The Secret Behind Cogo’s Creative Culture

cogo_labs_cover_photo_2015As you already know, we’re all about great workplace culture here at Aspire. We’re extremely lucky to work with companies that are the best of the best at creating those cultures, and Cogo Labs has one of the coolest cultures we’ve ever seen! The Boston-based venture accelerator is home to a unique platform of proprietary technologies for algorithmic marketing, data mining, and quantitative business analytics. Combine that with great entrepreneurial minds and you have Cogo’s recipe for growing startups into profitable companies.

Kelly McDonald, HR Manager at Cogo, sat down with us to discuss how Cogo’s culture became what it is today and how you can start building a collaborative culture of your own no matter how big or small your company is. It would also pay dividends to learn other crucial details such as the mistakes that you might make with the payroll.

Cogo Labs summer boat cruise. Ahoy matey!

What do you love most about the culture at Cogo?

How creative and supportive it is. We have the freedom to run with ideas and try new things — sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. And that’s ok! We’re encouraged to experiment with everything we do, and that’s something we take full advantage of when trying out different culture-building events and activities. There’s not a lot of bureaucracy when planning team events, so the company trusts us to make things interesting and have fun with it. It’s up to us to create opportunities for the team to come together and find things that will engage people with different interests. People don’t want to show up to events that they won’t enjoy. At Cogo, we try to make it so people show up because they want to, and not because they feel forced to.

What do you think makes the Cogo culture unique?

Everyone here genuinely likes each other — I know a lot of companies say that, but we have some employees that actually live together, so you know it’s true here. People are always hanging out with each other and playing games at lunch (Exploding Kittens is always a favorite!).

How do you make sure this environment is something your current employees see and feel every day, and how do you convey that to potential hires?

Personally, I make sure to greet everyone by name and make sure my office door is always open. There’s this sort of natural friendliness and ease in the air that makes it easy to talk to each other and so everyone is comfortable. We give potential hires an office tour so they see all the physical perks, but they also see great spaces where people are collaborating or just catching up.

Sustaining a culture of collaboration and experimentation is very different from creating one. What would you say to smaller companies that are just starting out about what they should be doing to create that kind of culture?

For us, it’s all about the people. Our culture is a reflection of how awesome our people are. So everything starts the second the interview begins. When we’re interviewing candidates, we’re looking for both cultural fit and technical fit and weight both equally in our evaluation process. We always want candidates who are fun and interesting, someone we want to spend a lot of time with. It doesn’t stop with the interview. The onboarding process is crucial for integrating new people into the Cogo culture. When a new hire starts, we send out a personalized new hire email to the entire team with his or her picture and fun facts for conversation starters. The whole idea is to make sure the new hire feels welcome from day 1. And finally, once you’ve brought on all of these amazing people, you need to constantly be reinforcing your values and culture, which is why we have team outings every quarter — our last one was at an oyster farm and it was amazing. Think of it as cheesy team bonding, but without the trust fall.

Cogo Iron Chef: The Pomegranate Battle

Speaking of team outings, what kind of office perks and benefits do you offer at Cogo? How do you make sure you’re staying creative and fresh year-round?

We have a fully stocked kitchen, a delicious catered lunch every Friday (today is sushi!), and a million ways to caffeinate yourself. We’ve got a curated tea bar, cold brew coffee on tap, an espresso machine, and a high-tech coffee machine. Our company LOVES food, like a lot a lot, so many of our perks revolve around eating. We always have a company dinner after our monthly company meeting — that was last night and we had an entire roasted pig. It was epic.

Outside of food, though, we reimburse a portion of our employees’ gym memberships, we cover one method of transportation to the office, and every employee has the option to get a standing desk if they want. We also hold a company-wide Assassins game every year, and a Wellness Week complete with chair massages, smoothies, and this year we’re trying out an antioxidants bar. Sometimes we’ll also do a nice holiday party, or a summer boat cruise if we’re really feeling fancy.

Since there’s so much freedom in deciding what we want to do for both the company and individual teams, it always stays fresh and creative. It’s something we all enjoy doing, so it comes naturally to us. Shari, our amazing Office Manager, is always coming up with ideas on how to surprise and delight everyone. She’s awesome. She always comes up with these little “flashes of delight”, surprising us with things like ice cream socials or cookie bars.

How do these office perks and team activities contribute to your company culture? Is there any way to measure whether or not they are “working”?

Our whole philosophy is to make people’s lives at Cogo happier and easier. We do the typical things like having a fully stocked kitchen, an endless supply of coffee, and lunch brought in once a week. If someone doesn’t have to worry about stopping for coffee on their way to work or going out to grab a snack when their stomach starts to grumble and they’re in the middle of a big project, that definitely makes their life easier. They won’t have to worry about what they’re doing for lunch, so that helps them stay focused and productive. Everyone here works really hard so it’s a good way to get everyone to take a break, chat with people on other teams, and most importantly, make them smile.

We don’t really have any metrics to “measure” if these are working or not, we just try things out and see how things go. You can’t put a number on culture. It’s something you should be able to see and feel day in and day out. The great thing about Cogo is that people are so comfortable around each other that they’ll tell us what they think about the events we plan, whether it’s good or bad.

Open Mic Night at Cogo

What are some ways that smaller companies that can’t afford to spend a lot on perks can create a culture like Cogo’s?

There’s actually a lot of things that don’t require company money or resources — it’s actually a great place to start because it’s a low-risk experiment. There has to be 5 people in the office that like running, so start running together on Tuesdays, or even train together for a marathon. At Cogo, we have a knitting group that gets together all the time, and even though there’s no cost for this, it’s still fun and engaging for everyone.

You’ve talked about how experimentation is a defining characteristic of Cogo culture. What do you do when something doesn’t go as well as you had hoped?

It’s good to start with smaller, more frequent events, since that way there isn’t as much pressure to plan a big event that has to go perfectly. Get to know your employees and plan things around what they are interested in, so if half of the office is vegetarian, it’s probably not a good idea to hold a BBQ. We’ve done suggest-a-thons and surveys before to see what our team likes. In addition to mixing up the types of activities, you should also experiment with having team events and activities at different times of the day, so if people can’t make dinners because they have to go home to their families, try a lunch and learn instead. One thing we’ve learned is that you can’t write events off just because of poor attendance — make sure to ask for feedback whether employees come to you or you have to seek them out.

How has your team used Aspire to achieve your culture goals?

Using Aspire has allowed us to really focus on delivering a great experience without getting bogged down by the logistics of it all. We have complete control over the event without all the stress and time spent trying to pull it off. Plus, usually the people on our team that plan these events have to be on top of so many details that they don’t even get to enjoy what they plan, so using Aspire has really allowed our team to relax and enjoy these perks and events just as much as the rest of our company!