Empower your employees so that they feel confident enough to take ownership of culture initiatives themselves. At our company, for example, we have a suggestion box where employees can throw in ideas for social events and team outings, and that way, everyone feels like they can take a very active approach to defining what our company culture looks like. Most recently, one of our employees with a strong (and I don’t use the word strong lightly at all here) affinity for Chinese food decided to plan a company-wide dumpling crawl. She had t-shirts made, mapped out the top spots to hit around the office, and pulled the whole event off tremendously with the help of a few coworkers.
As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Song, the New York-based investment banker-turned-startup founder who, after several years of working on Wall Street, took his investment experience to the tech space. Not only is he the founder and CEO of Innovation Department, a startup studio that helps foster and invest in the growth of early-stage e-commerce, media, and SaaS companies, but Song is also a co-founder of DojoMojo, a platform that streamlines the process of partnership marketing for growing brands. And while Song has plenty of noteworthy ventures that may stand as a testament to his success in the startup space — WellPath, reBloom, Valyrian Media, just to name a few — one of his greatest successes to date may be in not just the companies that he’s built, but the team cultures that he’s fostered within them.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After finishing college, I worked as an analyst in Goldman Sachs’ investment banking division for a couple of years before being promoted to the private equity group, where I stayed for about three and a half years. After that, I joined a hedge fund called Pershing Square. So I was deep in the world of investment banking, but at the same time, I’d always had a passion for entrepreneurship and early-stage businesses. I’d constantly been thinking about business ideas as far as starting something on my own, and at one point, the opportunity arose where tech was doing well and I felt like it was the right time to make that shift. The only thing for me was that I wasn’t necessarily willing to give up all of the experience that I’d gained up to that point just to be an operator or anything like that. So what I decided to do instead was use what I knew well — investing — as my way in. I began investing in different types of businesses with the goal of learning and over time I invested in more established companies like Pinterest, Lyft, ClassPass, Dropbox, Digital Ocean, etc., and with each of those investments, I essentially gave myself access to leaders whom I’d be able to learn from. Then, I began investing in more early-stage companies, and with those investments, my ask was that I be allowed to stay in their offices one day a week for free. This gave me the operational, on-the-ground experience that I was lacking, and it was my opportunity to get a sense of where there was a need for improvement in the startup space. What I ultimately saw was that, for a lot of these early-stage companies, the hurdles were pretty consistent across the board, with the biggest being resources — or, rather, a lack thereof. That’s when I kind of got the idea to create an ecosystem of aggregate resources that tended to be lacking for a lot of these companies — engineering, design, content, etc. — and get them on a single payroll and in a single space. From there, we could help budding companies in a very hands-on way by offering support in a number of creative and operational areas that we’d have an established expertise in. Basically, I was creating a startup studio before I even really knew what a startup studio was. I was just building something based on what I knew how to do well — invest and advise — and as I became more and more experienced in the operations side of things, that just naturally progressed into a model where the bets we were taking were on ideas that we believed had the potential to be some of tomorrow’s successful companies.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When we first started investing in businesses and bringing them in-house, they all had their own founding teams. And as we worked with these companies to help them build their business and accelerate their growth, we found ourselves becoming increasingly aware of the methods of growth that proved most effective for companies over time, with one of the biggest examples being partnership marketing. We saw that this was a really efficient way to fuel growth and that we might be able to better help the brands and companies that we worked with if we could streamline the process of engaging in these partnerships. To that end, we built a pretty basic software that could help all of our businesses initiate relationships and partnerships with other brands. What ended up happening though, which was pretty great, was that brands and people outside of our businesses were using the platform on a regular basis. Then, one day, General Assembly came to us and asked if they could use the platform for their own campaigns, and said that they’d be willing to pay for it. That was the moment we knew that we had something on our hands that we could scale into something bigger. That’s how DojoMojo, our partnerships marketing platform, was born and it was a major step for us. Beyond just having this great, effective tech software that we can say we built from scratch, this also gives us the confidence we need moving forward to continue building businesses and applying what we did with this software to our direct-to-consumer businesses.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One exciting thing that we’re doing with DojoMojo is launching a media marketplace, which will essentially democratize the process of partnership marketing. It used to be that things like content swaps or media sales were sort of reserved for some in-the-know businesses and that was that; it felt incredibly exclusive and only a few select brands had access to it. But, as we’ve turned DojoMojo into a network of over 7,000 brands, we saw an opportunity to democratize the connections that fuel partnership marketing in a way that goes beyond just sweepstakes. This new media marketplace is going to be an opportunity for brands and businesses to transact with ease and a sense of transparency that didn’t really exist before us.
