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Amazon and the ‘Company Culture’ Controversy: Why it Matters to Startups

Amazon and the ‘Company Culture’ Controversy: Why it Matters to Startups

Last week’s New York Times article about Amazon’s cutthroat company culture has sparked a wildfire of debate over just exactly what 2015’s biggest corporate buzz-term consists of. As the discussion expands to the impact of company culture on employees and the businesses they populate on the whole, renewed attention is being drawn to perhaps the most grueling and demanding professional climate of all: the startup world.

Amazon founder & CEO Jeff Bezos is the fifth-richest man in the world. His methodology in getting very most out of every employee, to ensure the velocity of his company’s success, has paid off: Amazon recently became the country’s largest retailer. Their reputation for hard-working employees precedes the NYT piece, but the article outlined the harsh intensity of Amazon’s operations in embarrassing detail: email attentiveness at all hours is required. Vacations are a myth, and weekends exist only as mile markers on the path to success – by no means a time to downshift. If you aren’t working all the time, you’re failing. Amazon’s ranking system regularly purges the low performers, but also factors in how well employees interact. Their employees are reportedly encouraged to send negative feedback about their peers to their bosses, a confidential exchange that pits staff members against one another and creates an air of paranoid hostility.

The list goes on. Amid the flurry of criticism, Bezos and others at Amazon have challenged the spin and professionalism of both the report and the NYT reporters. A Bezos memo to employees following the piece has made the rounds, clearly PR bait: the CEO said he wouldn’t tolerate a “callous” working environment, and doesn’t believe one exists at Amazon. In tandem, Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu published his own defense of his employer as well as a few shots at the NYT article, summarizing the NYT approach as a preconceived hit job against the company.

To Bezos and Ciubotariu’s credit, in a company with so many employees, it is statistically guaranteed that many heartwarming examples of fantastic company-culture experiences can be found within Amazon’s corporate narrative. But to find over 100 employees willing to share tales of woe is uncommon, particularly given that the sample group consists of members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch.

Similarly, startup culture is cutthroat, take-no-prisoners and absolutely hostile to the idea of shared priorities. As a rule, startups do not foster an environment conducive to healthy families, well-rounded childhoods or “quality” personal time. Free food, team games, onsite barbers and other benefits often exist in companies large and small to allow people a break without leaving the office, softening the impact of those grueling 60-to-80 hour work weeks.

Ideal company culture demands a balance between pushing employees to go above and beyond, and allowing a personal sense of worth and vitality within the corporate structure. A company set on long-term development and success requires leadership who can fully understand and pass along its corporate atmosphere and philosophy to other employees. To accomplish this they must be engaging, inspiring and above all, willing to work harder than anyone else.

With 150,000 people on staff, Amazon boasts an army of people mandated to devote their life to their work. Is total sacrifice of personal life on a company-wide scale the most desirable model for success? For those whose life priorities aren’t inextricably topped by fealty to a corporate success story in the making, absolutely not. So where is the middleground? How can a balance be struck while a company struggles to emerge as a leader in its field?

A frequently cited example of great company culture is Google. With an employee count nearing 50,000, it’s remarkable and refreshing to see workers describe operations as having a small-company feel, free of senior-officer intimidation. Company culture is determined by company morality, how it treats others, and there is a direct result in staff morale & motivation. Googlers can be found volunteering directly in company efforts to give back to the community, and lead initiatives around the world with financial aid, restoring public parks and  beyond.

At StackCommerce, we’re striving each day to sharpen the balance between driving success and enriching staff. There’s rarely an amenity unprovided, with the office boasting a stocked kitchen, surfboards and bikes at the ready (the Venice Beach boardwalk is just outside our door), a ping pong table and entertainment lounge in the basement (hell, even a basement in Southern California is a unicorn perk). But these are mere decorative boosts, a handful of bright colors on the tapestry of a company culture that encourages personal wellness through yoga breaks and volleyball games, through enlightening guest speakers and regular happy hour gatherings. Robust benefits, sign-on stock options and encouraged use of personal days provide employees with a sense of security and control over their personal lives – an extreme rarity in startup culture.

