Overcoming Corporate Culture Challenges When Your Company Spans The Globe

How do you build a corporate culture when your staff is spread out between India and the U.S., headquartered in San Francisco with employees also scattered through places like Phoenix or Hawaii? Zedo, one of the largest ad serving networks (second only to Google's DoubleClick), has faced this problem almost since it began.

Founder Roy de Souza got the idea for an online advertising technology company during the dot-com bubble, which as a young man he didn't recognize as a bubble. But in 2001, when a combination of 9/11 and the collapse of the bubble brought internet advertising to a halt, de Souza had no choice. To keep the company going, he had to build his development team in India, where costs were lower. 

Ironically, more than just development took off in India, which was beginning to grow rapidly as the U.S. market roiled and stagnated. In India, Zedo also developed customers, to the point where 75% of the ads served on Indian sites are served by Zedo. The company, however, was still headquartered in San Francisco, and the corporate staff was somewhat unfamiliar with the Indian staff. It's not that simple to manage remotely, especially when the time zones are flipped (12.5 hours+ difference between India and PST).

De Souza was about to give himself a crash course in leadership—leadership of high performing, remotely located, self-managed teams.

Ten years later, Zedo has rolled with the punches of the growing online advertising business, pivoting from popups to display ads, from interruption to interactive. Its staff, loyal and optimistic, ranges in age from the early 20s to retirement age, and everyone is full of energy.

That's partly because of de Souza's belief that internet advertising can be good, the way TV advertising is good. By good, he means creative, not commoditized, and worth seeing. Zedo spends lots of brainstorming time trying to come up with creative new ways to display advertising online so its publisher partners get the most value from it, and the site visitors are not "interrupted."

And it's partly because every new hire from India is treated to a trip to the U.S., during which he or she is introduced to Fisherman's Wharf, Alcatraz, and sometimes even Disneyland, guided by people from the San Francisco office. Likewise, San Francisco employees have the opportunity to visit Mumbai, where the Indian headquarters is located.

Zedo is a small business, but from a corporate culture perspective it is run like the most advanced Fortune 500 firm, with minute attention paid to training, teamwork, and an eye toward attracting and retaining key talent garnered from everywhere. At a recent team meeting, the morning was spent having each employee draw the major incidents of his or her life on a timeline, assigning them a value ranging from +10 to -10. Each person in the room had to explain his timeline, and by the end of the morning, people had pointed out the major positive and negative events in their lives. Their early problems encompassed going to many different schools as members of military families, their experiences of parental separation and divorce, their triumphs and tragedies in high school and college, and the sets of choices that led them from working in restaurants to playing top 40 hits on radio stations, to coming to the U.S., to finding Zedo. Some of the charts looked like electrocardiogram printouts, from the highs of early childhood to the lows of losing jobs or parents.

The first person to discuss his timeline was de Souza, who confessed that there was a great dip in his quality of life when his family moved to England from Goa, because he had a funny accent and couldn't talk in class, and a rise on the graph of his life when he finally met and married a woman from Goa whom he met in San Francisco. The rise and fall and rise of Zedo during the dot com bubble, bust, and the resurgence of online advertising were also "out there" for all to see. Open and transparent, de Souza speaks to his employees with camaraderie and respect, embracing everyone in a company-related family.

The backgrounds are diverse: young, old, gay, straight, immigrant, native, male, female. Deaths of partners and spouses, births of children, marriages, professional advances—all were on the timelines, and all were explained in front of a group. At the end of three hours, everyone bonded. And then the group adjourned for lunch, and an afternoon of boating on the Bay.

[Image: Flickr user Feuillu]

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