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Nurturing a Strong Culture in a Rapidly Growing Team, with CEO AJ Shankar

by Clair Lee

An image of people standing in a meeting room, drinking and eating during a mixer.

The last time we blogged about company culture was October 2015, when Everlaw was just 20 people sharing an office with another startup. As of July 2018, we are 75 employees across three floors in our own building, with almost half of those employees having joined in the last year alone. I chatted with CEO and co-founder AJ Shankar for his take on an evolving company culture in a time of rapid growth.

Clair Lee: A lot has changed for Everlaw in the last few years. From your perspective, how has the company culture evolved in that time, and how has it stayed the same?

AJ Shankar: The culture has definitely grown over time, and that’s a good thing. You can’t dictate culture and you define it too narrowly at your own peril. I think of our company as a city, with each team occupying a different neighborhood in it. We make the bedrock of this city explicit: company values, communication style, and management philosophy. That ensures that everyone always has a consistent basis to work together. Above that, teams develop what I call “microclimates”, growing from that common bedrock but developing their own spin on it. For instance, our engineering team’s culture functions differently from our sales team. We want to give each team the freedom to grow while still being rooted in the same bedrock philosophy across the board.

The essential quirkiness and nerdiness is still around; it just manifests in different, richer ways. We’ve always hired highly curious people eager to learn from each other and we’re constantly adding communities and interest groups within the company that didn’t exist before: intramural softball, knitting, boba runs, World Cup speculation, rock climbing, yoga, crossword puzzles, and more.

CL: You still participate in every onsite final interview. What are you looking for in every new hire?

AJ: We’re a rapidly growing company, and that requires doers who will roll up their sleeves and execute. At the same time, you should be able to take a step back from the “doing” to make process improvements wherever possible.

An underrated but essential quality for us is humility. There is a misconception that humility is the opposite of confidence, but you can and should have both. You should be confident in your ability to execute but have the humility to know what you don’t know and ask for help.

CL: We have a lot going on and people understandably get absorbed in the day-to-day. How can we keep culture and values alive and relevant amidst all the other things we’re working on?

AJ: We can talk about culture all day but we’ve also built in fun mechanisms that enable people to actively engage with our values and live them out on a daily basis. Our Values Tokens are regularly passed around in recognition of a job well done (or even a mistake well learned from) and people are always looking for reasons to shine the spotlight on their colleagues.

One of our engineers has an awesome side project, Fist Bump, which is an internal platform for employees to send each other kudos and props for just about everything: merging a feature, closing a deal, providing clients with excellent support, or lending a helping hand. This culture of gratitude builds upon itself and reminds you every day that your successes don’t happen in a vacuum—your teammates’ support is crucial.

CL: Rapid growth in a competitive landscape requires hard work across the team to execute. How does Everlaw take care of its employees and avoid burnout?

AJ: It’s important to keep a long-term view of where the company is going and create work product sustainably. We don’t make people work insane hours or ship dumpster fires to meet a company-imposed deadline; that creates more work down the line and people get burned out cleaning up after themselves.

Even so, we all need to take breaks. In our 7.5 years as a company, our managers have never denied a vacation request. You earn your vacation time and you should take it when you need to, even if it comes at an inconvenient time for the company. On the flip side, that same consideration should be given to your coworkers when they need a break, too. So people are used to covering for each other.

We regularly use Culture Amp surveys to measure employee engagement and get out ahead of future issues. People expend great effort to submit thoughtful feedback, all of which is appreciated; we respond in kind by explicitly naming areas of strength and next steps for improvement. Then we try really hard to actually deliver on what we promised to do as a company to maintain faith in our commitment to progress.

CL: You’ve been very deliberate in thinking about and building up Everlaw’s culture since the early days. When did you start thinking about company culture, and why have you always prioritized this?

AJ: Culture has been a primary, constant focus since the beginning because if we’re going to win, it’s going to be as a team. Retention and employee happiness are incredibly important to us. It’s important to me that people enjoy working here and that their time at Everlaw is a career-making opportunity, and I’m really proud of our employee retention rate. But it’s definitely something you never want to take for granted; as we’ve grown, we’ve actually invested far more resources in this direction, and we expect that trend to continue. There is really no more important thing I could be doing.

CL: What aspect of our culture are you most proud of?

AJ: People don’t take themselves too seriously, which I love. When things go wrong, they are eager to take responsibility rather than resort to finger-pointing. No one is above constructive criticism by virtue of title or tenure. And of course, if you’re going to spend 40-plus hours a week at the office, it might as well be with people who have a great sense of humor and camaraderie. It makes coming in to work fun every day.

Thanks AJ for your insights into what makes Everlaw one of Inc. Magazine’s Best Workplaces of 2018! We are hiring for many roles across the company, so I’m looking forward to meeting our future teammates and seeing their contributions to our culture.

See open roles at Everlaw