Keeping Amazing People on the Team

Many of my posts on this blog are intended to be broad in scope and provide an opinion, data or experience about startup/marketing paths. This one might not fit that pattern as well. Rather than describing my thoughts or collected advice from experience on startup talent retention, I’m going to instead channel feedback from our employees themselves on what keeps them here.

Miranda, Shelly, Kurtis & Justin (with Roger) at our customer conference, Mozcon

Employee retention is something over which I obsess. Many of the folks on the Moz team, particularly in highly technical roles on marketing, product and engineering, could undoubtedly get higher raw cash compensation elsewhere. Many folks will tell you that in business, it’s far easier and more profitable to keep your existing customers than to find new ones – that goes doubly for talent.

But, this issue goes beyond the business and the numbers. The people at Moz aren’t just my co-workers, they’re my friends.

I had a bad day last Friday. I was feeling really down about a personal, medical problem, about my progress on some projects, about falling behind in email and about my poorly written post on policy change emails that was widely lambasted on Hacker News (mostly because I did a terrible job conveying the hypothetical example). Poor Geraldine was dealing with the aftermath of that until I went into the office. Yet, just a few interactions with team members and a couple hours at the Mozplex turned my whole mood around. Is it any wonder I want desperately to keep this team together?

Today, we held a quarterly all-hands meeting – our first one offsite (we don’t all fit in our lobby anymore).

About half the Moz team is in this shot; there’s a LOT of us now ūüôā

During the all-hands meeting, we made two big HR/benefits-related announcements.

#1 – 150% Charitable Donations Match

Moz employees will have all donations to charitable organizations (blah blah some legal exclusions, $20 minimum, some other stuff) matched 150% by the company, up to a maximum of $10,000 annually. Thus, if we give Habitat for Humanity or Doctors without Borders or the American Cancer Society, etc. $1,000, we’ll top it off with another $1,500.

I really like the psychological impact of more than 100% donation matching. It feels far more encouraging and I hope, will incentivize more and greater donations. It also matches our core value of being exceptional – we’re not matching the rule, we’re working to be an outlier.

#2 – PAID, Paid Vacation

This idea comes from the folks over at FullContact, a fellow Foundry company that we greatly admire. The idea is a simple one – each year, each employee gets up to $3,000 of vacation-related expenses reimbursed. If you don’t take a vacation, the opportunity disappears. Hence, it’s in all of our employees’ great interest to take time to do what they love with friends, family, whomever (we’ll pay their vacation expenses too so long as you go with them) and disconnect for a few days, or a few weeks.

Our plan differs somewhat from FullContact’s. We used some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who noted:

In 2008, the most recent year for which expenditures data are available, U.S. households spent, on average, a total of $1,415 on transportation, lodging, food and beverage, entertainment, and gifts while on vacation and pleasure trips‚ÄĒrepresenting 3 percent of total household expenditures.

While FullContact offers up to $7,500, we felt a little awkward (and slightly financially challenged) about going that high, and thus settled on 2X the average vacation spend. While their plan is exceptionally generous, their team is also much smaller (18 vs. Moz’s ~82). We also worried that $7,500 might actually create some very extravagant and out-of-the-ordinary vacation spending, but that said, we may push this benefit higher in the future. We’re also not planning to be as religious with the “disconnect” rule. While we encourage people to go offline, we don’t plan to rescind/not pay the benefit if you answer an email or restart a server from your trip.

These announcements were fun to make and amazingly rewarding to get feedback on, but I questioned whether and how tied to employee retention benefits like these are, so I asked. At the after-the-allstaff party, I talked to half a dozen or so Mozzers about what kept them at the company. Those conversations were diverse, massively insightful, and incredibly fulfilling. Thus, on my walk over to Techstars for a later networking event there (for which I’m a mentor this year), I sent the following email to our allstaff alias:

¬†The responses were amazing. Have a look (note that I’ve anonymized identities as I didn’t specifically note whether I’d be publishing responses verbatim):

