We’ve all heard there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But would you expect to pay $3,000 per employee, per year?
That’s what the bill came to at ShortStack, a company that’s designed a suite of digital tools to create customized Facebook pages. From its inception in 2011, founder Jim Belosic gathered his staff for weekly Friday lunches. That was fine when it was just him and two or three people. Now that the local team has swelled to 10, it’s become a bit more pricey.
Belosic continued filing it under “team building” on his expense report. He did, that is, until he was confronted by his CPA. “She had a worried look,” Belosic tells Fast Company, and she suggested it might make better sense to cap the cash flow as the company grew and just offer each staffer a $3,000 bonus check instead.
Though ShortStack has experienced triple-digit revenue growth in the past two years and expanded its user base to over 250,000 in more than 184 countries, Belosic is a big believer in the value of low overhead. It’s why he elected to keep the company in Reno, instead of shifting operations to Silicon Valley. Yet he wasn’t willing to cut this particular corner without input from his team. “Our work space is open, so I just turned to the crowd and shouted out,” he explains. The answer was immediate and unanimous: Keep the lunches. “It shocked our CPA that everyone is happy and choosing camaraderie.”
But for Belosic, that moment just reinforced a lesson he learned years ago. Before he made the leap to entrepreneurship, he was working for another company that only allowed staff 30 minutes for lunch. At one point, he used the 30 minutes to get his hair cut, then came back to eat while continuing to work. His manager wanted to know why he was eating at his desk. “I worked my butt off and they didn’t appreciate it,” Belosic says with a sigh, “So I quit shortly after.”
In the corporate world, he says, it’s all too common for employees who work hard to feel justified sneaking out early or snagging office supplies if they don’t feel like they’re being recognized and appreciated. Without any management training or previous experience as head of a team, Belosic contends his leadership style is simple: “I treat everyone how I would like to be treated.”
A “CEO in name only,” Belosic admits that while he’s been adding staff a little at a time, ShortStack has had its share of growing pains. “The management isn’t as flat as I would like; people still keep coming to me,” he says. In part because he’s set himself up at the receptionist’s station, “Like Pam in The Office,” he quips, and also because his proficiency with pancakes not only earned him a spot on Rachael Ray, but also the nickname “Tasty Cakes.”
“I like that I’m approachable, but I tell them to go tell someone who can actually solve the problem.” Ultimately, Belosic’s leadership goal is to provide vision, build the culture, and boost morale. If he took off for a few days or a few weeks, “no one would notice.”
A good thing, too, as Belosic confesses he’s got “diarrhea of the mouth,” especially when it comes to input for new releases. To combat this even when he pulls his HIPPO card (Shortstack parlance for “highest paid person’s opinion) to trump another idea, Belosic’s surrounded himself with smart staffers. Innovative solutions are rigorously tested to prove they’ll actually work for customers. “I love to be wrong,” Belosic says.
Despite the openness and the sharing he’s tried to bake in to ShortStack’s culture, there are “cliques” that develop between the different divisions. Another reason he’s standing firm on continuing the lunches: Staff mingle freely in a way they don’t get to in the office, he says, because work talk is verboten. “I don’t want to talk tickets or how a server is meeting expectations. Just give me a couple of hours.”
Though sometimes food is brought in, Belosic believes that going out affords people even more ways to get to know each other. “You can learn a lot about someone from their car,” he asserts, from the music they have on to whether they have sports equipment or a child’s car seat in the back. Not to mention the social lubricant that comes from knocking back a couple of adult beverages. “One of our lead engineers is very focused,” Belosic says with a laugh. “He looks mean, but when you talk to him at lunch, he’s a pussycat. People don’t know that unless you have those opportunities to get to know each other.”
Belosic expects ShortStack to continue growing, perhaps to the point where local restaurants in downtown Reno won’t be able to fit them all at one table. He can see the company soldiering on 50 years from now, even if there is no longer a Facebook and the web totally changes.
“Ideas don’t just come from me,” he explains. Most of ShortStack’s new products were born when customer service agents amassed a number of requests for a certain feature. Even when the company tops eight figures in revenue (they’re comfortably at seven now, according to Belosic), he’s keeping expenses low by continuing to hunker down in the “cheap seats.” The lunches (and holiday parties and beach excursions to nearby Lake Tahoe) will continue, he maintains.
“I am wary of [businesses] with waterfalls in the lobby. We like to spend money on beer.”