“To create a fantastic work culture, create opportunities for organic innovation and “magic” to happen”, With Pavemint Co-Founder Sarah Zurell & Phil Laboon
Create opportunities for organic innovation and “magic” to happen. One of the ways we’ve done this at Pavemint is to create late-day, optional meetings with treats, puppies and a relaxed environment built for open conversation. Giving the team the opportunity to workshop ideas and problem-solve has resulted in some of our best features and solutions thus far.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing…Sarah Zurell, the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer of LA-based parking app, Pavemint. Prior to joining the Pavemint team, Sarah worked as a branding and marketing expert for such companies as Pacific World Cosmetics’ SensatioNail line, and Google Ventures app, Strut. When she met her Co-Founders, Randall Jamail and Karen Romine, she brought her branding experience to the table, helping to form the look and feel of Pavemint. Over the past three years, Sarah has worked closely with the company’s Marketing, Design, Customer Service and Product teams to build and drive strategy for the app, which launched with over 4,000 underutilized parking spaces in some of the most high-traffic areas of the city. In her spare time, Sarah volunteers as the Brand Consultant for Can’t Do Nothing, a charity for Syrian refugees, as well as at We Are LA Tech Women, where she organizes technology-focused female empowerment events. She was also recently appointed to the Board of Directors of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career path has definitely been anything but a straight line. Growing up in a conservative family in Florida, I was raised going to church for hours daily, getting a homeschool education that focused heavily on soft skills, such as cooking, cleaning and homemaking. As expected, I then got married at a very young age and moved to San Diego with my husband.
When things started to go steeply downhill in my marriage, my life began to change. For the first time, I went against my entire upbringing and did the thing I knew no one would approve of: I left.
From San Diego, I moved to Los Angeles, without any friends or family surrounding me. There were nights when I slept in my car because I had nowhere else to go. But, as difficult as it was, it was also a time for me to discover who I truly was and what I wanted. And what I wanted was to help improve the world around me.
At first, I thought that I would achieve this dream by becoming an actress. But, after finding some success and getting a steady job as the Zooey Deschanel’s stand-in on New Girl, I realized being part of the entertainment industry didn’t fulfill me in the way I thought it would or make me feel like I was improving my surroundings at all.
My career trajectory changed when I began doing social media management and learning marketing, but it certainly had a bumpy start. After nearly getting fired for my lack of grammar skills (and subsequently hiring a tutor and copy editor out of pocket), then working in branding at a fashion app that failed fast, there were many times when I thought my career had ended before it ever really began, and I really started to regret leaving my stable industry job.
However, when I happened upon my Co-Founders, Randall Jamail and Karen Romine, I knew it was the right fit from the start. The concept for improving smart cities through mobility and reducing traffic and CO2 truly fit with my dream of making the world a better place. Since then, I’ve worked on nearly every aspect of Pavemint. The app connects drivers with residents and business owners who have parking spaces to share, allowing them to reserve parking by places such as LAX, the Palladium, Pantages, the Fonda, the Forum, the Coliseum, Banc of California Stadium, Venice Beach, and many more, all in advance or on demand. Since then, I’ve continued to run every aspect of our brand, as well as running the day-to-day affairs within our LA office.
In addition to our goal of decreasing emissions, I’m working hard to actively close the gender gap in tech, both by building a diverse team which includes a 50/50 male to female employee ratio, as well as volunteering as a mentor to other women working in the tech industry.
To sum it up, I think what brought me to my specific career path was failure. I felt like I failed at a lot of things in my life before succeeding. But pushing myself because of those failures (which didn’t actually end up being failures at all) has gotten me to where I am today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In December 2018, as a part of our Parking is Hiding in Plain Sight Campaign (a marketing activation where we teamed up with street artist Deladeso to paint murals at locations all over LA, including at the top of Runyon), Pavemint had the chance to do an activation at Zayn Malik’s album release party for his record, Icarus. It was wild and so fun, with a huge brand impact totally in over 38 million impressions. Never in a million years did I think I would be building a parking app, much less that would lead me to work with the UK’s largest pop star.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Every day at a startup is a day filled with exciting new projects. From restructuring teams and building out our quarterly plans, to a full redesign of the customer experience flow and forging exciting new partnerships, there are always numerous plates spinning at once. One thing I am really excited about is that Pavemint is building out a SaaS platform in 2019 which will have a whole new feature set, opening a new vertical for us and servicing an entirely new use case. I can’t give you many details because it is top secret, but I will tell you that it will be amazing and incredibly innovative!
How do you think that will help people?
Building out our SaaS platform will allow for greater access to underutilized parking spaces, reducing the traffic caused by searching for parking and reducing C02 on an even larger scale. At the end of the day, that’s why our company exists and why our team comes to work, so continuing in that direction is always top of mind.
Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
I think, as a company, there is a tendency to readjust things in order to quickly fill empty positions, rather than hiring, promoting or moving a person based on their unique goals and aspirations. And, while it’s vital to identify areas that need additional support and never leave gaping holes in your company, it’s always valuable to look a person’s talents as well as what they’re passionate about, so that they can be given a title that will ultimately lead them to success. As a leader, it’s important to recognize when your staff is thriving, or an individual is sinking. While many times that employee can be moved into a place where they can succeed within your company, it also sometimes means the hard decision to part ways needs to take place for mutual success and happiness to occur.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
I always say happy people are productive people, which makes unhappy people unproductive people. Team satisfaction is pivotal to the company’s success and is 100% connected to profitability, in my opinion. From working in entertainment to working at startups, it’s clear that no matter the industry, happy employees work more efficiently, which will ultimately save money and create larger profit margins.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
- One of the most important parts of creating a positive work culture is a critical feedback loop, from your highest-level executive to your entry-level staff. Providing a platform for your team to speak up about how they’re feeling, voice concerns about company direction and provide critical feedback to leadership is key to both mitigating problems before they have the opportunity to seep into the fabric of your culture and keeping leadership informed on overall team morale. Every week, we give employees at every level the opportunity to give critical feedback to the person immediately above them on our org chart, as well as the executive team, and the company as a whole. This helps to identify and resolve contention in any area.
