Business

Business

Building Company and Culture—Mickey Millsap

Mickey looked out of his office window in downtown Austin; a rush of apprehension and exhilaration coursed

through his veins.  He, Matt, and Jay had seen uShip grow from merely an inspiration born of Matt’s mom’s

shipping frustrations to a rapidly-growing business poised for its next stage of evolution.  Now, six months

after having received its first $2.7 million from Benchmark Capital in California, the founders were bringing

a new player onto the management team.  After three years of toiling in the trenches of guerilla marketing,

they were ready to welcome their first high-profile hire as director of marketing.  It was a new era for

uShip.  It was time to begin growing up as a company, time for the founders to demonstrate to the board and

the VCs that they could step up, build the business, build its culture, and embody the vision they had

promised.

Mickey chuckled to himself.  Marketing was quite the trench-work in the early days.  With their first

business plan, the founders had crafted an elaborate regional marketing plan focused on the Dallas-Austin-

Houston-San Antonio corridor.  However, they quickly realized that while they could focus on regional

shipping needs in Texas, they could not control where their customers would want to ship their items.

Someone in San Antonio could want their couch to go to Ohio.  Thus, they went from a regional marketing

scheme to a national one overnight.  At the time, they scrambled to try and figure out how they would find

their customers and transporters on a national scale.  They certainly had been creative in devising a

solution.

They began by recognizing that eBay had a shipping problem.  The large-item business on eBay was constrained

by shipping needs.  It did not make sense for someone to buy a kayak from a seller in Michigan, only to have

to pay several hundred dollars to have it shipped cross-country.  These shipping constraints were limiting

large-item transactions on eBay.  So, Jay, Mickey, and Matt started emailing the sellers of large items on

eBay, suggesting they consider uShip for their shipping options.  Next, however, they had to find

transporters.  Fortunately, Craigslist was already providing a forum for people who were looking to transport

items.  So, the uShip founders went on an emailing rampage, sending over 500 daily individual messages to

sellers on eBay and transporters on Craigslist, trying to introduce them to uShip.  Mickey recalled the long

hours of sitting in MBA classrooms along with Matt and Jay, sneakily using class time to send out emails –

this did not always end well in Professor Nolen’s class during their last semester (let’s just say they

weren’t in the top 10% of the class!).  The three quickly figured out that they could not hold the daily

burden of these email demands, but they had no money for a staff.  Their creative solution:  interns!

Matt, Jay, and Mickey recruited UT undergraduates and a team of about five interns ended up solidifying.  Jay

set up an email program, and the interns could earn a modest amount of money for generating hundreds of

emails to potential uShip users.  The founders, however, realized that the pay they were offering was

probably not enough to keep any interns engaged for long.  So, they made concerted efforts to help the

interns feel like part of the uShip family.  They all went out for happy hours and fostered a sense of

camaraderie, giving the undergraduates an uncommon experience in being part of a start-up family.

Mickey reflected on the days of guerilla marketing and the decision to bring interns onto the team.  That

decision really had been more than just a creative way to cover some early marketing needs.  Interestingly,

it had laid the groundwork for building a horizontally connected organization, with founders and interns

bonded and interested in where this company was going.  Now, six months after securing VC funding, with uShip

situated for powerful growth, investing in the camaraderie and cohesion of the staff was key.  They now had a

staff of 20, most of whom were quite young.  Keeping the motivation and innovation of the staff alive was

key.

They had become a company highly oriented toward building morale and a sense of family.  Organically, they

put in place regular events to bring everyone together.  The first Friday of every month, they would send the

newest employee to buy the staff breakfast tacos—on the company dime—and then gather together and listen to a

presentation offered by one of the staff members.  These “First Fridays” became an exciting forum in which

young associates could pitch their ideas to the whole staff, including management.  Everyone was there, and

everyone’s ideas were weighted equally.  A good idea was a good idea; it didn’t matter what your seniority.

It was a way to level the field and help everyone feel a part of the family.  First Fridays soon grew into

periodic group activity days in which paintball, tubing trips, or community service activities helped bring

everyone together.

“We really are growing into a family,” Mickey mused.  However, he recognized the challenge up ahead.  In

making their first hire at the management level, there would be someone new joining the team of five managers

at uShip.  Mickey and the others recognized what a tight-knit group the managers had become.  The managers

thus far consisted of the three founders—Matt, Jay, and Mickey, Shawn Bose, a close friend and former intern

who was a year behind them at McCombs, and their original web designer who was now director of development –

they had been together form the beginning and were very close. The five managers knew each other well and

largely had seen this company through from the beginning.  Mickey realized the new marketing director would

be in a tough position, coming into such a well-bonded group.  Moreover, the board, the VCs, and the rest of

the staff knew this was a significant step in seriously growing the company.  They had engaged in a national

search for the position.  It was a search process that had unfolded over six months, waiting for just the

right fit.  Now they were ready to welcome their new marketing director and take that next step.

