It’s a learning experience for the entire company, and unites the team around the classic goal: make customers the number one priority.

In August 2017, Zaius employed exactly 40 people, including the executive team, Gally says. About three-quarters of the team is located at the Boston headquarters, and the rest are at another office location outside of D.C. in Leesburg, Va. Each quarter, all the employees get together for a “Zamboree” at one office. They’re important events for everyone to reflect on achievements and plan for the future. In September, the D.C.-area team will join everyone at the Boston office, and by then the team will likely include at least a few more employees.

The company experienced more than 300% growth in 2016, and is so far seeing a similar growth rate this year. With 10 open positions, Gally says that he tries to get a sense for what potential new hires “have done that’s extraordinary.”

“When did you see an opportunity to improve something, and how did you take action, improve the process, bring other people on board,” he asks. “Also asking, ‘Have you been an overall change agent?’ That’s an important characteristic in operating in a startup or chaotic environment.”

Gally is also an advocate of using blind references when hiring.

“This might be a little controversial, but blind references are actually a phenomenal tool,” he says. “Someone told me early on in my career to make hiring decisions 30% on interactions with the individual, and 70% on blind references. It’s a tool I’ve been using for years and years.”

He says that about a year and a half ago, he pulled that tool out before hiring VP of marketing Keating.

“[Keating] didn’t know it, but I spoke to two of his previous bosses,” he says. “I remember distinctly, it was a Sunday morning, and this one individual was overseas in Asia. I sent him an email and said, ‘Hey, can we get on the phone and talk about Eric?’ He sent me a really simple email. He said, ‘Eric’s a rock star. Hire him.’”

Even without even speaking on the phone, it was a huge endorsement for Keating from a person who didn’t need to respond to Gally at all.

“At the core of being in a startup is that you need to be clear about what [new hires] are getting into,” he says. “When hiring people, particularly the use of blind references can help a hiring manager confirm that that person really knows what they’re getting into.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.