From a Help Teamster:
1. People at Moz – Everyone is amazing and continues to blow me away every day.
2. Passion РThe passion that people have for their jobs at Moz is inspiring.
3. Challenge – Moz isn’t just a job, it is a challenge to be excellent. With the people and passion as inspiration I am continually challenged to further my knowledge and push my work quality to the next level.
4. I love what I do – To say the least I don’t come to work every day. I come work on projects that I love and get to do exactly what I want on a daily basis. Sure, there are hoops and snags, but most of it is unbeatable and a helluva time.
From an Engineering Lead:
The reasons I like working at SEOmoz:
1. The people – working with incredibly talented and exceptionally smart people (across teams) is really inspiring
2. SEOmoz strongly believes in investing in the team and taking care of the employees work and non-work life
3. The freedom and respect everyone has to voice their opinions and be transparent – makes you feel like you have a part in defining the company as well as the direction its heading.
From a Marketing Scientist:
1. Enthusiastic support to do what I can uniquely do best.
2. Always knowing the C-levels have my back, even if I genuinely screw up.
3. That everyone-pitches-in start-up feeling, even as we top 70 people.
From a Big Data Engineer:
1. Experience of senior engineers; While the experience of projects makes me feel like I grow, I think the opinions / advice / experience, etc. of people like Brandon, Phil, Martin, Marty, Walt (and others) are crucial to the process. And it’s a process that’s important to me.
2. The health benefits; you guys know, but they’re great. Especially with a new addition.
3. The foods; from beer night to catered lunch to the extremely well-stocked kitchen. Like that a lot.
From our CTO (sorry Anthony, had to out you):
1. Awesome leadership.
3. Incredibly smart, wonderful and TAGFEE employees that are willing to help each other become better! No one holds knowledge back to make his or herself look better. That’s damn cool and rare.
4. With <secret redacted project> slipping it would be incredibly easy for me or Adam (our VP Product) to toss each other under the bus. In 98% of the companies in the US you would have to start tossing for self¬†preservation. In our culture, it’s all about being creative to get back on track. If one of us goes down we all go. Come on that’s fucking cool!
From a Help Teamster:
1. I’m hanging out with my friends all day. As an added benefit, there’s a shared purpose to our friendship. I feel like the shared purpose enriches these relationships in a unique way.
2. I belong. I can be myself and not worry about needing to “fit in.” I fit in here more than any other place I’ve ever worked.
3. I’m taken care of. I don’t need to worry about paying my rent, getting health care, getting glasses, going on vacation, or anything else in my personal life. I’m paid enough and given enough benefits to live my life to the fullest when I’m not at work.
4. I grow. Anything I want to learn or try, I’m encouraged to do so. Opportunities abound. It’s not a soulless¬†bureaucracy¬†like other companies can sometimes become.
5. I’m happy! We’ve got great beer nights, ping pong tournaments, brown bags, coconut water, breakfast, lunches, karaoke, Kinect, conferences – you name it, we got it. Whatever your whimsy.
From a Software Engineer:
1. Leadership: the leadership at moz is second to none. When I speak, I know I am heard. Part of that is being with a small company but most of that is the character of the people I work under.
2. Freedom: I have the creative freedom to do things other companies might have put the kibosh on. Part of that is that we have a very saavy user base, but most of that, again, is leadership that gets it, sees the larger picture and allows us to be creative.
3. Compensation: this goes back to leadership, but I have never worked anywhere before that took compensation off the table as far as a aconcern. When this is done, along with #1 and #2 above, I am left to work in ways most people will never experience. I truly count myself among the very, very lucky.
4. Honorable Mention –¬†Community: It is tough being remote, but even then, I feel a part of the moz community. The vibe is always so positive it makes it easy to come to work. I love the fact the lines between the different groups are so easily traversed.
From a Tech Ops Engineer:
Low carb treats, e.g, nuts
From a Software Engineer:
1. Moz has always encouraged and supported me not only in my work on Moz projects but also in my growth in my career. ¬†I remember Kate asking/prodding me in that direction on a regular basis in our one-on-ones. ¬†I love Moz’s support of sending us to conferences and giving back to open source.
2. I love that Moz is really supportive of me having and supporting my family. ¬†(My wife and son) have always enjoyed coming to visit the¬†office¬†and felt welcomed. ¬†That’s very different from prior places I’ve worked. ¬†I’ve had various family and friends ask me how much time I was planning to take off when the baby is born, and they’ve been floored when I answer “as much time as I want” since that’s the flexibility Moz gives me :).
3. It’s not explicitly stated in TAGFEE, but I’ve noticed that it’s a major priority at Moz to make employees happy. ¬†The periodic family outings, surprise new benefits (like this new vacation policy) , etc are an awesome and make me feel really appreciated.
4. As an engineer, it’s important that I’m building something I enjoy and can take pride in. ¬†I think we’re building really, cool stuff, and I love that I’ve been given the flexibility to use a process that allows for long-term code maintainability and continued velocity even though in the short run it doesn’t produce results quite as quickly as just throwing something together. ¬†The problems we’re working on are a lot more challenging than anything I’ve worked on previously (case in point: Silo is processing ~ 50 million search results per day. I’d never built anything at anywhere near that scale before!)