- Set clear expectations, goals and KPIs. With boundaries comes immense freedom, allowing for creative problem-solving and giving your team the ability to truly take responsibility and own their projects. We do this by coming up with both quarterly and yearly plans that lay out each person’s individual responsibilities and targets.
- Create opportunities for organic innovation and “magic” to happen. One of the ways we’ve done this at Pavemint is to create late-day, optional meetings with treats, puppies and a relaxed environment built for open conversation. Giving the team the opportunity to workshop ideas and problem-solve has resulted in some of our best features and solutions thus far.
- Hire for culture fit. What I mean by this is bring on people that share your company’s vision and values. At the end of the day, your company is only as strong as your team. One rotten apple can ruin the entire pie. When hiring, a culture assessment is one of the most important parts of the interview. Resumes only show one dimension of a person. The way we do this at Pavemint is to allow potential hires to choose the location for their second interview, whether that be their favorite coffee shop, restaurant, or even park. Seeing someone in their own element will help get a better understanding of who they’ll be day-to-day, rather than judging them off of an initial meeting when nerves may be high.
- Create room for growth and personal development. Meeting with team members frequently to get a better understanding about what their personal goals are and what they truly want out of life will allow you to place them in positions where they will thrive, which will ultimately benefit both the company and the culture. The question I consistently ask myself is “Does Pavemint give value to team members in the same way that team members give value to Pavemint?” and “Is there anything I can do as an executive to set that individual up for success beyond Pavemint?”
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
I think both culture and mindset can be changed one person at a time. Everyone has a responsibility to represent and help create both the life that they want to live, as well as the culture they want to build and surround themselves with. We spend so much time at work, and I think most of us are guilty of finding things to complain about. But rather than complaining, we should all be proactive, from executives to entry-level employees alike. If you don’t like your job, and you aren’t enjoying what you are doing or the culture you are a part of, change it rather than complain about it.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
At Pavemint, we have an open-door policy, allowing every team member access to communicate with the founding team. We’ve found this to be the best way to maintain office morale and forward momentum, as well as sort out occasional disagreements between team members. That means that while our power structure leans toward the traditional, our communication methods are very democratic.
We’ve found that the biggest aspect of creating a happy and healthy work environment is to consistently reward hard work and progress. This is why in addition to creating a culture of giving credit where credit is due, we’ve created opportunities for our employees to receive bonuses through company contests, and done numerous team-building outings, such as escape rooms, lunches, and karaoke.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful for many people who have helped me along the way, especially my partners, Randall Jamail and Karen Romine, who have given me a platform to grow and thrive along our Pavemint Journey.
Another person who has drastically influenced my professional development is Darwyn Metzger, the CEO of Phantom Firm. Darwyn was the first person to believe in me as a businesswoman, helping me realize my potential in a way that no one had ever done for me before. When I met him, I was 23, had only an associate degree, was newly divorced and was without a path. I didn’t know whether I should quit working in the entertainment industry and go back to school or attempt to pivot my career while lacking additional advanced education. Darwyn took a chance on me and gave me my first marketing job, opening up my eyes to an entirely different world of possibility.
While working on the TV show, I moonlighted with Phantom as a ghostwriter, creating copy for different marketing campaigns. During that time, Darwyn taught me how to conduct myself in a boardroom, how to think strategically in terms of marketing, and how to accept critical feedback. It wasn’t always easy, but he was an amazing mentor to me.
After about a year working with Phantom, Darwyn started to give me more and more responsibility. I was later promoted to Brand Manager and eventually pouched by Strut, which kicked off my career in tech. His endless support has helped make me who I am today, and I will forever be grateful to him.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Giving back is really important to me, and I believe that always has to start by making a positive impact on the people you interact with the most. For me, that’s my staff at Pavemint. Bringing the maximum amount of value to each of them in order to enrich their lives is paramount.
As mentioned above, I also strive to help close the gender gap in tech by mentoring other women on their way up. My belief is that it isn’t enough to just give someone a helping hand, you also have to help them walk through the door and pull up a seat for them at the table. In addition to taking special care to help up-and-coming boss babes, I am also very active in the community, working on issues such as homelessness through the HEART of Hollywood initiative, started by LA Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s Office. Additionally, as the Vice Chair on the Board of Directors for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, I work to improve all aspects of our community in Hollywood.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Gut Feelings Are Your Guardian Angels”
If something feels off, it probably is. Leading with intuition and ruthless grace is the only way to lead. Every time I have gone against my gut feelings, it has never ended well. A mix of life experience, asking the right questions and following your intuition will lead you to the perfect solution to any problem.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
While it might feel like a subtle one, if I could inspire a movement, it would be centered around love. I believe that all conflict is caused by fear, more specifically either the fear of not knowing or fear of not having. Finding common ground and understanding that we are all just humans that deserve love is the greatest revelation a person can have. It sounds cheesy to say that if we would all just love each other better, we would have world peace. But truly, if we all loved each other better and approached situations with empathy while putting our egos aside, the world would be a better place.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!