Sure, we work our behinds off, often arriving long before the workday begins and leaving long after rush hour has subsided. But those of us making the early-morning rounds are often greeted by wetsuit-clad employees greeting the day with enthusiasm; they want to be here early. They’re invested in a company that’s equally invested in them.

The link between employee happiness and productivity has been documented at great length. Companies cannot thrive on a singular character model of A-type workhorses giving their every waking moment to their employer, with reckless abandon of personal stability. Diversification is essential, creating constellations of different skill sets and different opinions to stay innovative and to continually thrive. Personal and professional values are essential, but this does not mean absolute sacrifice at all times. Company culture must align with personal stability, particularly in the startup world.

Entrepreneur.com‘s Eric Sinou put together a great infographic on the impact of company culture, as well as the perils of being on the wrong side of a corporate atmosphere:

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Alphabet: Exploring 6 Brands Under Google’s New Holding Company

Alphabet: Exploring 6 Brands Under Google’s New Holding Company

Google announced a huge company restructure this week, establishing themselves as a subsidiary of a new parent company named Alphabet. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page will serve as President and CEO of Alphabet, while Google head of product Sundar Pichai has been appointed as the new Google CEO. And provided that Google can clear numerous potential legal hurdles, we’ll likely be hearing a great deal more on Google’s new holding company in the near future.

In a blog post explaining the news, Page outlined how the restructure will make the “slightly slimmed down Google” more accountable. He explained that Alphabet is a collection of companies, the largest of which is Google, with companies “pretty far afield” of Google’s main internet products being shuttled under Alphabet’s umbrella.

“Alphabet is about businesses prospering through strong leaders and independence,” Page wrote. “In general, our model is to have a strong CEO who runs each business, with Sergey and me in service to them as needed. We will rigorously handle capital allocation and work to make sure each business is executing well. We’ll also make sure we have a great CEO for each business, and we’ll determine their compensation.”

The Google business will remain in command of features including search, ads, maps, Gmail, YouTube, Android, and the related tech infrastructure, while branches including its health and investment efforts, such as Ventures, will move to Alphabet. This will allow the subsidiary companies to experiment freely without tarnishing the Google name in the process (the failure and prolonged death of Google+ comes to mind).

“The whole point is that Alphabet companies should have independence and develop their own brands,” he wrote. Alphabet, he continued, isn’t meant to be a consumer brand unto itself. “For Sergey and me this is a very exciting new chapter in the life of Google—the birth of Alphabet. We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search! We also like that it means alpha-bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for! I should add that we are not intending for this to be a big consumer brand with related products—the whole point is that Alphabet companies should have independence and develop their own brands.”

In light of Google’s announcement, it’s time to take a closer look at Alphabet, particularly the major brands under the company’s umbrella.

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Run by Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google and will also serve as president of Alphabet, Google’s secretive ”moonshot” lab is devoted to building the tools of the future in million-to-one scientific ambitions that require enormous amounts of capital and risk-taking. In its Star Trek-level conceptions, the company aims to come up It has incubated highly publicized projects such as the self-driving car, Google Glass, a drone delivery service called Wing and the Fiber internet service provider.

Nest

When former Apple engineer Tony Fadell built a vacation home, he was unimpressed with available thermostats and other security systems on the market. In his quest to design a better alternative Nest Labs was born, and has since expanded into an all-inclusive smart-home product source. Google bought the connected-home company for $3.2 billion in January 2014, and it will serve as a subsidiary of Alphabet in the restructuring.

Calico

Calico’s core mission is simple and universally appealing: it wants to create the fountain of youth. Formed in 2013, the R&D company is headed up by Art Levinson – 14 year CEO of biotech company Genetech – and utilizes advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology dictating the human lifespan. Through development of age-slowing developments and tools to fight age-related diseases, Calico is helping people to lead longer and healthier lives.