5. It’s exciting to be part of a company that’s growing so much and doing so well. ¬†Usually stock options are theoretically valuable but almost certainly worthless. ¬†At Moz, I’ve got high hopes my stock options will actually turn into something value, and that’s not just wishful thinking.
6. I’m surrounded by some incredibly smart people. ¬†Some days I feel like I know so much less than other Moz engineers–but at the same time, I know I’ve got something to contribute that’s unique. ¬†It’s important to work at a place where you’re not the smartest person (so you’ve got room to grow and learn) but it’s also important to work at a place where you’re valued and can contribute, and Moz provides both for me.
From a Marketing Teamster:
1. Trust and autonomy. I don’t have my every move questioned and second-guessed (except for the second-guessing I myself do). I can do real company shit!
2. We get the tools that we need to do our jobs, whether it’s computer equipment or conference attendance.
3. Employees are recognized as people, not machines. On the big scale, we wait to ship a product that’s good, rather than shipping it when it’s less good just because the timing is better. On the little scale, Team Happy does an awesome job of making stuff happen that makes our lives easier.
4. TAGFEE, in all its many forms. Most recently I was thankful for it to help guide me on Twitter on Saturday during the Wowrack outage to balance the Transparent (we’re hosted with Wowrack and they’re down and keep an eye on their Twitter feed) with Empathy (hey, it sucks to be Wowrack, I’m only going to mention their Twitter account once, and not send a bunch of frustrated tweets). Result: compliments from Twitter on how the outage was handled via social media, and we were the only ones that Wowrack tweeted to let us know we were back up. If anyone had questioned the way I handled things, I felt confident that I could use TAGFEE to explain why I did what I did, and that they would be¬†emphatic¬†to me in giving any gentle correction for a way I could have done it better next time. At the outset, I didn’t realize how much it would directly influence things like this.
From a Marketing Teamster:
1. The work environment. Laid back yet driven, the setting encourages creativity and boosts desire to get work done. Plus we are incredibly well taken care of by Team Happy ūüôā
2. Expectations set by managers. The expectations on deliverables are high, but all goals are made clear and attainable. I rarely feel overwhelmed by my goals, and the support from my manager makes completing projects and hitting milestones that much sweeter.
3. Personal contribution. Every time I complete a project big or small, I can feel my personal contribution to the outcome. Our team is growing and the projects keep getting bigger, but my work never seems to get lost in the shuffle. It’s amazing to see your hard work pay off!
From a Team Happiness Member:
2. The people I work with.
3. The environment; not just the office space but that is a plus. It’s mostly the healthy, open work space we have and the encouragement to be ourselves. I guess this could go back to TAGFEE ūüôā
4. Support from management and team members to grow, learn, and do what we love. The brown bags, team collaboration, and 1:1s are great contributors to this.
5. The opportunity to be successful.
From an Team Happiness Member:
1. Challenges and being heard
2. Being involved in successes, not just hearing about them.
3. The expectation to exceed expectations.
From a Software Engineer:
1. The people. This morning’s twitter conversation is a good example.¬†Everything else is nothing next to that.
2. The insurance is important, sure. I literally can’t survive without it. But I can get at least /acceptable/ insurance anywhere.
3. The money’s pretty good. But I could make as much elsewhere. I’ve had many recruiters say as much.
4. The food is nice. The soda’s actually kinda important I suppose, I haven’t had to buy my own at work since I left Amazon, but at least it was only $.50 there.
5. The parties are pretty good. I think that kinda goes back up to people tho. Or maybe food. Or both.
6. I get to do interesting things. Not all the time. A lot of the time, though. I still want plush Mozbots. ;;)
From a Product Manager:
1. I’m surrounded by smart, driven people who push me and are also gracious and fun. Not an asshole in sight.
2. There’s a mutual respect combined with a sense of personal responsibility that permeates the culture — TAGFEE in action.
3. It’s OK to admit what you don’t know, and question when you don’t understand or agree.
4. We have a forward-thinking, thoughtful management team that I greatly admire.
5. I learn something new every day. I’m¬†never, ever bored.
6. As much string cheese as I can eat. ūüėČ
From an Engineering Lead:
Rand, as I said earlier, this is this first situation where I’ve been able to help build a great workplace. Great products, yes, but until now, not a first hand in a truly great workplace.
From an Engineering Project Manager:
1. TAGFEE. Can’t say enough about this one. It’s the foundation of our culture and one of the main factors we look for when screening potential hires. It inspires us and can be seen in everything we do.
2. Mozzers. This is a direct result of #1 and is the reason I look forward to coming into work every day. These strange human beings are not only my fellow co-workers but my friends and confidants as well.
3. Benefits (this includes everything from catered lunches to PAID, paid vacations). Yes, we are incredibly spoiled. It’s one of the best feelings in the world to work for a company that values you and makes you feel like the luckiest nerd in the world!
