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Moz CEO Rand Fishkin talks about company culture at the 2013 GeekWire Startup Day.

Moz — back then called SEOmoz — was growing rapidly two-and-a-half years ago and the company needed four-to-five new employees to keep the momentum going.

Moz’s referral program didn’t work so well.

So, in an effort to attract the best engineers out there, they did what many other companies do: Launch a generous referral program.

The deal: Find an engineer that eventually becomes a Moz employee, receive a $12,000 check in exchange. Additionally, your referral would receive a $12,000 signing bonus.

While the idea brought in talented new Moz engineers, it backfired on the company. Moz CEO Rand Fishkin, speaking at today’s big Startup Day, was sure the plan would work — but he was wrong.

“It attracted the wrong types of people,” he said. “It attracted a lot of people interested in the dollars and bonus, but who were not particularly interested in the mission, vision and culture at Moz.”

Rand Fishkin.
Rand Fishkin.

Even worse, Fishkin said, is that it created a detrimental perception internally within the company. Since the new software engineers received signing bonuses and extra perks, there were suddenly “classes” of employees at Moz.

Some employees thought that since they were not hand-picked in a way the referred engineers were, they weren’t worth as much to the company.

“You can imagine the type of cultural problems this created, especially over time,” Fishkin said. “It was not a lot of fun.”

StartupDay_2013_200x225 copyMoz shut down the program after learnings from its mistakes. Fishkin also gave out some other advice for company culture, including:

  • “Don’t let your role define your influence. Let your influence define your role.”
  • “Build a recruiting brand beyond your product brand.”
  • “You can coach the head. You can’t coach the heart.”
  • “There’s no such thing as 10X engineers (or 10X anything)”
  • “Build a vision-based framework that’s clear to everyone at the company”

We’ll have more from Startup Day on GeekWire today. We’re hearing great advice and insight from industry leaders — here’s an agenda of today’s events. If you’re on Twitter, check the hashtag #gwstartupday to see what people are saying from today’s event.

Previously on GeekWire: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at GeekWire Startup Day: We lead the world in ‘innovation per dollar’

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