Sidewalk

Founded in June 2015, Sidewalk Labs aims to foster the development of technology products, platforms and infrastructure that help improve life in cities around the world. Led by former Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff, the New York-based company will implement technological breakthroughs to solve urban problems, tackling issues like cost of living, transportation, reducing energy usage and more.

“The biggest challenges that cities face — such as making transportation more efficient and lowering the cost of living, reducing energy usage and helping government operate more efficiently have, so far, been more difficult to address,” the company said in an announcement. Doctor has said that Sidewalk “will play a major role in developing technology products, platforms and advanced infrastructure that can be implemented at scale in cities around the world.”

Ventures

Founded in 2009, the venture capital investment arm of Google has backed more than 300 growing startups including Uber, Slack, Medium, Periscope, Nest and 23andMe. Providing venture capital funding to bold new companies, Ventures invests independently of Google, and provides these companies unparalleled support in design, engineering, recruiting, marketing, and more. They’re not afraid to take on riskier tech challenges such as clean energy, cybersecurity and health, and have devised independent complex computer models to offer better predictions of market outcomes.

Capital

Google Capital is the growth capital fund financed by Google, with a devoted interest in established private companies. Focusing on larger, growth stage technology companies, Capital invests for profit rather than strategic positioning for Google. Led by partners David Lawee, Gene Frantz, and Scott Tierney, Google Capital’s approach includes giving portfolio companies access to Google’s people, knowledge, and culture to support the companies’ growth and offer them guidance. This has served FanDuel, SurveyMonkey, Renaissance Learning and Glassdoor.

E-Commerce Celebrity Endorsements: Big Exposure, Bigger Risk

E-Commerce Celebrity Endorsements: Big Exposure, Bigger Risk

Anyone caught in the pre-millennial pop culture current will easily recall Pepsi’s 1992 Super Bowl commercial, in which Cindy Crawford climbs out of a Lamborghini in a pair of daisy dukes, heads to a soda machine and pulls out the world’s first look at the hotly-anticipated new Pepsi can. The moment was iconic: the most adored model in the world, drinking a Pepsi from a newly designed futuristic-looking can as if it were an intensely sensual experience.

Pepsi needed an edge over Coca-Cola, and for a shining moment in early ’92, they accomplished it with the perfect storm of a celebrity endorsement through Ms. Crawford, a brand re-skin and a cultural centerpiece launchpad (the Super Bowl).

 

The e-commerce world has seen a wildfire rise in the number of successful companies taking root over the last three years. Without in-store distribution, however, brand exposure is limited to the digital world, resulting in a vital need for innovative marketing campaigns, third-party promotions and endorsements by established public figures. Competition is ferocious in this wild new frontier, and a number of efforts are now underway to promote brands with celebrity endorsements – with good reason. The top tweeters are almost all celebrities: 43 of the top 50 most-followed accounts are either musicians or sports stars.

The numbers certainly support Pando’s belief that celebrities will drive the next wave of E-Commerce startups, but what about when it goes wrong? There could be no better example than entrepreneur and self-declared billionaire Donald Trump, whose incendiary remarks on immigration and hispanics have resulted in a severe backlash for the 2016 Republican presidential candidate. In the past two weeks, Trump’s partnerships and endorsements are evaporating like a puddle in the Sahara, and he’s been dumped by NASCAR, NBCUniversal, Macy’s, Univision, Televisa, Farouk Systems, PGA, apparel manufacturer Phillips-Van Huesen and more. NBC won’t broadcast Miss Universe or Miss USA (the network and Trump co-own the beauty pageants), and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio instructed his office to review existing contracts with the Trump Organization, who currently provides concessions to city facilities.

While the advertising community watches with car-crash fascination, Trump has doubled down on his remarks, and will continue to slide further and further into untouchable status by brands. The takeaway: be very careful who you do business with, and be highly wary of anyone who would serve as the face of your brand. To embrace a volatile personality with a powerful public presence is to endorse their behavior through the cultural lens.