From a Marketing Teamster:
1. There’s a compassion that I’ve felt since working here that I’ve never felt before. The last two years have been the most difficult of my life. I can’t imagine working anywhere else and having gone through all this. The compassion that I’ve felt from you specifically Rand, and the team in general has been¬†phenomenal. And it’s not just me, my whole family feels it. We would not be where we are as a family without the constant support of SEOmoz.
2. I’ve always been the kind of person that gets bored easily at work and needs to constantly be learning something new. While I’ve had to deal with some setbacks the last couple years which has slowed me down a bit, I’ve essentially been able to create my own job. This role didn’t even exist and I was able to create my own role, make it a “thing”, learn a ton and grow as a marketer. I’ve worked at many companies where this opportunity would never have been available and I would have never had the backing of management to run with it and make it my own. As we get bigger, I hope that these kinds of opportunities don’t completely go away. I had an idea and I made it come true, pretty fucking awesome. ūüôā
3. I see job openings all the time and have had several offers, but whenever I take a good look at the company, I simply can’t see myself and my family being a part of it. That’s what SEOmoz has become to me, a home away from home. SEOmoz is a part of the family.
4. TAGFEE actually means a lot to me. It means a lot that we value the team above anything else. I love that if someone is rude to one of us, we don’t have to simply “take it”. I’ve seen us refund customer’s money and ask them to not return to the site for badmouthing a team member. That’s absolutely amazing. I’ve never worked anywhere that cared that much about the staff.
5. Silly, but I love knowing that I can find food in the fridge if I don’t have time to get out of the office. And while the cupcakes aren’t helping my figure, they sure are nice! ūüôā
From a Marketing Teamster:
1. The people – hands down this is the best team I’ve ever worked with. The amount of genius, humor, compassion, and genuine warm hearted people we get to work with each day is inspiring.
2. The culture – I took a pay cut when I came here from Microsoft but was willing to do it for the culture. TAGFEE just seemed like another Microsoft acronym when I first heard it but after interviewing over a year ago at Moz, I was like, “woah, these guys actually seem like they live TAGFEE and don’t just talk about it”. It’s hands down the most transparent place I’ve ever worked.
3. The perks – I’ve worked at some pretty cool companies that are known for their perks and benefits in the past (Microsoft, Rodale Publishing), but those always seemed kind of forced. I love how at Moz we have an entire team dedicated to keeping us happy and it seems like nothing is ever off the table when it comes to executing on that.
4. The product/mission – I’ve never worked at a place where I’ve believed in the mission/product more than I do at Moz. Having that sense of ownership, not only from stock options, but just that we are collectively building something amazing, is more than enough to get me excited to come to work each day.
From a Big Data Engineer:
1. Your integrity, and the integrity shown by everyone in top-level leadership roles. ¬†You can’t fake commitment to your values, and I like those values.¬†That’s a big thing, (really,¬†the¬†big thing) but there are some little things too.
2. I like that our customers are actual people.  At my previous positions my customers were partner companies of various sorts; my relationship with them was more abstract.  Now, my typical day is more meaningful because I (occasionally) have direct contact with the people we ultimately help.
3. The company’s stance towards open source; a developer’s open source offerings is essentially his portfolio. ¬†Being able to share some of what I write with the wider net is an important way I grow my career. ¬†(This is why I don’t sweat it much when people tell me there is no room to grow at a small company. The professional community I participate in extends beyond the company.)
From a Software Engineer:
1. Actually living TAGFEE. It’s one thing to have a public set of core values and talk about it. It’s a completely different thing to actually live them on a day to day, decision by decision basis. Everything else stems from this.
2. Low levels of bullshit (i.e. political games, blame games, sugar coating)
3. Actually empowering individuals, mainly non-managers, with real responsibility and real trust
4. The short commute
5. The compensation. Let’s be honest here, compensation matters and that doesn’t make one greedy.

Looking over this list, there’s a TON of diversity in responses. Unfortunately, for those seeking a quick “do this and your employees will want to stay,” it’s bad news. Retention techniques are, apparently, not a one-size-fits-all solution.¬†What I do sense is that we’ve done a lot of things right to get this type of feedback. Honestly, I’m humbled and overwhelmed by it. The list is hard to read without feeling like there’s something in my eye. ūüôā

Maintaining this culture and extending it into a larger company is going to be a challenge, probably a massive one. I’m nervous about that, but also excited. There are very few opportunities to grow a startup to this scale, and I feel a great obligation not to f#$@ it up.

p.s. Many Mozzers came up to me to say “thank you” for the new benefits today. But, it’s not me you have to thank. It’s the 16,781 Moz subscribers whose ongoing support of our products makes this kind of thing possible. It’s to them that we owe a debt of gratitude and generosity, one we hope to make payments against through exceptional products, service and support for many years to come.