It’s a reality of the current business landscape that brands are finding it crucial, more than ever before, to take the approach of tackling their efforts through commerce, community, and content. What that ultimately means is that every e-commerce business is going to need to have a media arm of some sort, while one side of that is leveraging that media arm to promote your own products or services, that can only be done so many times before you exhaust your audience’s attention and patience. Hence the importance of partnering with other brands in order to intersperse different kinds of content to your audience that feels more genuine and helps build trust with your users.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
In the age of social media, consumer taste is more insatiable than ever. There’s this heightened awareness that we all have of what’s happening around us at all times — the jobs our friends’ have, the social lives people are leading, the relationships people are having — and the result of that is that there tends to be this gnawing feeling we all get that there’s always something bigger and better out there; it’s that “grass is greener” mentality that can become so dangerously detrimental to satisfaction and happiness. That’s something that I definitely think extends to jobs and the workplace in general. Our younger generations — the ones who are increasingly making up the majority of the workforce — are exposed to such a wide variety of different options which on the one hand is positive in that it’s eye-opening, but on the other can mean higher dissatisfaction, especially when it comes to the most routine, arguably monotonous part of our daily lives: work.
I think it’s just so important to separate what’s superficial from what’s actually real, because it’s pretty often the case that the grass is not that much greener on the other side. I’m not advocating that people don’t get out there and see what’s best for themselves, just that it’s risky to always be seeking the better option without taking the time to weigh the pros of a current situation. In the end, that can never really lead to satisfaction.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
I think for us the focus is less on avoiding an unhappy workforce in the interest of productivity, profitability, or employee wellbeing and instead focusing on actively building a happy workforce with the knowledge that this will have a positive impact on both of the above. For us, we really focus on investing heavily in our company culture, which can be a tough thing because it’s not something that you can describe easily or that you ever want to force. So while we try hard to invest time and resources into situations that foster culture, like team-building events or social outings, we never want to do it in a way that it feels like it’s forced, because then that’s no longer culture. I think it’s really important to make employees feel empowered enough to drive culture on their own, because when they feel that ownership and that pride in what they do and where they work, it’s inevitable that productivity, profitability, and a healthy mindset become a natural result of that.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
Again, a top one is empowering your employees so that they feel confident enough to take ownership of culture initiatives themselves. At our company, for example, we have a suggestion box where employees can throw in ideas for social events and team outings, and that way, everyone feels like they can take a very active approach to defining what our company culture looks like. Most recently, one of our employees with a strong (and I don’t use the word strong lightly at all here) affinity for Chinese food decided to plan a company-wide dumpling crawl. She had t-shirts made, mapped out the top spots to hit around the office, and pulled the whole event off tremendously with the help of a few coworkers.
Another big thing, I think, is establishing a learning environment. Basically, you want to create a space where people always feel like they’re growing and like their hunger for knowledge is constantly being satisfied. For us, one of the biggest ways we do that is by hosting quarterly book clubs where we’ll read really meaningful books from the business or entrepreneurship space — books like Crossing the Chasm and Creativity, Inc. — and then come together and discuss learnings that we can apply to our own company or just to our lives in general.
I’m also a big proponent of balance when it comes to social events. What I mean by that is getting into the habit of planning and hosting events that aren’t always centered around the same things, like happy hours at the office or drinking at the bar. You want to offer some kind of variety in the events so that everyone can feel included in some way. For us, in addition to doing things like office happy hours, we’ll always try to do some non-drinking activities like doing a team painting class or joining a sports league together as a company. Having that diversity in the kinds of events we get involved in is crucial to encouraging everyone to feel comfortable in getting involved.
