"I’m not trying to be a pompous ass," says Heroku's Oren Teich.
Teich is talking about a touchy subject: startup culture. Since the term has been trotted out and twisted around so much in the past few years that in most minds it’s become synonymous with office perks like free, farm-fresh meals and keggers, it’s no surprise that Teich, the chief operating officer at Heroku, is doing a verbal tap dance as he talks about his company’s "vibe."
"I’m going to go the super awkward painful route," he tells Fast Company, before launching into a brief meditation on personal actualization. Teich is concerned that we, as a society, aren’t just inept at finding work/life balance, we haven’t even found a way to talk about it in the right way. As Teich sees it, a company’s culture shouldn’t be defined by its ability to provide staff with boxes of puppies and free hotdogs. "It’s not okay to be where people are just telling you that if you do a shitty job, that’s okay because you still have the perks," he explains. Everyone on board should love what they do. "That’s what vibe is about," he says.
Having vibe (and a vibe manager) has helped Heroku go from graduating Y Combinator’s startup incubator to a $212 million acquisition by Salesforce in 2010, all while growing a dedicated staff (dubbed Herokai) that now tops 100 strong. Those staffers continue to push out a plethora of products that support some 2.5 million web-based apps on its platform.
"Vibe is about having fun and not taking yourself too seriously," says Sharon Schmidt, the vibe manager who’s been with the company since 2008. "We choose to call it that because it shows you don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done." Teich notes that even after the Salesforce acquisition, Heroku’s vibe was left alone to continue to flourish among the existing staff, nearly all of whom stayed on. "It’s the spirit of the company, how we work and play together," she explains, "Salesforce was truly respectful of who we are."
Schmidt does admit that her title did start out as something of a spoof on her duties as glorified office manager who could equally be counted on to call the plumber to fix the office toilet, coordinate staff outings, and set up new employees on email and phone—often all in the same day. What she began to realize was that explaining away the title seriously bummed people out. "They wanted it to mean something special," Schmidt confesses.
Because she, too, is reluctant to use the word culture, it wasn’t tough to make that leap. Schmidt says she’s always viewed her work through the lens of a quote from Michelangelo about finding the sculpture inside the block of stone. "I just want to draw their ideas about what they want to see in their work environment and provide support to make that happen."
Beyond encouraging installations of staff art (there is a string design on one wall and manzanita branches hung with delicately knotted streamers over the staircase) and delivering handwritten valentines to each employee, Schmidt manages to round up all the Herokai—both on site and those working remotely—into weekly meetings.
Teich chimes in here, noting that this wasn’t an edict to communicate, but rather a mechanism for the staff to stay connected and maintain transparency as they grew. "At no point can anyone blow smoke up anyone’s ass," Teich maintains because everyone is encouraged to be completely honest and do the right thing.
The strength of this tenet was tested recently when Heroku was called out by one of its largest customers Rap Genius. In brief, Heroku’s platform allows companies like Rap Genius to set up their web apps on its cloud-based platform. As Rap Genius grew to about 15 million unique viewers a month, its pages got hung up waiting on really busy servers thanks to Heroku’s routing system failing to distribute web requests "intelligently" to idle servers. Rap Genius blogged about the issue, charging Heroku with misrepresenting its service.
Teich says that once this was brought to his attention, "nothing mattered for the next week and a half," as the Herokai tried to work on solutions. Teich issued a formal apology to Rap Genius and several blog posts following attempting to explain the situation and next steps. Cofounder Adam Wiggins also posted an in-depth FAQ which he prefaced by asserting that Heroku is his "life’s work." So why did the vibe fail to "deliver awesome" in this case?
Considering this for a long moment, Teich finally says, "The hardest and most important question [for a business] is what problem are we trying to solve." With vibe its how to create an environment that enables people to become all they can be, he explains. "With our product, we lost that question," he admits. By focusing on reliability rather than performance and not listening to customers, Heroku failed to deliver awesome. "Luckily we earned enough trust and love from our customers that they didn’t abandon us. They spoke up."
It’s been a tough, but important, lesson for the company as it outgrows the arrogance of the startup phase and gives way to listening to its customers. If a customer points out something important, says Teich, vibe allows the team to come together to tackle the problem. "Heroku couldn’t exist without vibe. It’s the only reason we are able to operate and be flexible and resilient," Teich contends. "We know we have people who are thinking about how we are being the best. If I had people who weren’t happy at their job they would just chase the perks go to where they could get more massages or more puppies. I want people in general to work in jobs that truly make them happy."