With celebrity endorsements on the rise in e-commerce, the image of businesses hang in the balance of what are potentially volatile personalities in the public eye. The risk is rationalized through exposure, and when an endorsing celebrity finds themselves in the TMZ spotlight, companies that have contracts with them often re-examine the relationship. Often times, immediate damage control becomes necessary, such as the case with Trump. Companies often immediately sever ties, putting distance between the endorser and themselves as quickly as possible.

Building on that idea, I’ve broken down seven of the most high-profile cases of celebrity endorsements gone awry, with their accompanying rationale.

Lance Armstrong

Armstrong was an untouchable hero in the biking world at the turn of the century, but he was forced to relinquish his 1999-2005 Tour de France titles after news broke about his doping scandal. He stepped down as chairman of Livestrong, a cancer-fighting charity he founded, but that was just the beginning of his problems, which amounted to over $150 million in lost endorsements and effectively ruined his own brand. Nike and Anheuser-Busch dropped Armstrong but remained supporters of Livestrong, but after Nike dropped him, so did Annheuser-Busch, Trek Bicycle Corp, FRS and Honey Stinger.

Michael Phelps

The most decorated Olympian of all time won eight gold medals at the 2008 summer Olympics, guaranteeing the young man a golden-paved future of endorsements and sponsorships, even if he never swam again. But in early 2009, a photo depicting Phelps smoking from a bong sent brands scurrying. Cereal giant Kellogs parted ways with the athlete within a week, insisting that Phelps’ behavior did not align with its views, and sandwich maker Subway distanced themselves as well.

Tiger Woods

Once the most celebrated golfer in the world, Tiger woods lost roughly $22 million in endorsements back in 201 after news broke of his multiple extramarital affairs. Gatorade, AT&T, Gillette, EA Sports, Buick and Accenture all jumped ship. Woods’ public image never fully recovered, though he’s since seen a return to brand endorsements.

Ray Rice

Video footage of the Baltimore Ravens running back dragging his unconscious fiancé out of a casino elevator resulted in a firestorm of backlash, with Nike pulling endorsements, EA Sports erasing his presence from the Madden NFL 15 video game, Vertimax, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Modell’s and more. Rice reportedly has no remaining active endorsement deals, a devastating blow to the fallen sports hero.

Chris Brown

When the formerly clean-cut singer pleaded guilty to assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna before the 2009 Grammys, Wrigley dropped him as their spokesperson with impressive speed. His “Got Milk?” endorsement deal also went sour.

Jean-Claude Van Damme

The Muscles from Brussels was caught on camera (for a British reality show) complaining about shooting a commercial for Total Flex home gym equipment, insisting he didn’t want to endorse a product he didn’t like. After reportedly showing up on set without knowing his lines he quit the commercial, and was sued for breach of contract to the tune of $25.2 million.

Kate Moss

The cover girl and wife of The Kills rocker Jamie Hince was snapped doing lines of cocaine back in 2005, resulting in a media rush to dub her “Cocaine Kate”. Shortly thereafter, she lost massive endorsement deals from H&M, Chanel, Burberry and more. A turnaround resulted in recent years, after Moss went to rehab and polished her image (to an extent), returning to good graces with campaigns for Rimmel, Dior and Mango – she is now the third-highest paid model in the world.

Apple Music’s Flawed Flight: Burning Social Capital of a Prime Brand

Apple Music’s Flawed Flight: Burning Social Capital of a Prime Brand

We all want something to believe in, a secure standard to set our coordinates by in this ocean of digital chaos. Tech ultragiant Apple has served as a pillar of such standard and security for many years, building a $700 billion empire and a new age of digital culture through an ever-widening spectrum of devices, and an intuitive constellation of accessibility & usability. But now, with the breathlessly-hyped but deeply flawed launch of Apple Music as part of iOS 8.4 and iTunes 12.2, the hypercritical attention to user experience is lacking badly – and we’re reminded of the shifting sands of seamless brand domination in today’s marketplace, even for the largest company the United States has ever seen.

