How to Build a "Best Place to Work"

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A few weeks ago, Blue Fish was selected by the Austin Business Journal as one of the best places to work in Austin. But it hasn’t always been that way. Six months after I started the company, more than half of my employees resigned. That was a really low point for me, but we’ve come a long way since then.

Back when I started Blue Fish, my main goal was to build “a company where the people I want to work with want to work”. I didn’t quite know how to achieve this, but I did know that with the amount of time I spend at the office, I want to spend that time with people that I enjoy being around.

And of course I blew it. In my haste to get Blue Fish off the ground, I didn’t spend much time interviewing at all. I hired the first people I found that had the skills I needed, and I didn’t think much more about it. Then I learned the hard way that a random collection of people will produce random results. My team didn’t work well together, they weren’t all on the same page, and they got fed up and quit. I had to start over from scratch. And I needed to pay a lot more attention to who I was hiring.

Fast forward to the present. Blue Fish has the best team I’ve ever worked with, and we’re all pulling in the same direction. To get here, I had to answer two important questions: Who do I want to work with, and what do these people want in their employer?

The answer to the first question is easy. I want to work with people who are:

  • “Bad-Asses” – They are among the best at what they do.
  • Multi-Disciplinary – I’ve always been drawn to people with a variety of passions.
  • Friendly – Life is too short to spend it with jerks.
  • Client-Focused – They put the client’s needs above their own.

The answer to the second question is a lot harder. Eventually, I started surveying the employees at Blue Fish to understand this better. Here’s what I’ve found out – the people I want to work with want the following:

  • They want to work with smart and talented people.
  • They want a casual, fun work environment.
  • They want to have an impact on the business.
  • They want to produce a quality product.

So how have we built a company that attracts the type of folks we want to hire? I like to describe our culture by saying that although we do serious work, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

First of all, we know how to have fun. We’ve built an employee lounge, complete with sofas, video games, a full bar and a kegerator. We also throw happy hours to welcome new team members, and we go offsite to celebrate our successes – earlier this year, we took the entire company on a ski trip vacation.

Second, we respect, trust, and empower our employees. We have an open book policy, and once a month, the executive team shares the company financials with all the employees. Employees also vote on the corporate initiatives that are most important to them, and these are the initiatives that we tackle throughout the year. In 2007, for example, we’re working on improving our estimation practices, developing a training curriculum for new hires, and increasing cross-project knowledge sharing.

Third, we focus on client success. We’ve made a commitment to our clients and our employees – we won’t take on a project unless we believe we can be successful. We survey our clients to understand what we’re doing right and where we can improve. And we place a premium on quality so that our employees can be proud of the solutions they deliver.

When I look back at how far we’ve come, I’m incredibly proud. But we can’t rest on our laurels – Blue Fish is in growth mode, and keeping it a great place to work gets more challenging the bigger we get and the faster we grow. Now that we’re an official “Best Place to Work,” the bar has been raised. But if we stay focused on our culture and keep building a great team, I think we have a shot at winning again next year.


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