To Create A Happy, Family-Like Business Culture, Go "Orange"

At least that approach seems to be working for Scott Dorsey, CEO of ExactTarget. His software company takes care to house its global offices in architecturally significant buildings that make employees feel good while working.

Scott Dorsey is the CEO of ExactTarget, a software platform that helps brands connect to consumers through email, social media, mobile, and the web. The company, which went public in March of this year, opened a new office in Brazil last week, and has just released a new mobile marketing application called Mobile Connect. We spoke with Dorsey to ask about the ingredients that go into making 1,300 employees feel like they’re part of a family. One you might not have guessed: nice architecture.

FAST COMPANY: What’s the most fun you’ve had on the job recently?

SCOTT DORSEY: Probably taking the company public, going on the road show, ringing the bell at the NYSE. And to do so from a less obvious location, to build a leading company in Indianapolis, Indiana. A big part of our success has to do with an extraordinary culture we call orange.

You call your office culture "orange"?

It’s our predominant brand color. But "be orange" has taken on a life of its own. If a colleague does something exceptional, they’ll say, "Hey, way to be orange." When the company went public, instead of rolling out a red carpet, they rolled out an orange carpet, and outside the NYSE it was lit up orange.

What’s an example of "being orange"?

We had an employee recently who had an unfortunate personal incident—their home suffered fire damage. Other employees really rallied around the individual to buy groceries and donate money.

Was the "orange" spirit present at the company at its founding 11 years ago?

Yeah, from the very beginning.

How many employees did you have then?

There were three of us.

Now that you have 1,300 employees, what are techniques you use to keep a family feeling?

From an organizational perspective, we try to break everyone up into smaller teams that are agile and entrepreneurial. Culturally, we do interesting things, like our ExactTarget TV. On every floor of every office there’s a flat-screen running the same videos with company information and metrics on the screen, to keep everyone on the same page. And there’s the Friday note, which I’ve done every Friday for three years, rain or shine—an email to the organization highlighting the accomplishments for the week.

One of ExactTarget's three Indianapolis offices, The Century Building, was built in 1901 to house large printing presses.

Empires fall when they get unwieldy. Is there an upper limit to how big you can grow and stay cohesive?

I don’t think there’s an upper limit. The culture continues to evolve and transform itself, and the culture we have can scale. It comes down to effective hiring and having subcultures within the broader culture. We have a conference every fall in Indianapolis. That’s kind of a family reunion of sorts. I also think the physical environment we create for our employees is important. We take a lot of pride in moving into historically and architecturally significant buildings.

What are some examples?

Here in downtown Indianapolis, we’re in three buildings built in the early 1900s. One was an old automobile manufacturing and distribution plant. Another is right on the heart of Monument Circle, the centerpiece of the city. There’s a blend of old and new—high ceilings, open environments. They’re spaces where you walk in and want to work, want to collaborate. We also have buildings in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Melbourne, Sydney, London, and Munich, and they all have a common look and feel—the buildings are stunning.

Do your employees ever say, "Boy, I knew I’d take this job as soon as I saw those arches"?

I think a lot of employees say that more about the environment—just that it has a great feel to it, it’s comfortable, I can get my work done. It feels like an innovative, progressive place to be, dynamic, ambitious, and competitive. But the space can be a tool for recruiting, a tool for retention, a tool for productivity, and a tool for the culture.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd be a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

[Image: Flickr user sarowen]

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  • IndyCritic

    Only in the Midwest would you find a company like Exact Target,a place that thinks email is cutting edge.  

  • Lukewalton

    always find it funny how companies Wal-Mart, Disney and ExactTarget that say
    they are all about a great culture really are horrible when you talk to
    employees. Places like Zazzle and Costco don’t do PR releases about their
    culture, customers can feel it. I worked at ExactTarget and this all a façade.
    They have grown so much so fast that maybe at one time they had a good culture
    but not anymore. They have a tremendous amount of turnover in the field and in
    sales. Great place if you are right out of college but not for seasoned employees.
    I worked there for 3 years and at first I love it but the the culture changed.
    They are so focused on closing business and hitting there quarterly number that
    the customer and employees now come to second profits. The employee and
    customer turnover is the highest I have ever seen. I wish Fast Company would
    have spoken with employees and customers versus the CEO and PR Director.   

  • himagain

     Hi Luke,
    If serious investigation is done in any field today, the whole system would crash. Not grind to a halt, but crash.
    Luckily, the Education System works perfectly - as Kylneth discovered almost 50 years ago - it is a machine designed to prevent learning!
    Add to that distractions of an insane level today (Twittering) and ......
    "who cares??"
    E.G. Good ol'  Dr Oz was "shocked" to learn that more women die of heart attacks today than men.
    AND he is a heart surgeon!
     A product of the Real System. Even his own wife knows that vaccination is a crime, like the forced medication by fluoridation.
    Who knows how wild everyone would be without it shutting down their brains? 

  • himagain

    "Orange"?? The colour of rust when I came from.
    "Came" from - past tense. Was talking (a thing old people do when they actually physically "see" each other)
     to some other old folks recently and decided to create a whole new Cyberbog environment when one of them - would you believe a non-entrepreneurial brain surgeon! -
    pointed out to me that all the real money is in the hands of the post-fifties AND the numbers, too and yet the whole planet is now oriented toward the sub-adults and twinklies.
    How about an article resource about the real world, where actual companies aren't just on a current wave but have grown organically with ups and downs and not flukish flash-in-the pans?
    Companies that have survived the ups and downs since "the last century" like 1999.
    Ok, it could be boring, but in the real world over 40 and getting more worried daily, some reality and not "office cultures" that make for success, Gods help us.

    Of course I might BE the only oldie reading this stuff, but would be interested to read some comments about non-fluff. 

  • Heather

    Did someone say orange?! Thankfully, directly applicable to our company as well :)

    Great interview Scott. Building a company culture is so important from the beginning. And it has to be ingrained in every employee. We'll have to remember to stay "orange" as we progress and grow. 

    Thanks David and Scott for the insights. Always good to get thoughts and advice from people who have lived it and succeeded. Best Wishes.