In May, we got an email from Nate Lentz of Osage Venture Partners. Subject line: “Quietly doing some great things.”
It was an email about Sidecar, the ecommerce company that yes, his firm is an investor in, but he was right: Sidecar has largely flown under the radar, despite quadrupling in size in the last year to nearly 100 employees. It recently moved into a new office at One South Broad to get all its staffers in one place.
That’s because the six-year-old company, backed by a roster of investors in the region including elusive GSI Commerce founder Michael Rubin, seems to shy away from marketing itself. CEO Andre Golsorkhi says he never applies to be on those ubiquitous “Best Places to Work” lists.
“They’re not always a true reflection of any organization,” he said.
Still, he did agree to do this interview with us. We sat down with Golsorkhi to talk about the company’s insistence on improvement over perfection, why job titles don’t matter and how he handled staffing up so fast.
Can you share a bit about what company culture means to you and Sidecar as a whole?
We didn’t expressly define our culture early on. It was developed and understood over time and includes values like:
- Transparency. We share the vision, quarterly performance and financials of the business with the entire team. We work to make everyone understand their individual purpose, their teammates’ projects and each department’s opportunities and challenges. Our lunch-and-learn sessions give people access to information across departments. And, beyond regular one-on-ones, I try to hold office hours each quarter. In all cases, no topics or questions are off the table.
- Seek continuous improvement, rather than pursuing perfection. We encourage one another to pick something up and improve it. Not solve it. Not perfect it. Simply leave it in a better state than you found it. Then someone else can pick it up, and make it even better. No one feels burdened to deliver perfection, because they’re supported by others who are contributing to ongoing improvement, too.
- Own it. Autonomy and ownership round out our culture. We want everyone to feel empowered. We build teams that self-govern. While team leads lay out key objectives, each member is responsible for figuring out the preferred (and often right) way to reach the solution. Everyone should have input in that conversation. Ravindar Gujral, our CTO, often says that an intern should have just as much input in engineering discussions as a more senior member. Regardless of whether the team adopts his or her idea, the more tenured people encourage each person to be present and contribute.
Can you talk about how your company is structured and managed, and how decisions are made?
Decision making is rarely handed down. There are individuals with leadership titles, but no one individual makes the final decision. Whether hiring a new team member or developing a content strategy for the upcoming quarter, we involve multiple people across disciplines in the process.
That might not work for every organization, but here it gives a sense of ownership to the entire company, which is equally important when a decision is the right one and when the decision isn’t really the best. In the case of the latter, everyone feels like they were part of that decision, so everyone feels like they’re part of correcting things.
That’s particularly important when we hit rough patches. We got way out in front of the market with our focus on product advertising, and in the first half of 2015, sales fell very short of our expectations. Still, the team understood our bet was a good one, and they all rallied behind one another and the company to manage a difficult time.
What are some of your biggest cultural challenges during rapid growth?
We grew from about 25 to nearly 100 people over the course of seven to eight months, which required us to split between two offices, a block and a half apart. So we prioritized visits among the offices, had more frequent communications on Slack and held bi-weekly company events.
How does Sidecar present itself to the hiring market? What do you think attracted all these people?
Honestly, we don’t spend a tremendous amount of time talking about ourselves outside this organization. Maybe we should more? We don’t participate in “Best Places to Work” submissions, as we know they’re not always a true reflection of any organization.
We’re most interested in working hard, building a brilliant and talented team, delivering outstanding products and showing the market that we’re great at what we do. Everything else should follow — and so far, for us, it has.
How do you help people understand where they can grow in their career when you have such rapid growth happening?
There’s deep talent in Philadelphia that is not necessarily tenured and hasn’t had the opportunity to work for a well-known company but is highly intelligent and passionate and has tremendous growth potential. When we see potential, we give people a lot of latitude. Combine that with our flat structure, and there’s always the opportunity to speak up and shine, which earns the person greater responsibility.
In almost every department in this company, you will see a leader who joined in a more junior role was empowered, and quickly rose to the top — not necessarily by title, but by responsibility, ownership and respect in the organization. In fact, we often say titles don’t matter here. (Editor’s note: Here’s an opposing take on that idea from SEER Interactive’s Wil Reynolds.) Individuals here may not be given the opportunity in another organization to demonstrate that they can become a leader as quickly.
What advice would you give to a company looking to put intention into their culture?
A company becomes a function of all the people’s personalities and characters, combined. Hire the people you think have the character of the culture you want to build and encourage them to be themselves. You can’t command a culture that is at odds with the character of the people you hired.