Let’s say your startup isn’t sexy. In fact, it’s boring. Really boring.
So what do you do about it?
If you’re Avalara, which finds its home in the nap-inducing world of sales tax, you make your office culture and identity do the sprucing for you.
Since the Washington state-based company’s founding in 2004, CEO Scott McFarlane has been on a mission to make the Avalara experience more exciting, and “sales tax less taxing.” We spoke with him to learn how to make a less-than-thrilling industry, well, more thrilling.
When Avalara was getting off the ground in 2004, McFarlane had the task of going to trade conventions to get the word out.
But who wants to sit around a convention hall in a shirt and tie, sipping on burnt coffee? Nobody.
Avalara’s booth would not only take the form of a tiki hut–which has become a company staple ever since–but would serve real drinks.
Everything would also be dressed with orange, including McFarlane.
“We would serve real margaritas–and we had people lined up down the block,” McFarlane says. “We started getting people, saying, ‘are you doing the margaritas again?’ Our whole identity was defined out of our trade show tiki hut.”
The orange uniforms, which McFarlane compared to a jailbreak, brought the company notoriety. Competitors thought they were crazy, but customers kept coming. The convention was a massive success.
“Most everybody discounted us,” McFarlane says. “‘They’re that company that serves margaritas, has tiki huts, and has beer in their office.'”
“I think we’ve proven everybody wrong that it can be done differently.”
Nearly 10 years later, that small gag has morphed into the core element of the Avalara’s culture. Avalara has almost 500 employees and offices across the country. And guess what? They’re all orange.
“As much as we tried, we couldn’t get away from orange–it just became our persona,” he says. “This is a crappy thing to do to comply with sales tax, and you should be somewhere else. We took people to a different place.”
Today, McFarlane wears at least one article of orange clothing per day and Avalara headquarters in Bainbridge Island, Wash., is covered with the color. The office has a tiki hut bar on the roof for employees, hosts orange-themed summer barbecues, and even runs an orange “AvaTaxi” to the island’s dock to pick up employees if they commute by ferry.
There’s even orange toilet paper in the bathrooms.
One Christmas, somebody purchased McFarlane, who “bleeds orange,” a gag gift of orange toilet paper.
“When I see something like that, it’s just a challenge,” he says. “I said I want this toilet paper in every bathroom. It comes from France. They can’t believe it.”
“We have guests come into the office and they take the rolls in the bathroom because you can’t make this shit up.”
When McFarlane hires a new employee, he gives them a simple task: On your first day, take a picture of your wardrobe.
“There will not be one single piece of orange in there,” he laughs. “In one year, there will be so much orange in there it’ll make you sick.”
Does McFarlane ever tire of the color?
“It’s painful some mornings,” he says.
“I walk out and I think ‘oh my lord, I’ve gotta wear orange.’ But It comes with the territory.”
The bottom line: Even though some may be tired of the orange–after all, it’s orange–the color-and-tiki-hut identity has provided Avalara with a much-needed sense of personality, and encourages employees to unite under a common cause.
Embrace the reality of the world you work in. If it’s boring, that’s okay.
“I never wanted to give up our roots or our culture,” McFarlane says. “I think culture is Avalara’s competitive advantage and I haven’t wanted to change anything at all. It’s who we are and what we are.”
[Image: Flickr user Tom Page]