A couple weeks ago, we held our first-ever-in-person-Zao-meetup.
Prior to the meetup, I asked our entire team a simple question: What do you want to get out of this meetup? I had my own thoughts and answers about that question, and everyone else had their own as well. Ultimately, it all boiled down to one simple idea: Relationship. We have all had mostly digital interactions with one another, with the odd in-person meeting here and there. But we’ve never had the opportunity to really connect in tight quarters and really get to know one another. Earlier this year, we determined it was time to change that. But why?
Why We Do What We Do
We live in an incredible day and age – people that do the work we do are among the most privileged at any point in history, and indeed, anywhere in the world today. We have the incredible gift of being able to work remotely and rarely, if ever, have to look too hard for work. The idea of “working remotely” is catching on, and is now more popular than ever. With all the good this brings – it can also have it’s challenges. Chief among them – we’ve lost something in our Slack channels and Github issues and emails that can’t be gained in front of a computer screen.
I mean it – if there’s one thing we’re lacking in our work relationships, it’s a real bond, a real closeness. Anyone I’ve ever known that has worked for a remote company and had the opportunity to spend time in person with their team agrees – there’s nothing like physical proximity to bring a positive shift in the dynamic of your team. Many teams get by for a long time without ever meeting in person – and kudos to them for that. But for our team – our core values nearly demand a high level of relationship and emotional intelligence towards one another.
Among our core values as a team, three rise to the top consistently. These aren’t on a poster anywhere, there is no team tattoo (yet). These are reflected not in some statement that is written, but in behavior that we model and live out, every day.
There is much discussion in our space about what our “model” for teams should be. Some believe even the word “team” is too intimate. Your group should be ephemeral, interchangeable, and above all, dispensable! Others do in fact settle on “team” or “partners” to fully reflect the group of people they represent. I don’t believe there’s a right answer for everyone, but I know the right answer for the company we’re building. We’re not just a team, we’re not just partners, and we’re certainly not dispensable. We hire very slowly because 99.9% of people who might apply to work with us simply won’t be the right fit.
That’s because we’re not building teams, we’re building family. We don’t hire people to be a rung in their career ladder. We don’t care as much about what your salary looks like as what success looks like for you. We invest, deeply, in our people – and in return, they invest deeply in us. We know their names, their spouse’s names, their kid’s names (and forbidden nicknames). We care about them getting out of debt, getting ahead in life, and becoming enormously successful. We grieve when they grieve and we rejoice when they rejoice. We imagine them with us forever – not for 3-5 years (or whatever the “average” tenure is these days).
Hiring really is a huge expression of this core value. I’ve heard more than one executive say, “We hire slowly, fire quickly!” – or something to that effect. Our approach is different: We hire glacially and fire painfully. It hurts to lose a family member, so we do our best to avoid that. Part of that is making sure no one makes it on the team that doesn’t feel like family. Talent, reliability, eagerness to learn – these are all important. But if you’re on our team and are struggling, we don’t fire you, we train you. We mentor you. We invest in you. Because that’s what family does.
I can already hear the rebuttals to our previous core value, so let’s try this one on for size – we have no exit strategy. We have zero plan B for Zao – we’re planning to be around for a very, very, very long time. When I hear people fawn with excitement over the latest M&A story, or VC funding round, I’ll be honest – I gag a little.
However en vogue it may be to chase high-dollar exits and acquisitions, the long-term story is always the same – a path paved with disappointment. We think a lot about executing well today, about meeting next quarter’s goals, and about our one and five year plans. But you know the depth of time that really occupies my mind? 200 years. Businesses that impress me today are not generally ones started in the 21st century, or even the 20th. What fascinates me to no end – and what drives me – is figuring out how we can have a lasting impact.
How can we, as a company, have an impact that spans generations, that spans lifetimes? I’m far less interested in how much cash is in my bank account when I turn 50 than I am with the amount of lives that have been positively impacted because of the work we’ve done. Can we change the family tree for our clients, for our employees, for our contractors – so that 10 generations down the line – we can point to the work we do today as a turning point? I believe we can. When our vision is expanded beyond the immediate and beyond what is normative, we begin to behave differently, value things differently, and see the world differently.
