Dance Like Michael Jackson–But Lead Like Cortés

Tips for success from Scott Kveton, CEO of analytics masters Urban Airship. Here’s why every company might want a “Director of Culture.”

Dance Like Michael Jackson–But Lead Like Cortés

Urban Airship is a Portland, Oregon-based company that helps power and glean analytics from the push notifications companies send you via their apps. Companies as diverse as ESPN, Groupon, USA Today, Walgreens, and NBC Universal use Urban Airship’s services. This week, Urban Airship is announcing a new feature that allows location-based targeting for its clients. One of the most remarkable things about Urban Airship, though, is how happy its employees are–they simply won’t leave. We caught up with Urban Airship CEO Scott Kveton to find out why.


FAST COMPANY: Is it true you have a 100% retention rate among your employees?

SCOTT KVETON: I think out of the 93 people we have, we’ve lost two people in the last three and a half years, since we started the company. I’ve worked at a lot of companies–a lot of companies–and I’ve seen that you can’t pay lip service to culture. Transparency is important, so everybody knows all the different parts of the business. Here, the team knows what the business model is, what’s the cash on hand, what the burn looks like, when we’ll be profitable. I’m probably transparent to a fault. But I want to hire people who want to start their own company someday. I would love nothing more than an ecosystem of companies to spring up of ex-Urban Airship folk.


Does being based in Oregon help?

With our headquarters here in Portland, we don’t have the distractions folks in Seattle and the Bay Area have. We do have 20 people in the Bay Area, but they’re all super excited to work for us, and we’ve done a lot to keep those folks happy down there. But Portland being our headquarters has been our secret weapon. We’re striking distance from Seattle and San Francisco, and we’ve been able to build a phenomenal team. Since everything’s in the cloud, it doesn’t matter where we are as a company.

What else do you do to keep employees happy?

This sounds so cliché, but we really love to have a good time. We have this amazing unofficial director of culture. She plans amazing outings. We did this scavenger hunt around Portland. She just said, “Hey, everybody, bring shoes comfortable enough to walk all day in.” We broke out in teams, and there were Urban Airship people running around, and it also became this phenomenal recruiting tool. For our Halloween party last year, she hired a dance choreographer to come in twice a week to teach us to do the “Thriller” dance. We did a popup “Thriller” dance at the party.

Are you gonna bust out any moves this Halloween?

No. We’ll have a Halloween party, but no dance mojo. But we do have some exciting New Year’s Eve stuff. I can’t talk about it yet. We haven’t even announced it to the team yet.

Did you hire your “director of culture” specifically for that role?

No, it kind of evolved. Barbara Stark was employee number seven. She was the office manager and helped me with a bunch of stuff as executive assistant. She really was a jack of all trades. As the company has grown, she settled down this path of the culture piece. The more I thought about it, she really is this director of culture. I would call it one of the hardest positions–if I ever had to backfill it, I don’t know what I’d do.


You’ve said in another interview, “Entrepreneurs should quit their day jobs to burn the ships properly and motivate themselves to really stick to the business.” Burning ships?

The reference is that Cortés, when he came to the New World, burned his ships so his troops were properly motivated. (Though later someone said that’s not true–the real reason was disease or something else.) When entrepreneurs ask me to have coffee with them, and say, “I have a day job, and I have this project on the side,” I tell them, “Actually, you should burn the ship. Jump off and go do this, and you’ll find out much quicker if there’s a there there.” And when you don’t have a cushion, you’re almost forced to succeed. That’s the concept of burning ships.

This sounds like a philosophy of entrepreneurship that credit card companies will love. Isn’t this a fast way into debt?

When we started Urban Airship, I put a bunch of stuff on my credit card. A couple of my cofounders had been laid off and a federal program allowed them to receive full unemployment and work at a startup.

President Romney wouldn’t stand for that. But couldn’t you seriously wind up in the poorhouse by burning the ships?

You could. But if that happens, you’ve learned a bunch about what it means to run a business. I know I’ve failed before. I’ve personally failed, and those things taught me the lessons and helped bring me to success. Everyone loves to talk about entrepreneurs who are so successful, but the most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who just didn’t give up.

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 Paul Woods]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.