Column: How to Build Company Culture In a Work-From-Home World

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

Column: How to Build Company Culture In a Work-From-Home World
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It seems like almost every day another tech company announces an extension of their work-from-home ("WFH") plans. First Zillow (my former company) said they'd allow employees to WFH for the rest of 2020, then Google and Facebook announced something similar. And then Twitter one-upped everyone by announcing that they would extend WFH forever.

I've had several tech CEOs tell me that Twitter's announcement raised the stakes significantly, and is forcing these leaders to rethink their own policies.

Regardless of how far this WFH arms race goes, one thing is clear: WFH is here to stay in one form or another.

In order to maintain productivity in a WFH environment, companies have fully embraced collaboration software, video conferencing and other strategies and tactics to succeed. But they're now facing a much harder challenge: how to build culture remotely.

It's actually quite easy to make a video-conference WFH meeting as effective as an in-person meeting. But remotely building the special esprit de corps that makes a company truly succeed — and be desired by potential employees — is very hard.

Unfortunately for those of us who care deeply about company culture, the long trend in workplace design going back 5-10 years is one of more remote and home-based work, and less in-person in-office time. For example, from the time we started Zillow in 2006 until when we went public in 2011, we had only a few hundred employees, and they were almost entirely in our Seattle headquarters. But by the time I retired as CEO in 2019, we had over 4,500 employees across eight offices, and less than half of our employees were in the Seattle headquarters. Dozens more were completely home-based.

The trend towards decentralization began out of necessity as companies sought to tap different talent pools in order to grow, and to station employees physically closer to their customers. But the coronavirus pandemic undoubtedly will accelerate this trend, and it seems very likely that the next generation of great companies will be decentralized, and probably some will be mostly remote.

Said another way, the leaders in workplace culture from 2000-2020 were companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Zillow, which built their culture around in-person events (think: volleyball games and frisbees around their corporate campuses). But the leaders in workplace culture from 2020-2040 will be a new generation of companies whose employees have a very different relationship with their company. Less important will be physical perks like on-site dry cleaning and bringing your dog to work; more important will be programs around career development and mentoring, and ways in which the company allows workers to balance their job with outside interests.

How do you build company culture among a distributed workforce?

Repetitive Communication is more important than ever

In a remote environment, it is imperative that senior leadership consistently and repeatedly communicate with the team. Reiterating the mission, key goals, milestones, strategies and priorities is critical. In addition, one must communicate repeatedly and through multiple channels in order to break through the clutter of employees' everyday lives. For example, a CEO must remind the team of the top 3 priorities for the company via slack, via video all-hands, via all-hands emails, and probably even reinforce it through social media (if the priorities can be published externally).

Celebrate little wins

One of the small joys of an office environment is the opportunity for in-person celebrations of big accomplishments such as product launches and milestones achieved, and the little wins such as employees' birthdays or weddings. It's important to replicate this in a remote environment as much as possible. Video conference calls have a tendency to trend towards a transactional nature which is antiseptic and demotivating. Overcome this by celebrating small wins in any way you can. A simple method is to do weekly "shout-outs" in video all-hands meetings.

Try to build relationships among team members

Again, look for ways to replicate the serendipitous in-office experiences remotely in order to build relationships and trust among team members. Examples include a "bring your pet to lunch" video call; a make-your-own company swag day; and even a crazy-hair day. (Yes, I stole that last idea from my kids' school, but it's a good one for a company also.)

Assemble in-person from time to time

I believe that the company of the future, post coronavirus, will be mostly remote but will still gather in-person a few times a month. An in-person all-hands (with video for those not based in the HQ city) is invaluable. Likewise, some company activities such as brainstorming sessions and annual business planning are best done in-person and you should try to accommodate that via IRL meetings.

Building company culture is important no matter the company's stage or business. But in a remote environment, it's more important than ever. If you have ideas on how else to build culture in a remote organization, please tweet them at me.

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.