For the last 5 years, SEOmoz has lived by a set of core values collectively referred to as TAGFEE. The acronym represents the values we hold to be more important than any particular business goal (such as revenue, growth, margins, etc). And, though we believe that these values will help us be more successful in achieving those business-minded goals, we would hold them even if we believed to be a hindrance.
The above slideshow comes courtesy of Adam Tratt, whose new startup HaikuDeck seeks to end the reign of Powerpoint & Keynote on the presentation software world (a noble goal, and one I plan to write more about in the future). Adam took on the task of creating this deck to help illustrate the deep dive on TAGFEE I’d like to present in this blog post, for which I’m very appreciative.
TAGFEE requires a lot of diligence. As I once said to Brad & Ben (Huh of Cheezburger) over email:
it’s fucking hard. So hard I can barely believe it. Being TAGFEE yourself when there’s always pressure not to sucks bad enough. But working with a large team and getting managers and individual contributors to act this way (and figure out when/where/how/whether it’s being broken) is the toughest challenge I’ve ever had. Thankfully, it’s incredibly rewarding, too.
These core values have become many things to us at SEOmoz, including:
- An architecture for decision making
- A set of guidelines by which we judge our work
- Parameters for whom we want to work with (non-TAGFEE people and organizations aren’t likely to become partners for us)
- How we conduct performance reviews – every part of the review process is tied to TAGFEE values, and these are expressly spelled out in the review forms
- How we design & build our products, our content, and our marketing
Perhaps not surprisingly, TAGFEE bleeds into our personal lives, too. I recall Jen Lopez, our community manager, noting that she found herself judging how she interacted with her husband and daughter by TAGFEE. I’ve seen the same behavior in myself, wanting my interactions with Geraldine, with my friends and with people I meet in any context to have those same representations.
We’ve even made TAGFEE into a poster:
The individual elements of TAGFEE could realistically each encompass their own blog posts, but I think discussing them here in less detail and saving those hardcore, deep dives for later might make sense, so I’ll try that first:
Many folks who see transparency as a core value think it means we simply share a lot of our inner workings publicly, but that’s only half the story. The other part is internal, and it’s equally if not more important. When you join the SEOmoz team, you get access to all the company’s financial data, product roadmaps, and internal processes – we share it via our Intranet, on our internal reporting system, and through weekly status emails to the company.
Making your own work transparent to your team members and making team efforts transparent to the rest of the company is absolutely critical to upholding this ethic. It makes us all participants in each other’s work, rather than silo’d and unaccountable.
We want to be ourselves at work, and never have to put on a face that doesn’t accurately represent who we are. I often tease visitors who come to the office dressed up for a meeting that their attire is out of place. We work hard to make our individual quirks qualities that are celebrated rather than repressed.
Authenticity is also about being true to our voice externally. I never want to get on a stage and deliver a presentation that doesn’t reflect what I truly believe or who I am. Likewise, our entire team feels the freedom to be themselves through social media, through their contributions to our blog, and even, occasionally, inside our software products.
This may be our most obvious core value. We try to embody it across the company, in fields as diverse as benefits (e.g. paid paid vacation), compensation, and stock options as well as public contributions to our industry (e.g. Mozcast), to the Seattle startup scene, and to charitable causes (e.g. donation to Seattle Children’s).
Our generosity isn’t just financial, though. We work as a team to be generous to people inside and outside our organization, and help in whatever ways we can. Often, our donations of time and energy are just as rewarding for ourselves as they are for those we help, and that’s an amazing feeling.
We hate boring, corporate stuff. It doesn’t fit with our culture and who we want to be. For us, fun can’t just be in the office or after work, it has to be in our products and in our marketing and everywhere we touch. Levity is virtually guaranteed in a Moz meeting, no matter how “professional” the topic.
When we bring fun to our work, we make it a passion, and that enables us to keep going, even when things are tough. I noted at our recent allhands meeting that not every project is fun nor will that ever be the case. In fact, we have to do a lot of not-fun-stuff (suffering through panic-inducing downtime, struggling to keep Mozscape indices processing, losing team members to other jobs, etc). That’s why the little things matter so much – the joke thrown in to a strategic product discussion, the post-it note characters on our windows, the Transformers that litter my office, Roger Mozbot, etc.
This is our most important value. It often trumps the others when multiple values come into conflict and it’s at the heart of SEOmoz’s culture.
For us, empathy is about putting ourselves into the minds of others and feeling their pain, their happiness, their challenges, and their desires. In fact, empathy is at the root of every other core value we have:
- Early on in our history, we felt the pain of doing things in the way we thought they were supposed to be done. We also felt the occasional moment of wonder when we pursued a unique, unfollowed path and did something exceptional. That feeling is one we seek to capture again and again by allowing ourselves the freedom to break from traditions and rules.
- We know the frustration of not understanding how a startup is supposed to work or why a company takes the actions it does. That’s why we believe in transparency and sharing our story and numbers so publicly.
- When we were smaller, we often felt a false pressure to be something other than ourselves, to don a cloak of professionalism and a “business” attitude in order to make ends meet. That sucked. But we found that when we presented a more authentic face, on the web and in person, that ugly feeling went away and somehow, our success multiplied. We believe people can identify with authentic representations and that our customers and our community can see through a false visage. Hence, we strive to always be ourselves, no matter the context.
- Fun is how we get through work and how we make it palatable to put in long hours on tough projects. Thus, we want to create fun in everything we touch and build.
- Our own appreciation at the generosity shown to us by so many thousands of people in the marketing and startup fields make us want to spread that kindness around and multiply it, both internally and externally.
Empathy is also the hardest of our core values to embody consistently. It’s so incredibly hard to look outside yourself and recognize a perspective that you may never have seen, but it’s what will make or break us in the long run.
Exceptional doesn’t mean “really, really good.” We define exceptional as meaning uniquely remarkable. It’s our goal to be an outlier in our field, both in our products and in the way we build the company. Pursuing the normal path and doing a great job is not a success metric. Finding a different path – one that questions assumptions and existing rules – is far more preferable.
Reflecting on our values, I see a lot of room for growth and improvement, but also a lot to be happy about. While we don’t do a perfect job living up to all of these all the time, I would say we’re pretty solid, and that solidity is responsible for much of the success we’ve had to date.
I’d also have a final tip to share – if you’re considering creating core values at your own company, or even for yourself, do it. I can’t recommend it enough. But don’t just choose our values – choose those that are core to who you are as a person or a team. Choose the values that represent the best parts of yourselves, those which you aspire to be. Then, make them actionable – tie specific things you’ve done or decisions you’ve made in the past to your core values and ask the hard question – “did I live up to this value?” Then repeat that on all the hard decisions and projects going forward. One of the best, most rewarding parts of establishing core values is the architecture it brings to challenging moments in your professional life.
Hopefully, this deeper look into SEOmoz’s values can be helpful in thinking about your own.