A fourth thing I can’t stress enough is to never underestimate the value of small, simple bonding experiences in addition to larger ones. You don’t need to rely on the big holiday party or a big summer bash every year to get the team excited and socializing. If anything, we’ve found that having small, recurring office activities that we do, like movie nights or a regular Friday lunch that we have catered to the office, make a huge impact on employees’ disposition and morale in the long run because they’re happy to have those constant opportunities to interact over something that isn’t just work.
And the last thing I’d probably say here is to just give everyone individual opportunities to grow, when possible. This kind of goes with establishing a learning environment, but with more of an individualized approach and also a focus on not just professional skills, but general skills as well. So one example for us is that every Monday, we do a kind of company all-hands where one person from the team — and this is a different person every week — will present on a company that they think we can learn from, be it from what they’ve done well or mistakes they’ve made that hindered their success. And while these presentations are an opportunity for us as a team to learn from other companies that have come before us, it’s also a chance for members on the team to get a little practice with things like public speaking, which isn’t so much a role-specific skill as it is a general skill that will do people well in our office and outside of it.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture.” What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
I think what happens as we see a rise in early-stage businesses and startups is that, more than ever, the office becomes a place where employees are just spending a lot of their time, which on the one hand can be kind of grueling but on the other, it really calls for people to reshape how we think about the workplace and our coworkers. While it’s critical to maintain a sense of work-life balance, the reality is also just that the meaning of that balance has changed a lot in the modern workplace and it’s become increasingly important to find ways incorporate positive, enjoyable activities and moments into the regular workday in order to avoid frustration or burnout in situations that, at the end of the day, are as demanding as they are exciting and rewarding. For us, we know that the work we’re doing can be challenging, but having a workplace that feels more like a community than just another office — a place where people really feel like they’re in the company of friends and mentors, not just coworkers — has been the biggest gamechanger.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
Again, one of the things we champion the most at our company, and that I take the most pride in when I look at our team, is that everyone feels empowered to not only take ownership of the work they’re doing and the output they’re responsible for, but also to take initiative outside of their “job description,” so to speak. I believe a strong manager is one that recognizes the strengths and capabilities of every member on the team and creates opportunities for people to put those things to use, not just for the betterment of the company but for the growth and success of the team members.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My father. He was a serial entrepreneur and he has always inspired me to push harder and make certain decisions around the way I build my business. My dad was an electrical engineer — he actually designed the first 14.4 kb modem — and, kind of like I am now, I think he was someone whose mind was always innovating around the work he was doing. For him, that translated into trying to take what he’d built — this modem that another company was making off of — and scale his design on his own. What he didn’t necessarily know at the time was that just because he built it, that didn’t necessarily mean that he could scale it independently. So after essentially going into the hardware business as a boutique manufacturer and that not really working out, he bounced back from that by jumping into the realm of software solutions for financial institutions. Seeing his ability to take such a big risk with confidence and then make that comeback when things didn’t go his way is something that’s absolutely shaped the approach I take to business and life in general. It’s taught me that adaptability is a pivotal component of success, and having him to turn to for advice or insights on what’s potentially possible as I go down the difficult path of scaling my own business has been invaluable.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe that every entrepreneur wants to make a positive impact in some way, however big or small that may be. By creating this startup studio, we’ve offered a platform and an outlet for budding startups to get the kind of support and traction they need in order to scale and realize their goals. And a big thing for us is that we only choose to work with people or brands that we see as having the ability to drive something towards a positive impact. So, by working with brands in the wellness space like WellPath and reBloom, for example, we’re able to contribute to businesses that work to improve the quality of life for consumers. In that way, what we’ve created here isn’t as much about the direct good that we’re doing as it is about the seeds that we’re nurturing and helping grow into those entities that then do that work out there in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The one that comes to mind is, “A good idea today is better than a perfect idea tomorrow.” A lot of times as an entrepreneur, you risk getting stuck in a paralysis-like state because you just want to make the perfect move but by waiting for that, you’re losing out on opportunities and learnings that you could have picked up along the way. When you’re out there creating something new, there’s nothing more crucial to your success than the data, learnings, and momentum that you gain over time. Really, what you ought to be looking for isn’t the perfect idea or the perfect moment to start, but rather, the perfect series of moves, both good and bad, that in aggregate make-up your success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Anything that could really minimize the time we spend on our phones and on social media and help us reconnect with human existence.
Thank you so much for these great insights!