While I don’t feel I’m in any position to give a tutorial on how to make your company a great place to work, I do get a lot of questions along those lines since Coupa has a reputation as a great place to work. I can certainly share what I think has worked as we’ve grown from nine employees to 900. I can also share where my inspiration comes from: an auto repair shop in Brooklyn that I happened on by chance nearly 20 years ago.
The broken tail light
Up until then, most of my experience with getting my car fixed was like this: You make an appointment to bring your car in, and fill out all this paperwork. You sit in a dirty, greasy, smelly office, drinking crappy coffee and waiting. Your car is never ready on time, it costs more than estimated, and you wonder if you’ve been ripped off.
For some reason I’ve now forgotten, my then girlfriend and now wife Kira and I had borrowed her mother’s car, and it had a broken tail light. We were driving down Neptune Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, and I spotted this shop, and thought, let’s just pull in and see if they have the part and maybe we can drop it off tomorrow.
I remember very distinctly what drew me to that shop. There were cars in the front, and on the side, and you could see people working on them. There was a lot of activity. It looked like a happening place.
I pulled into a side driveway and started walking across the lot, anticipating the usual drill. A guy who had the air of being in charge approached and asked me, “What’s the story?
I said, “Broken tail light, back right.” He motioned, and one of the mechanics stopped what he was doing and came over and started looking at the back of the car. Apprehensive as to what was about to happen, I began talking; “It’s just a broken tail light. Do you happen to know if you have the part? How long will it take? What will it cost?”
“Just hang on a minute, we'll sort it out,” the guy in charge said.
The mechanic he had summoned had already taken out the broken tail light, pulled out the bulb and was headed off toward the shop. I was thinking, “Wait a minute, gentlemen, I'm not necessarily ready to do this now, not knowing the cost and time it will take.”
I had no choice but to wait for him to come back, so I started looking around. I felt like I was in Santa's workshop. Not only were these people working hard, they were working with joy. You could see it. You could feel it. They were happy. There was music playing. Some of them were humming. A few were tapping their feet as they worked. It seemed as if at any moment somebody might just burst into song. That was the kind of energy that was in the air.
Kira was still in the car, reading something. She looked up at me questioningly, and I shrugged my shoulders to say, “I don't know what’s going on, but let’s give it a few minutes.”
After a few more seconds of surveying the scene, I made my way to the back of the car. To my amazement, the mechanic had already changed the bulb and put on a new tail light. The guy in charge was coming over to check the work.
In disbelief at the speed and quality of the work, I asked him how much it would cost. He waved his hand to say, forget about it, happy to do it. I thanked him profusely, forced $20 into his hand, and we were on our way.
I was in awe. Spending all of my post college years in corporate life, I'd never really seen people work with that kind of spirit before. I'd never seen that kind of take charge leadership, goodwill-forward approach, effortless team collaboration, and rhythm to the work at hand. You wanted to be around that shop. I recommended it to people again and again and again.
No MBA needed
I was working at McKinsey at the time, and just about to start on an MBA. As we were driving away, I remember thinking, who needs an MBA? It's all right there. That was the kind of business I wanted to create—a business that draws in customers, employees, investors, and partners with that same vibrant energy. That would be the foreground; the details of the business itself would be the background.
But how do you scale that type of spirit to hundreds of people? It is difficult enough to achieve in a small startup, and even more so as you grow and change. I don’t have all the answers, but I can share with you three things that I think we’ve gotten right so far.
Hire the future, not the past
When considering candidates, instead of thinking, “Because they've done x and y in the past, they will do z in the future,” begin by thinking, “What is it they want to do?” and then assess whether the company can give them the platform to do it, and whether their background points to a high likelihood of success.
In an interview, my only resume-related question is, “If I shifted all the blocks on your resume down three inches to make room for a new block labeled “Coupa,” what will it say five years from now? What are you going to be most proud of?”
I'm trying to see if there's vision lock with this person or not. They would not have made it to this stage of the process if they didn’t have the right experience and qualifications. The people that have that, plus a clarity of purpose and supporting passion are the ones who can really make a disproportionate difference to your business.
Going back to our auto shop, imagine you interview a candidate and you know they can work on engines and tail lights and other related projects, because they have in the past. But their real passion is color and design and making cars uniquely beautiful. Your shop may not even do painting, but maybe you start, because it's ancillary to what you’re doing, and this person's so passionate about it that your entire business could serve as their platform for personal and professional self-expression.
Let passion lead
As companies grow, there’s a certain amount of chaos. When people see disorganization or redundancy of effort, there’s a temptation to immediately put in oversight and process. Being a very organized person myself, this is my immediate instinct. But, I’ve learned to avoid that temptation as much as possible, and allow things to take shape organically.
This is counterintuitive to what most books on management tell you. Many of them advocate for developing process early, and if things get too bureaucratic, you create little pockets where people can experiment and be more freewheeling. That’s logical, but maybe you don’t need to get so bureaucratic in the first place.
If you’re putting up a building, you have a defined structure and process. I think of a growing company full of knowledge workers to be more like a tree that will follow the natural path that is most efficient. If you have a greater tolerance for controlled chaos, you create an environment in which passion can flow and ideas can surface.
And don’t minimize the value of pent up frustration. When people get frustrated enough with convoluted processes, leaders emerge, and they galvanize everyone around the best ideas and it spawns change that everyone gets on board with. Those that feel “at cause” will be the torchbearers of positive change. Those that feel “at effect” will move along, pleased that the right leaders emerged, stepped up, and got things moving in the right direction, to which they can contribute in their own way.
Stay focused on shared values
A lot of experts talk about the importance of a company's mission and vision, and a lot of companies focus a lot of attention on them. I think that's a mistake.
I believe that a company’s core values are more important than their mission and vision. I bet you could have taken everybody in that auto body shop and put them to work in a flower shop, and they would crush some other flower shop that's been in business for ten years, because of the values they displayed– collaboration, low ego, high energy, pride in doing good work, mutual respect, and a goodwill-forward approach to the customer. Those were far more important to the success of their business than anything else I could see.
The mission and vision of a company can change. Companies pivot all the time. YouTube began as a video dating site. Twitter was a podcasting network. Nokia started as a paper mill company, and then sold rubber boots.
You come to work the next day and find out, “Now, our mission is this. Our vision is something completely different.” Well, your values should still be the same. That’s what your “organization” is organized around: shared values.
Are these the only three things to think about? Are they the most important ones? At this moment, I believe so. In no small part, that belief comes from that little auto shop in Brooklyn.