Ready to begin as uShip’s new marketing director, Jeff ’s[1] credentials were flawless.  He had extensive

experience with high-profile internet marketing; he was Ivy-League educated; his record seemed to reflect

exactly the experience that uShip needed.  The team members readied themselves to welcome Jeff to uShip.

On Jeff’s first day, the managers took him out to dinner.  Mickey got a sinking feeling in his stomach at

that first dinner.  Gathered around the table, joking, and getting acquainted, Jeff stepped into the world of

politics, making a snide comment about women politicians and stating that he prefers his politicians white

and male.  Stunned, Mickey wondered if he’d heard correctly.  Really?  Did Jeff just say that?  Trying to be

inconspicuous, Mickey got up from the table and walked away, needing a little space.  The others texted him,

encouraging him to be understanding with Jeff.  “He’s just trying to bond with us.  We’re a tough team to

break into.  He’s nervous.  We have to give him a chance.”

The next day at the office, Jeff noted the five women on the staff of 20 and chuckled, “Where’s the good

lookin’ girls in the office to hit on?”  Later that day he joked that in the city from which he had

relocated, he and his buddies would play the “gay or European” game—identifying who was “gay” or “European”

based on appearance.  Mickey commented that those remarks were offensive and inappropriate.  Jeff had no

response and didn’t seem to register Mickey’s disapproval.  The incident hung heavy in Mickey’s conscience

and awareness.  It was only day two.

Wednesday night, Jay and Mickey went out with Jeff again in hopes of getting to know him better, feeling a

mounting urgency for him to show a better side.  The three gathered at Little Woodrow’s for their favorite

steak dinner special.  It was baseball season, and Mickey and Jay were both avid baseball fans, enjoying the

exchange of competitive banter over allegiances to rival teams. Jeff decided to jump in with his own quip,

stating that athletes of color were superior runners because they had so much practice running from police.

Mickey and Jay were stunned.  Mickey was beside himself with disgust.  The situation was quickly escalating

into a dilemma.  It was only day three with their new marketing director.

The next day, Mickey arrived to the office, and as he walked in, he noticed a stark silence in the room.

Everyone was staring at him, just watching him.  “What’s going on?”  Mickey asked.  He was then ushered into

a room by the director of development and shown an email that had been sent to the five women on staff.  The

email was sent from mickygator@yahoo.com.  The email read:

Dear Team.  I think we need to engage in some team bondage activities.  Let’s meet at Hooters on Riverside.

Mickey was livid.  He knew immediately this had to have come from Jeff.  He told the staff he was not

responsible for the email.  The staff said they believed him.  Mickey could tell from the feel of the room

that something had to be done.  He looked at the faces of his staff.  He could see the family feeling, the

camaraderie, the cohesion they had worked so hard to build fraying at the edges.  This was a profound

violation of the group’s trust.

Mickey paced his office.  He was livid!  He needed someone else with him to confront Jeff about the email.

He couldn’t trust himself to maintain composure.  Jeff attempted to deny the whole thing, but they had traced

the IP address to Jeff’s hotel.

The management team faced a difficult set of options.  Mickey consulted with their employment attorney.  As

CEO, Matt was the only one who could act instantly and fire Jeff.  However, Matt was out of town, and the

team was having a difficult time getting in touch with him.  There was a lot of pressure on the team.  They

had searched for six months for Jeff’s position.  The search had been intense and burdensome.  The management

and the founders felt the scrutiny of the board, the VCs, and their staff.  Could they fire their prized hire

after just 4 days?  What would the funders and the board say?  How would they trust the managers’ abilities

to hire and build the company?  On the other hand, could they, in good conscience, keep Jeff on and try to

work with him around his wholly objectionable views, statements, and behaviors?   Mickey stared out of his

office window, the questions unabating in his mind. What should they do?

Discussion Questions

1.     If you were Mickey and the uShip managers, how would you proceed in making this decision?  What

factors would you take into consideration?

2.      In what ways would this decision impact company culture?  How might the managers at uShip work with

the staff around this issue?  Are the issues of racism and sexism something that should be brought to the

larger staff?  How would you make this a company-wide conversation?

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