Happiness Matters: How A Software Company Prioritizes Culture

(3BL Media and Justmeans)- An open vacation policy. Frisbee on the beach. Bowling outings. Volunteer days. Time to develop personal goals. And, oh yeah.  $500 a year to spend on professional development. No, this is not a piece about working for Google or Pixar. It’s a piece about intentional culture at Exygy, a 10-person, software design and build company based in San Francisco. One of Exygy’s software engineers, Justin Carboneau, deemed himself the ‘Chief Happiness Engineer.’ Of course, he is also a computer and technology wiz, as are the rest of his colleagues at Exygy. They have designed and built unique websites for clients like Google.org, the Skoll Foundation and Zendesk. But they are more than talented website designers. Justin and the team at Exygy are committed to shared value, personal growth and happiness.

I contacted Exygy because I wanted to learn how a small, software design company operates as a Benefit Corporation. Exygy became a certified Benefit Corporation (B Corp) in 2012, but they have been operating like a B Corp long before they became one, since they opened their doors in 2007. Their commitment to employee happiness ranks them in the top 10% for Workers in the 2012 B Lab report. And, this is because they know that happiness matters.

CEO, Zach Berke, explained to me that he sees a real business case for employee happiness.

“I want to keep employees happy because it leads to high employee retention. I try to hire the best engineers, the best thinkers. Many people are trying to hire the same people: Google, Twitter, and Square. It’s hard to find and keep talent in the Bay area. I see that making sure our business, the employee, one of the key stakeholders, is happy. We retain and attract amazing talent and it saves us money because we aren’t paying headhunters. We are really proud to have one of the top 10% scores for Workers among B Corps. We are creative, a place where people enjoy working. We produce high quality work and work on a lot of different projects with people who have good will.”

Carboneau, the Chief Happiness Engineer, introduced the idea of building intentional culture to Berke because he wanted to get to know his colleagues and develop personal goals.

“It started out as me being interested in personal growth and thinking about ways I could promote more fun stuff at work. To be honest, it started as me not being so happy with the 9 to 5 lifestyle. So, I took a class on Skill Share called 'The Building Block of Delivering Happiness at Work.' This course was about developing core values. I brought this back to the office and together our team spent a  few months getting together to discuss our personal and team values together,” Carboneau explained.

In a blog entry Carboneua wrote called ‘How I Live Like an Entrepreneur and Get Paid Like An Employee,’ Carboneau synthesizes his learning:

  • Happy workers are actually more productive and lead to higher profits.
  • The best way to make sure your team is happy is to determine everyone’s Core Values.
  • You need to work toward integrating your own Core Values into your job if you want to be happy at work.

Justin realized ‘he could share these principles with his teammates at Exygy to encourage higher levels of happiness which in turn could help the business grow.’

What developed from the value discussions was not only an open vacation policy and company outings, but also a deeper commitment to the happiness of their clients. Just recently, Carboneau has helped launch a happiness evaluation tool which enables Exygy to determine the happiness of their clients.

“We wanted to gauge our happiness very quickly. It’s a simple system, a rating of 1 to 10 with optional notes field. We send a survey once a month to our current clients. We’ve sent this to about half of our current clients and we’d like to get to where everyone responds. One client we knew was unhappy and didn’t respond. Our team hates to see any of our clients upset.  We hope to gain more feedback, timely feedback so we can make changes as we are going instead of after our work is finished,” explained Carboneau.

Exygy takes this feedback and redevelop process and services. Their work is fluid and dynamic, always improving to better serve their customer.

“You caught me on my bike ride to work. I’m a big, bearded guy riding to my office. Sounds like something that guy would say, ‘measuring the happiness of clients. But, I want happy clients because that’s how I keep them,” Berke told me. “It’s a business case.”

This ties into another thing that ties into both employee and client happiness: the lack of clearly defined roles like manager and boss.

“We don’t have clearly defined roles. We work more collaboratively. Roles are constantly changing. Part of this is that we are a small team and in an industry that grows and changes so quickly so we are constantly changing things up.  But we always get together to talk about our processes, different projects and technologies. We continually ask ourselves, ‘are we doing things the best way?’ Carboneau explained.

It was easy for Berke and Carboneau to downplay the significance of building and maintaining intentional happiness for employees and clients. Through our energetic conversations, it was clear to me that happiness is a core value for them and that there is no other way to operate except to operate happily. It seems like a no brainer, that happiness should be a core value for all companies, particularly for their most valuable stakeholders: their employees and their customers. We all know it matters. But, it must be intentional.

Thanks Zach and Justin for sharing your story with me. I aspire to incorporate Exygy’s happiness principles into my own work.

Follow Justin Carboneau’s Happiness at Work blog here. Check out Exygy’s portfolio and services here.