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From 3 to 183 Employees, uShip Defines How to Work Like a Captain and Play Like a Pirate

Being part of a thriving startup is difficult to describe if you’re not used to it – it typically defies most work norms and that can be unsettling for some people. However, to those who blossom and believe in this type of corporate environment, the results can be outstanding.

“Everyone works really hard – I’ve never felt like I gotta get out of here,” says Dave Moran, Help Desk Technician at uShip HQ. “If I’m working a 12-hour day, I don’t really realize it. They make it fun so you want to still be here. Everyone is invested in the success of the company. It feels like it’s something you’re doing for yourself.”

After recently splitting into two offices in downtown Austin, a move that made uShip’s growth especially tangible, I sat down with uShippers, as employees are referred to, from veterans to those who have been around for less than six months to find out what defines uShip culture, how we foster it, and how we have maintained it over time as the company continues to grow. From the employees themselves, these are the most important tenets of fostering long-term success in a startup environment. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out the list below.

1. Live Your Values

If there’s one resounding thing I heard across my interviews, it’s the “Work hard play hard” core value at uShip (with a slight variation from Jack Aldridge, Australia Country Manager, see: title of this article). It’s easy to see how this rings true among teams daily, especially when you have the founders as an example. According to Gillian Wilson, Human Resources, “All of the founders were first and foremost friends who enjoyed being around each other. With that comes an incredible amount of respect – you can razz each other and still be cool.”

At uShip, people get stuff done while having a ton of fun. A healthy balance is the everyday norm for uShippers. “A lot of people think culture is separate from professionalism – those are not separate. Culture is still a work environment; it’s the environment we’ve built around our job,” says Jearold Hersey, Quality Assurance. “We have to have values. Without them, what are we about? We have to consistently work towards goals but plan events in the office and community to reward employees.”

2. Communication

Startups take off in semi unorthodox ways – in the case of uShip, with three founders in a temporary office space that they squatted in. What started from everyone sitting in one room together has grown to almost 200 people in two offices globally. Naturally, communication gets tougher as people spread out and you lose that small family feeling. “When you’re 200 people you don’t have visibility into everything, says Connor Kirsch, a Product Manager, “From a top-down standpoint, you don’t feel in charge always. From the bottom up we need better ways to give visibility to stakeholders – we’re actively working on that now.”

In my first week I was privy to a lunch and learn, a regularly occurring lunchtime meeting to give insight into the latest developments in product by the engineering and product teams. “Seeing demos is inspiring, it motivates me to work harder because I see us making progress,” said Hersey, who works closely with uShip developers. Communication and insight into what different teams are working on is essential to sustain the feeling of one cohesive unit. Even if there are hiccups along the way, uShippers are aware of the importance of communicating, and constantly striving to create more opportunities for knowledge dispersion across the company.

3. Hire the right people

When pressured with aggressive growth goals, it can be tempting to hire quickly to fill roles. However, hiring the right people is absolutely essential for long-term success when guarding the culture of an office. “We are still in the mindset where we have to hire the right person – everyone here is very enthusiastic and sold on the company vision,” said Kirsch. “No one is just filling a job title here.” As Kirsch described it, “We are always trying to find the best balance and cohesion of people… we are actively trying to defend culture here.”

For veteran uShippers like Heather Hoover, Director of Customer Operations, “Culture is very important to me. I feel it supports and promotes healthy camaraderie cross-functionally and helps to create better products for our customers.”

This feeling carries across the company from management down. uShippers carry pride in the openness and honesty of their teammates and managers, the open door policy of company leaders, and believe, “management wants you to succeed,” said Aldrige.

4. Create company mandated social events

As companies grow, so do teams, and as such people will naturally gravitate towards their own social groups. It’s easy for people to fall into their own cliques and become somewhat insular in their teams. However, uShip works hard to make sure this doesn’t happen. In fact, a smile crept across every uShippers face when they described a long list of regular social events including First Friday, where uShippers take the first Friday of every month off work to socialize together and do team building activities, community outreach, or simply hang out. “We play well together and this helps us work well together. Our events, our first Fridays, our traditions start the groundwork and foundation for us to work better together,” says Hoover. “Now that we’re in two offices, we have a forced interaction that is a great time given to spark conversation. It’s like ‘stop, don’t think about that, think about this.’ This is a better two office setup than before. People sit and talk about what they are working on.”

5. Accept that things will change and adapt accordingly

Like any story of rags to riches, there is certain nostalgia for the original grind and scrappiness of an organization. “When I saw our new industrial size fridge, I immediately became nostalgic for the old fridge with mold. It’s the little things for me,” said Hoover. However, Hoover, like any successful startup employee, embraces change and charges forward. “[Growth] happens. We’ve made steps. As we’ve grown we’ve had to cut out certain events…We still get to have ugly sweater day so that’s good. I look at it glass half full.”

Part of adapting accordingly lies within hiring the right people and dispersing the responsibility to set the right example. “Departments need to step up and start defining their own internal culture. That will filter up and start defining the overall culture. We need people that are committed to and understand the overall culture, and how culture can help build and foster better product.”

As your startup grows and develops, nostalgia may nag at your heartstrings, but it’s important to remember to stay positive about change and embrace the chaos that is startup life. There is a beauty and pride in growing something from inception to full-fleshed organization and dealing with uncertainty and lack of perfection along the way. “Us growing and changing means we are not stagnant. It requires people to be open and to adapt,” says Hoover. This should push us to make things better constantly. If we did the same thing over and over people would get burned out and lose the enthusiasm. It’s a new challenge daily as we grow and as things change…It’s not the same office from 2005 with seven people and that’s great.”

Adapting to change is tough, there’s no better way to say it. However, if you can follow these five guidelines, you will be closer to guarding a culture that you hold sacred.

  • Never lose sight of your values – be true to your culture and live it every day.
  • Communicate effectively throughout change – even if it’s not good news, be honest and open.
  • Hire the best people to help you grow who truly believe in what you are doing – don’t compromise; it’s the lifeline of your business!
  • Create a time and place for your employees to break down barriers and socialize – create a neutral space outside of the office to foster true relationships.
  • Accept that things will change and adapt – if you continue to iterate on the original values and ideals of your organization then you can hold on to what always made and will continue to make your organization special.

Go forth and be bold! You got this.