Connecting the dots to a compelling, not cultish, company culture


January is always an invigorating time. A new year means a fresh start to really set goals and figure out a smart way to get there, both personally and professionally. At Turo, we’ve gone so far as to institutionalize this goal-setting exercise semiannually with a week-long affair where every employee from across the globe — from our offices in Cambridge, Scottsdale, Toronto, and London — descend on our San Francisco HQ to reflect, project, hack, and bond.

Our so-called “Turbo Week” just wrapped up last week. Now revved up and ready to tackle 2017, we spent last week reviewing our performance from the last half of 2016, looking at the things we said we were going to do and whether or not we accomplished them, discussing successes and failures, and collectively defining our roadmap for the next six months. And we hung out together. Like, a lot.

Turbo Week is always a special time for me — it became a twice-a-year mainstay way back in July 2014 — and this year as I watched our 160-person-strong family pack our auditorium, I’ve gotten to thinking about our company culture and how we’ve built the supportive, down to earth, efficient, and pioneering team that I see today.

So how do you create a company culture that resonates? One that’s inspiring and compelling without slipping down the slope into cultishness?

Here are some insights that have helped me and our team cultivate our startup from small and scrappy back in 2010 to blooming and growing into 2017.

Transparency is more than a buzzword

Companies talk a lot about transparency, but it’s one thing to say it, and quite another to do it. So what does this elusive term actually mean, and how can you achieve it authentically and elegantly? A perhaps oversimplified answer from my experience: transparency is a gesture, an action subtly charged with meaning that doesn’t rhapsodize openness, but puts it on full display.

Democratize the data

Turo, like so many tech companies, is deeply rooted in data, and these roots are intentionally exposed to literally every member of the organization, including our Board of Directors. We’ve invested in several business analytics tools, like Looker and Domo, which are available for everyone on staff to review. They can see our current and past revenue numbers, our customer metrics, our performance, our customer support SLAs, conversion metrics, supply and demand growth metrics, and so on.

Making these sensitive numbers available to everyone shows that you trust each and every one of them, without cheapening it with corporate big talk. Furthermore, it ensures that everyone is on the same page; when everyone is calibrated on context and rationale for actions, there’s little room for misalignment.

In addition to quantitative transparency, qualitative openness is critical to adding color to the metrics. Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) data and verbatims are treasure troves of rich qualitative insights into our marketplace, which we pipe our into a Slack channel that everyone can see. Reviewing real-time feedback — glowing or not — empowers everyone with insights into our customers and the power to act on those insights.

Feeling empowered to affect change makes everyone feel proud of their work, and breaks down barriers across teams.

Bring the execs & the Board down to earth

“Flatness” is also an oft used-and-abused term in corporations. While a flat organization sounds idyllic, hierarchy is a must to keep the train moving forward. But you can make the folks at the top of the org chart as available and approachable as possible, and communicate richly and often.

Every quarter, I report back to the whole company on our Board of Directors meeting to dispel any mystique or speculation. People can ask questions, and I later distribute the deck internally on Slack. I also host a panel discussion with the Board during Turbo Week, where they rap with the whole company, answering questions about their perspectives on our business and on the business world more broadly.

The beauty of startups is that we’re all in it together, and we’re all getting our hands dirty. From the Board to our interns, we’re all working toward the same of goal of building something great.

Drink your own Kool Aid

In a platform business like Turo, you simply can’t perch idly in your ivory tower observing; you must understand and empathize with your customers. We use two primary tactics to gain insight into our community — we talk to our customers, and we become our own customers.

During Turbo Week, we host panels of our community members to field questions and share insights with the team. Last January, we hosted a handful of new owners to the marketplace to pick their brains about onboarding. Last July, we hosted owners of high-value specialty cars to hear about their successes and pain points. And this week, we’re hearing from owners who have been with us for years, since the early RelayRides days. These informal user research sessions not only empower the whole team to interact with our community — quite literally the lifeblood of our business — but also empower our customers with a direct line to the makers of the product.

In addition to talking with customers, we also become our customers. Each Turo employee gets $100 in travel credit each month to rent cars from the marketplace, and we recently initiated a vehicle reimbursement program where we subsidize up to $2,500 toward a car bought to list on Turo.

These small tokens provide incentives for employees to really lean into the business. The more people relate to those using our product, the more authentic and insightful the product will be.

Respect the company, respect your colleagues

Lastly, Turbo Week always has me reflecting on the people themselves who make up this team. We always have hired carefully, but I never realized how choosey we were until last January’s Turbo Week, when we went through an exercise to codify the characteristics that make up our internal ethos.

Talking through how people felt about Turo, and recounting memories and anecdotes with anyone who wanted to participate, the goal of these “Turo talks” was to discern the values that have been defining and underpinning the company all along, whether or not we were expressly aware of them. We didn’t just want to pay lip service to some abstract notions that could apply to any business. We wanted to understand what made us tick, what made us unique.

The values we emerged with — supportive, efficient, down to earth, and pioneering — were the distillation of the company’s plurality of voices. As new agey as that may sound, it made us even more united as a team, and more aware of what unites us.

Be genuine, be shrewd, be kind

If I had to distill these musings into a tl;dr, I’d say:

  1. Show your transparency, don’t talk about it
  2. Advocate approachability among your leadership
  3. Listen to and become your customer
  4. Acknowledge and embody your values

Create a culture that inspires, compels, and rings true, and your team will be inspired, compelling, and true.