Steve Jobs made an enemy of confusion. His relentless quest to create the perfect user experience was legendary, and resulted in a new generation of devices and a tandem culture of tech obsession laced with an air of cosmopolitan, lightly-hedonistic elitism. So it is with great surprise and times-they-are-a-changin’ dismay that we navigate the labyrinthian wonder that is Apple Music after its kickoff this week, equally frustrated with its lack of intuitive functionality and clear rationale as we are dazzled by its promising features.

Jobs’ meticulous impact on every one of our lives shines clearly in the legacy he leaves behind, whether it be the larger consumer philosophy or the devices in our hands. But Apple’s slipping grace in his wake that speaks with no less color.

Whether they’re on team Mac or PC doesn’t matter – the connected world is universally fascinated by Apple’s new offering. Where Apple is failing isn’t in the rough edges in the early days of the Music service – it’s failing its own brand in ruining an unparalleled momentum of image in simplicity, efficiency and industry leadership.

Apple’s influence on the economy and culture around the world rivals some of the most powerful in all of human history – they will undoubtedly do just fine, whether Apple Music is an abject failure or not (it won’t be). But from a branding perspective, as well as that of a backlash impact, Apple Music serves an important lesson in consistency of Brand quality and user experience.

What’s going on here?

While I explored Apple Music’s offerings and established a functional interaction with it, the same thought kept creeping up: “Why do I need this? I’m happy with Spotify.” Apple Music has around 30 million songs, just as Spotify, Tidal and Google Play do.

A quick rundown of the mess: Apple Music isn’t a quick-access service. It comes as part of iOS 8.4 and iTunes 12.2, requiring a full update and many pages of new user agreements. Once you’re in, Apple Music plays your music, except you don’t own that music, and the options provided are a collaboration between your input and their guesstimation. Apple Radio plays songs they’ve chosen for you, like the radio does. Random buttons like heart icons and plus signs don’t have any prominently defined meaning, and once you’ve clicked them you can’t undo the selections. Home sharing has been removed, at least for the time being.

Apple built its reputation on the seamless user experience. But confusion abounds, and there are no guidepoints to help us along. Apple seems confused on how it categorizes its features, and its taste algorithms are quite strange. Two songs into a radio station tailored just for me and I’m fumbling frantically around for the mute button.

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There’s a disconnect here.

Where’s the walkthrough?

Why do I have to figure this thing out for myself? Where is the online tutorial, the clean interface to navigate with a constellatory guide? This is where the cracks in Apple’s veneer begin to truly show, and where the whispers of Steve return. Jobs would never have allowed a confusing creation of such magnitude; he understood the critical value of an inviting framework.

Beats 1: Incredible Concept, Floundering

The excited conversation taking place is almost entirely about Beats 1, not the on-demand streaming service. Though we’re excited for shows hosted by the likes of Queens Of The Stone Age nucleus Josh Homme, Pharrell Williams, Drake, Dr. Dre, Elton John and more… will a new broadcast curation be that big a player? It’s highly unlikely we’ll go back to the radio days – the wacky morning-zoo DJs have exterminated the public’s trust in drive-time radio.

Podcasts, however, are an incredible force (President Obama recently visited comedian Marc Maron’s WTF podcast for an impressively candid chat), and the vast majority are free. And if you missed a radio show by your favorite talent, you’re out of luck on a desktop. That is, unless you can find a way to tap on the Beats 1 Radio banner (NOT the “Listen Now” button prominently displayed), scroll down past Upcoming Shows to Featured shows, find the show you’d like to hear from the entire list, then go to the show’s playlist page as a part of Connect.

