Street Culture: Thumbtack Employees Driving Culture from the Bottom Up

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At local services marketplace Thumbtack, the approach to culture is inherently bottom-up.

Recently, as management rolled out an informal poll to find out how employees wanted to spend their upcoming employee appreciation day, an interesting trend emerged. The responses received seemed to turn the question of appreciation around, Justin Angsuwat, Thumbtack’s vice president of people, told Street Fight.

“We said to everyone, ‘Hey, it’s employee appreciation day; what should we be doing to appreciate our employees?’” Angsuwat says. “The overwhelming feedback was that people felt pretty appreciated already. It’s kind of an odd thing to hear, but most people just said, ‘Well, I think I already feel pretty appreciated.’”

Instead of planning programming for themselves, the employees wanted to show appreciation for the Thumbtack culinary team.

Thumbtack’s culture revolves around transparency, humility, and community, according to Angsuwat, and this occasion marked one example of how employees shape the atmosphere of the company.

Employees printed a big poster for the kitchen crew and sent out a note, inviting everyone to sign it.

“I was fortunate that I happened to be in the kitchen at the time when they noticed, one of them said ‘Hey, I think there’s a poster up there for us,’” Angsuwat says. “They said, ‘What, for us?’ And we went out and they were pretty touched to see how everyone had signed the poster and written all these culinary puns on it.

“That’s an example of the bottom-up approach to culture that we have, and I think it’s because of some of the more deliberate things that we’ve put in place. We didn’t ask them to do that—it was their idea.”

Angsuwat says he does worry a bit about whether too much of a focus on culture can create a sense of entitlement, and CEO Marco Zappacosta has said that culture fit is a luxury. But there are still essential pieces that can make or break how employees view their workplace, and can affect a company’s ability to attract and keep the right people. Along those lines, one of Angsuwat’s priorities is making sure Thumbtack is a “safe space.”

“That’s a general cultural principle,” he says. “If you hire the right people whom you trust to do the right thing, you’ll spend less time figuring out who has what access to what information. And if we trust you, that’s part of the foundation of creating a safe space at work.”

Another piece of creating that foundation is the transparency focus, a common thread across many culture-driven companies.

“It’s just being really honest about decisions,” Angsuwat says. “Often, we will share when we’ve made mistakes, what went wrong, and how we’re happy to make changes if we’ve made the wrong call.”

For example, if a leader raises an issue that is important but is something that they are uncomfortable about or is a topic that makes them vulnerable, that actually opens a door to create a stronger bond between the leader and the team.

“It allows the team to raise things that they’re concerned about,” he says. “If a leader is always brushing things off, like ‘Everything’s fine, everything’s great, there’s no issues,’ that doesn’t create the right environment to allow teams to approach them and say ‘Hey, you know what, I’m actually really concerned about this.’ They know they’re on the same page.”

Angsuwat says the Thumbtack team describes the company culture as the “Midwest of cultures.”

“I think it has a lot to do with friendliness,” Angsuwat said. “I think people assume good intentions. There’s a sense of camaraderie.”

The biggest lesson Angsuwat says he’s learned in previous jobs and in his position at Thumbtack concerns cultural debt and how to avoid it.

“Engineers pick up a certain amount of technical debt, where they take shortcuts to get to an answer faster,” he says. “I think about that from a cultural perspective. There are certain shortcuts we can take now, but we’re going to pay for that later.”

An extreme example of taking on cultural debt relates to career development for employees. 

“The shortcut way is to just introduce 90 levels and promote everyone,” he says. “Everyone gets promoted every year.”

But that’s not the right answer, he says. The best path is often the long and painful path—but it’s the one that will pay off, for employees and for the company culture.

April Nowicki is a staff writer at Street Fight.