Pontiflex's Happiness Manifesto

Happy Dog

Photo: Emery Way via Flickr

When we founded Pontiflex three years ago, we set two goals. Until now, only one of them has attracted much recognition: to create an entirely new model of advertising based on users signing up for ads, not just clicks or impressions. We’ve won lots of awards (Inc 500, AlwaysOn, Lead411 and others) for this work.The second goal was quieter: to create a company that was different. We wanted Pontiflex to be a place where our employees actually were happy to be there and left the office happier than when they arrived. To this end, we just won Crain’s Best Places to Work in NYC Award by Crain’s (and voted top advertising startup).

On reflection, we won the first set of awards for the same reason we won the Crain’s award. 

Pontiflex is a different kind of company.

We’ve inverted accepted beliefs about how to run a business. And it works.

We strive to create a culture where the development of the company is in many ways secondary to the development of the people who work there. 

This doesn’t mean we spend all day analysing ourselves, scuba diving with dolphins, or circumambulating Himalayan peaks (good items for the bucket list though). 

It means that we consider the happiness of our team to be as important as our bank balance or revenue. We think the emotional impact of a job, reporting line, desk placement, and compensation decisions are as important as what we return to shareholders. It means that we first consider whether someone is happy, and value that happiness as highly as we do their performance. 

We do this because we’ve found that the two are inextricably linked.

A curious thing happens when people really want to do something: they work better, faster, smarter and more creatively; and they innovate. Allow me to wax philosophical: men and women not were made to toil under the yoke of a taskmaster.  We were made to bring forth from inside our beings a vision and toil to make that vision manifest. That’s not work—it’s joy. This creative energy is the stuff that successful startups harness to power growth. It’s why startups have created more value per dollar than any other business structure in history and will continue to do so.

This approach, of course, is somewhat heretical – if we had a penny for every time a boss, an expert or a VC stressed the need to “execute relentlessly” and “drive people to compete and win,” we’d be pretty well off. The common “wisdom” is that it’s supposed to be all about what you can do for the company, not what the company can do for you. The culture and even the popular myth making around startups perpetuate this stereotype: all should be sacrificed to fuel the fires of value creation and brand building.

Pontiflex has succeeded not in spite of, but because of our approach. We have faced and overcome obstacles that have destroyed much larger, better capitalised companies. We began our entrepreneurial journey in 2008 on the dark slopes of the stomach-churning slide into the depths of the Great Recession. During the dismal days of 2008 and 2009, we raised two rounds of venture capital (totaling about $9MM).  

Since launch, we’ve achieved a revenue to capital raised ratio of 3.3, built a killer platform, signed over 100 major brands and launched a mobile product that is revolutionizing in-app advertising. We haven’t done this alone; our board and investors have been supportive through both good times and bad.

Pontiflex has no magic tricks. We offer no marvellous perks that make people happy. Our Dumbo offices are simple and we count ourselves lucky to have a sink, a fridge and free coffee. We don’t have showers, massages, free lunches or laundry in our office – yet. David Chang hasn’t come to cook us some of his famous pork butt (although the invitation is always open, dude). Those things actually mean relatively little to people’s happiness and they are not an end in themselves or a recipe for workplace nirvana.

So what is it that makes Pontiflex such a great place to work? It’s simple: love. Here, we are referring to the Greek word agape, or love for humankind. In this context, it means you care about others as much as, if not more, than you do about yourself.

For the pragmatists out there, let me summarize this by quoting from the immortal film, G.I. Jane: “A team isn’t a team if you don’t give a shit about each other.”

 Recently, Groupon’s CEO and Founder Andrew Mason cited concerns about the fate of his employees as one reason why he didn’t take the multi-billion dollar offer from Google.  Mason’s choice is a perfect example.  Many companies get swallowed by acquirers and lose their way.  How much money did he leave on the table by this decision?  Whether you agree with his decision or not (and every company’s situation is different), do you think Groupon would have been as successful without that level of commitment? 

This approach doesn’t mean that we don’t run an efficient business, but it does mean we put our employees’ happiness first. With this approach, we’ve experienced tremendous growth during the recession. Our track record reflects this: in the last two years we have grown by over 500% and are accelerating. But like any company, we still have tough days and long nights. We work hard and deliver superlative performance, and in turn, we expect the same from our whole team.

Too often, people confuse compassion with niceness; they are not the same.  You must also be wise.  Wisdom means balancing kindness with clarity of action.  At times that clarity leads you to difficult decisions and hard confrontations.

But we offer something invaluable to our team members in return: respect. And we’re pretty sure that this is an essential ingredient in what makes them thrive.

Here’s a real-world example of what we mean. At Pontiflex, there is one Golden Rule: never interrupt anyone while they are speaking. We’ve found that following this rule has the power to bring people together. And by allowing someone to speak, you allow their voice to be heard.

We’ve actually seen this rule work outside our walls too. One of our employees is also getting his MBA (busy guy). In one of his classes, he noticed his work group was constantly talking over each other and things weren’t going well. He suggested that they try the Pontiflex Golden Rule, and quickly, they made progress and got back on track. 

Think about it: what if the point of business wasn’t just to make money? What if it was also to make people happy? And what if they were, in the end, the same thing?  Steve Jobs has changed the world because he found a way to use technology to make people happy, which is why Apple is one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world today. 

The bottom line is simple. We know it’s probably been said countless times before: be kind.

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