When Lloyd Frink and Rich Barton started Zillow back in 2005, they wanted to provide consumers with a better way to access real estate data online. But beyond the business side, after spending several years at various tech companies, they also wanted to build an organization that didn’t burn people out.
Consider both accomplished.
The company, now called Zillow Group, is a giant in the online real estate market. It employs nearly 3,000 people and last month posted quarterly revenue of $208.4 million, a 31 percent increase over the same period last year.
Much of Zillow’s growth and success can be credited to the culture the company has created in Seattle and its other offices. Dan Spaulding, who became Zillow’s first vice president of people and culture in May, spoke at the TINYcon conference in downtown Seattle on Tuesday and shed light on the inner workings of the company’s core values.
“What has made my transition easier is that I actually don’t have to ask a lot of people at this point what our North Star is and how we make decisions,” said Spaulding, who previously worked at Starbucks. “It is related to our core values. But it also comes back to treating people like adults, giving them choice, and living with the outcomes of treating people like adults.”
Here are the six core values, with a bit of color from Spaulding on the meaning behind each.
Act with integrity
Zillow’s mission statement is to “build the largest, most-trusted, and vibrant home-related marketplace in the world.” Spaulding noted that trust is paramount for a company like Zillow. He brought up how many real estate agents think Zillow is in business to cut brokers out of their industry.
“Trust has to be at the center of everything we do,” he explained. “If it’s not, it won’t show up to our customers; to our consumers who are going on the website to look at the values of homes; to the real estate agents that we want to build deep relationships with;” Spaulding explained. “So we try to establish a level of trust within our mission that is very clear for our employees.”
Spaulding said that Zillow, in some ways, tries to emulate the culture at fellow Seattle tech giant Amazon. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, has always stuck to a mentality that revolves around “willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”
Spaulding noted that Zillow doesn’t put so much emphasis on short-term results, which requires trust in the company’s values and mission.
“We try to emulate a lot of what Amazon does,” he explained. “We don’t think about our business quarter to quarter. Yes, we have shareholders; yes, we’re a public company; yes, we have targets that we want to hit. But we want to take actions that build trust with our employees and with the external market. If that’s at the sacrifice of a short-term decision to better position the company for the long term, we’ll actually do that.”
However, Zillow’s culture does not completely align with what Amazon has built, as Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff explained last year at the GeekWire Summit. He has worked to create a softer, more collaborative and embracing workplace culture — something that puts his company at odds with others around the tech industry.
Rascoff noted that he understands the appeal of working in an intense, Amazon-like environment from his days as an investment banker, but that’s just not what he wants for his employees right now.
“I left investment banking after a few years because it was an awful lifestyle, but I also wouldn’t trade that experience for anything,” he said this past October. “So I think if you go in with eyes wide open and that’s what you want at that point in your life, great. Zillow is very different.”
Move fast, think big
Spaulding said this core value was “self-explanatory,” but used it to talk about how Zillow deals with compensation philosophies.
The company has gone on an acquisition spree over the past few years, namely swooping up Trulia last year for $1.2 billion.
Trulia based much of its compensation on restricted stock units, or RSUs. Zillow, meanwhile, almost entirely uses stock options.
“Our employees were used to two different compensation models,” Spaulding said. “How do we reconcile that? We don’t. We give them the choice of being compensated the way they want to be.”
From a cultural perspective, taking RSUs or stock options can be quite different. Spaulding said Zillow’s leaders prefer that employees go with stock options since they are so passionate about generating wealth. But they also want to let their employees have the freedom to decide on their own.
“They understand that their view of compensation may not be the same as my employees,” he said. “We want to enable more decisions in the hands of our employees.”
As it relates to merging with your biggest rival, both Trulia and Zillow had respective cultures which were quite similar, as Rascoff has noted in the past. But of course, there were differences, too.
“Culturally, we are just making sure we are amplifying what’s best about the new combined culture, as opposed to focusing on legacy culture,” Spaulding said. “That is the art we are trying to perfect now.”
Spaulding said this value includes creating expectations around discretionary time off, which is all about how companies structure open-ended and unlimited vacation time for employees.
Zillow has some basic rules and guidelines around how employees can take time off. But for the most part, vacation time is really up to the employees themselves.
“We know our employees, whether it’s someone that wants to take a lot of long weekends during the summer, or someone who wants to travel to Europe for two weeks, giving them the choice to do that is what will amplify our culture the most,” Spaulding said.
As a result, Spaulding said employees consistently give feedback that they like being treated as adults. He noted that he sometimes gets nervous when an employee takes more vacation than he’d feel comfortable taking.
“But I have to step back and say, we are trying to be intentional about giving them that choice,” Spaulding said. “As long as the performance and contribution stays where we need it to be, then we have to see how it works, even when it makes us nervous.”
Work-life balance is also important for Zillow. Spaulding said that meetings are rarely scheduled before 9 a.m. or after 4:30 p.m. He added that the work environment is intense, but also allows employees to get things done so they can enjoy time away from the office.
Zillow Group is a team sport
Zillow was once a startup, but now it has more than 400 employees in managerial or leadership positions at different offices. The company has learned that it’s not so easy to ensure that every single manager follows the company’s core values.
“We are at a point in our growth where we start giving more guidance to our managers as to how we want them to lead in the vein of our culture,” Spaulding explained.
There was a lot of internal debate at Zillow recently as far as how to do this. The company ultimately decided to develop a “leadership playbook” that describes what great leaders within Zillow do, and tips for how to treat employees. It also includes four core principles around leadership.
But the playbook isn’t meant to instruct managers on how to lead like a Barton or a Rascoff, the company’s CEO. It’s more of a framework for being a leader that encourages people to embrace individual leadership styles.
“It’s about doing it in a way that’s authentic to them, to their team, and to their team’s mission,” Spaulding said.
Turn on the lights
Spaulding stressed the importance of doing employee surveys. Zillow creates its own; the company hosting TINYcon, TINYpulse, has built a business around assessing employee happiness through surveys.
Since its inception, Zillow has focused on being direct and responsive with employees while taking their feedback seriously.
“Our employees almost expect us to turn on the lights about things,” Spaulding said.
Winning is fun
Spaulding said that maintaining a positive company culture really comes down to giving employees choice and treating them like adults with “very intentional decisions.”
“You get the type of feedback that is really the feedback that ultimately matters,” he noted.
Spaulding explained how Rascoff reads and responds to every single comment on Zillow’s Glassdoor company profile.
“It’s hearing that single voice and taking action on it,” Spaulding said. “It’s getting involved in that individual conversation. That’s something that Zillow has invested in from the day they were founded and it’s something that we will try to continue and amplify in the intentional decisions we make going forward around our culture.”