When you hear someone complaining about their job, it's common you'll find a lot of what they say is connected deeply to an airy concept of it "feeling bad" there. That's culture -- the feeling you get in the workplace, as Amazon has found out this week, is what can kill or resurrect someone's career. Starting your workplace with a positive culture, instilled from the top down and celebrated internally, one that commands the respect of management without them having to pull rank, is insanely difficult. But it's doable. I've found the best way to do it is to, with some sniffing internally, learn from those that have done it right.

1. Toptal

Toptal's professional culture is well celebrated, with a recent feature on CNBC and a reported $80M revenue run rate for 2015 after just five years. "Toptalers" work from wherever they want, whenever they want, with no micromanagement and very little oversight. I'm a fan of Toptal as a company, and while this requires it to specifically hire the type of people who can self-start (i.e., you don't have to micromanage them because you're certain they'll get the job done), it means they can provide unlimited paid vacation days for everyone. Strangely enough, few people ever take days off.

The company actively encourages travel (as long as there's Internet connection), and with no actual physical offices, Toptal employees are usually found working everywhere from beaches to at home with the dog on a sofa. The company sponsors hundreds of meetups, tech talks, and conferences around the world every year, and one Toptal co-founder has been featured on Tim Ferriss's blog for how he's traveled continuously since founding the company.

2. GitHub

When you reach 108 employees with none of them quitting, you know you're doing something right. Though it’s been on a rocky road in the past, GitHub has grown even further following the theme of remote-friendly companies that avoid nagging employees to get things done. As a company, GitHub is 60 percent remote and somehow has no managers. Instead of managers, each project has a "Primarily Responsible Person," and everyone at the company has authority to chime in on decisions and influence ongoing implementations. It's what I'd call a far better version than Zappos’ Holacracy model of zero management.

At GitHub, everyone can work on whatever they want, and they typically deploy code to production multiple times a day, enough to keep even the most energetic developers engaged. The free rein is so extreme that Ryan Tomayko, GitHub's director of engineering, declares that he "vehemently refuses to tell people what to do."

Although HubSpot has grown to a substantial size now and is long past its startup days (being publicly traded and all), it still maintains many early-stage traditions. It has no closed-off offices for anyone; the company encourages unlimited vacations and enforces a two-week minimum of time off a year.

It's also taken a unique, highly effective approach to the question of employee personal and professional growth. Anyone at the company can take anyone else at the company out for a meal at any time, which while seemingly chaotic breeds a far stronger culture of communication. In fact, its mantra is "culture is to recruiting as product is to marketing."

4. Buffer

Many constantly bang the "we're so transparent" drum, but the list of companies that actually practice what they preach is far shorter. Buffer is so transparent that it'd be more accurately called Window. In a daring and well-documented move, Buffer released the exact salaries and equity breakdown of everyone on its team, including its salary/equity calculation formula. As Buffer puts it, "transparency breeds trust." While nearly all companies keep salaries as very privileged information for fear of it causing dissent, Buffer has succeeded in building a tight-knit, effective team by forcibly showing that it has nothing to hide.

CrowdFire hires well and invests heavily in the success of its new team members, a formula that has paid off enormously for this Mumbai-based startup. In addition to the basics of an open office environment, game nights, and team meals that are becoming quite commonplace among tech startups, CrowdFire has taken things a step further.

For example, every new hire receives an in-depth welcome ceremony, with a tradition of calling everyone by a nickname (which may wear thin on me, but this is apparently well-liked). CrowdFire not only makes sure that everyone is set up for success, it backs this up by minimizing oversight (no bosses -- which, again, may or may not work for your company) and giving everyone true ownership of his or her work. According to co-founder Siddharth Menon, "Startups convert potential energy to kinetic energy."

Published on: Aug 18, 2015
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