I'm sure many Homestead customers, as business owners themselves, have read all of the business books which preach putting customers first, or profits first, or pursuing the theory-du-jour about "six sigma" excellence, etc. It's not that these things aren't important, but personally, I think it's the wrong thing to focus on when building a company. At Homestead, we've chosen instead to put employees first. Above profits, and above customers. It's not that those things aren't important, I just believe that great employees are the enablers that make everything else happen.
So, we have striven to build a culture at Homestead that makes employees feel like they are the most valuable assets we have (which they are). We don't do this simply with compensation, although it is certainly important to pay fairly and competitively. Instead, we focus on creating a feeling of ownership and responsibility among our employees, and then empower them to make the best decisions for the company. I am often asked how it is that we have fostered such a strong culture among our employees, and here are a few of the things that I usually answer:
1. Make it part of your definition of success.
The first, and most important step, is to convince yourself that the single key to your success is great people, and that everything else will follow. I believe that defining what you mean by success is actually harder than achieving that success (more on this later) and for us, having a world-class group of employees that love their jobs, behave as owners of the business, and treat our customers, employees, shareholders and community as THEIRS is the definition of our success.
2. Hire, hire, hire.
There is nothing harder, more time consuming, and more important, than hiring people. In the past twelve years I have probably interviewed well over 1000 people personally, and have met with every individual before they became a full time emplloyee (we've hired over 300 people to date at Homestead). All of the other managers at Homestead spend a significant amount of their time (probably 10%) on hiring, and the average candidate meets with about 10 people before the hiring decision is made.
3. Create traditions, not just perks
People like traditions, whether they are with their family, their group of friends from high school or college, their church/temple, or their local community. And traditions are a very powerful way to bind people together, create lasting memories, and mark the passing of time. Why not have traditions at your company, instead of just perks? Well, we do, and it all started days after I started the company in my room, when we needed a place to meet. There was a favorite diner of mine (The Peninsula Creamery) that has served amazing milkshakes and hamburgers in Palo Alto for almost 100 years, and we decided to have a meeting there for lunch every Monday and discuss the important events from the past and upcoming week, so that everybody would be informed. Back then our survival was pretty much week to week, and it was critical that everybody knew how we were doing, what they needed to focus on, and what the chances were that they would get their next paycheck. Twelve years later our company is a bit more stable and we wouldn't fit in the Creamery even if we took every table, but communication is just as important. So, we still have lunch every Monday for the entire company and all of the leaders of the company stand up and discuss what's going on, and we celebrate our triumphs, commisserate over our shortcomings, and have a little fun. In twelve years we have never missed a Monday lunch. Other traditions that we have established include: our annual Homestead Retreat, where we take all employees on a team-buliding trip for 3-4 days; our Homestead Anniversary Party, where we celebrate the anniversary of our founding by throwing a huge party for our employees and their guests; the Homestead Talent Show, which just occurred last week by the way, where our amazingly talented (and slightly crazy) employees put on acts for the extended Homestead family at a nearby theater (more on this soon: David Wu, our COO, and I performed a new song that just might make it on to the hold music soundtrack of our phone system); and Homestead Universities, where we have brown bag presentations--usually given by fellow employees--on topics ranging from how our software is architected to taiko drumming to ballroom dancing.
Well, I could go on, but that's enough to whet your appetite. I'd love to hear what other people do to foster a strong culture in their company. I'd encourage all founders or future founders out there to remember that your culture starts with you, and how you select and treat your very first employee, even if it's a contractor or a part timer. Organizations have a way of reflecting the attitude, personality, and sensitivities of the earliest people, so choose wisely and invest heavily. By the way, these things don't take a lot of money--in fact, they can save you money--but they do take a lot of time and thought.