Our values of family and legacy find their natural expression in generosity. Anytime I’ve seen families break down, or the intended legacy of someone break down (think probate court) – it’s because of a breakdown in generosity. Not only in resources and finances – generosity of spirit, of time, of heart. Focusing on generosity will always win over focus on profits and the bottom line. The paradox, naturally, is that by focusing on what we can give away – it always comes back to us in spades.
If you’re a business owner and these sounds really “out there” or ethereal – I’d love to chat with you about them. They are among the values that define us as a business, that drive all of our decisions, and that contribute to our profitability. (Yes, treating your employees like family, caring about the long-term, and giving more than you get – all winning values!)
Back to the Meetup
So – what do these core values have to do with our meetup?
We can trace these values all the way back to our early planning for the meetup this spring. Who comes to the meetup? Spouses and Kids. Why? Have you ever attended a long conference, or had extended travel away from your family? It’s hard. On both ends. For so many reasons. It would beyond hypocritical for us to tout Family as a core value and completely remove the familial element from our team. As everyone on the team will attest, having all of us together with our spouses and kids provided so much more context to who we are as people than would have otherwise been the case.
It’s fine and good to say, “Hey, if you want, you can bring your family.” – but many of us have experienced that offer in the past, only to read the fine print. By all means, bring them along – but you’ll need to sort out their airfare, their lodging, food, etc. Thanks, but no thanks.
When our team brings their family members along, we pay for everything, for everyone. No questions asked. Why? Because we believe so deeply in Generosity as a core value, that if we don’t deal generously with our team members, we can’t ever expect them to do the same to others.
Finally, I believe one of our greatest dividends we’ll see in the future from this meetup is something we can file under Legacy. Whether that is someone reaffirming their love for our company and our industry, someone being exposed to our myriad children (9!) and deciding that they, too, want to have kids – or simply the strengthening of foundations between managing partners – the seeds sown during our time together will bear fruit over a lifetime.
If you’ve stuck with me thus far and consider yourself someone who leans much more practical, rather than visionary, here’s a paragraph for you. You’re probably asking yourself at this point, “BUT WHAT DID YOU GUYS DO? HOW MUCH DID IT COST? WHAT LOGISTICAL ISSUES WERE THERE????”
Calm down. Get a cup of coffee. Let’s talk:
With international team members, visas were a hurdle that took some time. It was our first effort like this with international attendees, so I didn’t know what to budget for that – in terms of time, or money. We gave ourselves about 6 months and around $1,000 to take care of that. With two people needing visas, it made sense to fly them to their embassy for the interviews and pay for the visas. $1,000 was plenty for that. YMMV.
Another part that was important to us was making sure everyone got to spend the full meetup together. We started on a Thursday – so that meant we needed everyone flying in no later than Wednesday. We had international folks fly in Tuesday, in hopes to fight off jet lag through Tuesday-Thursday. This worked out remarkably well. If you do a meetup, I highly recommend this – but be sure to account in your budgeting for putting people in hotels or Airbnbs for these “extra days”.
Finally – finding a single house big enough to house our whole team. This was a little tricky, what with all the kids. Thankfully, our family was the biggest family (2 adults, 4 kids) and we had gotten pretty good at traveling and working out sleeping in one room. So a 5-bedroom home ended up being a great fit for us.
Around $14,000, all told. That includes everything – visas, airfare, food, activities, additional lodging, etc. Worth every penny.
What Did You Do?
Seriously though – we had a definite skew towards kids-related activity – but it was all really fun. We hiked Multnomah Falls (?). We went to the Portland Children’s Museum (amazing). We went out to Andina (omg). We also just stayed in and played a lot of pool, had a lot of wonderful conversation, and got to know each other.
Over the next few days, you’ll hear from the rest of our team about their take-aways from the meetup. I hope you enjoy their perspectives as much as I have – we really do have the best family in the world. Think you’d be a good fit? We’d love to hear from you.