Get all that? Sure, it’s a lot simpler on a mobile, but this needs to be universal. If you can get it to work at all on mobile, that is. Radio futurologist James Cridland reviewed Beats 1, and the industry expert is not impressed:

Apple have launched a live, linear radio station – something you’ll see in this presentation just doesn’t work on mobile phones. They’ve done the bare minimum in terms of integration. The radio producers have been lazy with their production. Tuning in is unintuitive on iOS, and was impossible on OSX at launch. The launch was botched, confused, lazy, uninspiring and most of all, deeply ignorant.

No Promo Blitz

Why isn’t U2 dancing around in a commercial? Ok, maybe U2 and Apple should take a break. But Josh Homme and Dr. Dre could serve as the new faces of Apple Music through an upper-echelon talent edge, leading us into culturally rich new waters as they welcome us in with their Beats 1 radio shows and a few informational suggestions. There is no promotional throwdown, however.

It’s a flash fad.

Fads die. Apple Music needs to establish a pioneering value, and fast. This has happened before, and very recently. Tidal is in a branding and staffing nosedive, after being breathlessly heralded by icons and idols as the greatest alternative to the current streaming market. Packed with superstars, Jay Z is sinking that ship on the wrong message and no value beyond the illusion of exclusives in an all-access world.

Apple Doesn’t Decide. The People Do.

We’ll see at the end of Q3 where Apple Music stands, as the majority who’ve opted for the three-month trial will then decide whether or not to subscribe.

Spotify remains, however. And while we struggle with DRM hysteria, Apple Match issues, downloading massive system updates and more, that ugly green logo is waiting, still allowing you to import your iTunes library upon launch. You can’t import Spotify playlists into Apple Music, by the way.

Seems like a hostile way for a brand to create a universal experience.

StackCommerce CEO Josh Payne Discusses the Changing E-Commerce Landscape for Inc. Magazine

StackCommerce CEO Josh Payne Discusses the Changing E-Commerce Landscape for Inc. Magazine

StackCommerce CEO Josh Payne penned an article for Inc. Magazine this week covering the rapid and significant changes going on in e-commerce. Josh details how e-commerce has changed in the past before focusing on the main point of the article: the rise of native commerce, and the opportunity it presents to online publishers and communities. One crucial point Josh makes in the article is that consumers stand to potentially benefit more than anyone, as native commerce delivers both a less disruptive user experience and more relevant products.

The article can be found here on Inc.’s website.

StackCommerce – Pioneering Native Commerce

StackCommerce – Pioneering Native Commerce

After 3 years of building both an amazing consumer experience and a full-service commerce platform for publishers under the StackSocial name, we are extremely excited to announce that, as of today, we will be moving forward as StackCommerce, with our StackCommerce-powered store continuing as StackSocial. Our goal is to completely revolutionize the way that content is monetized online, and we want our brand to fully reflect that mission.

na·tive com·merce  (ˈnāt-iv kä-(ˌ)mərs’) : the organic integration of relevant product recommendations into the content experience

This move comes as a result of the extraordinary work and results produced by the StackCommerce team — we now service over 1,000,000 registered members, power commerce for over 500 publisher partners, and have processed hundreds of thousands of orders across almost 1,500 deals — and everyone here is hungry to achieve even more.

Today’s online publishers face serious obstacles all around them, as well as tens of thousands of new sites popping up every single day to compete for users. Display ad CPMs are stagnating, the subscription model is all but finished, and fewer and fewer properties have the resources and clout to pull off events. Providing a high-quality, relevant commerce experience is the way for publishers to best monetize their sites and engage their users, and StackCommerce is the most scalable, profitable native commerce platform on the market, having pioneered the concept itself.

We’re not stopping there — being the best on the market isn’t good enough for us. We will be constantly enhancing and optimizing our native commerce platform to deliver the best possible product to publishers and meet the challenges of this ever-evolving landscape. From more customization options to expanded product offerings to enhanced customer insights — we want to do it all. This is the start of a whole new chapter, not just for our company, but also for native commerce, and we are so excited to embark on this journey with all of you.