At Thumbtack, it’s better to be the best

Top midsize company • Professional-services matchmaker keeps striving for new ways to boost its employees and, as a result, its business.

After your employees launch you to the top of the list for best places to work in the Beehive State, the hard part is over, right?

Not if you're a manager at Thumbtack.

The digital platform that matches customers with professionals, from contractors to wedding planners, was named the best midsize company in The Salt Lake Tribune's Top Workplaces survey last year. To leaders like James Hwang and Robert Buckley, the view from the top led them to look for more challenges to scale.

"We live and breathe the fact that we don't want Thumbtack to be a great place to work," says Hwang, vice president of customer success and operations. "We want it to be the best place anybody's ever worked at."

His employees have caught his vision: This year, Thumbtack repeated as Utah's top medium-size company, according to an employee survey conducted by WorkplaceDynamics.

In survey comments, employees praised the upbeat work environment and Thumbtack's mission — to transform the way people accomplish their projects while helping professionals grow their companies.

"I hit the job lottery with Thumbtack," wrote one employee. "They lead with inspiration and encouragement rather than fear."

Another, echoing a common theme, wrote: "It allows me to be the best me possible. I am given opportunities every day to grow and learn."

Hwang and Buckley, Thumbtack's human resources director, knew their workplace culture was strong. The 230 employees at the Sandy office (headquarters are in San Francisco) get free lunch, unlimited time off, $450 per quarter to hire professionals through Thumbtack, quarterly social events and dozens of other perks.

But when they assessed employee loyalty and engagement, the two executives decided that they needed to improve. Engaged employees are the holy grail of building customer loyalty: Their enthusiasm catches on with other workers, they brim with energy and creative ways to boost the company, and they are better to their customers, according to the management consulting firm Bain & Co., which created the engagement survey.

Buckley focused on two initiatives to lift loyalty: giving praise and providing learning opportunities.

He challenged team supervisors to find novel ways to compliment employees. And employees and bosses can praise one another using an online tool, with the recognition sent companywide.

"It's just a really simple, human emotion," Buckley says. "Everybody likes to be told, 'Thank you' and be encouraged."

To promote learning and career development, Thumbtack launched an internal brand, It All Counts. Instead of restricting to promotions the idea of growth, Thumbtack encourages workers to develop a learning plan for the year. The plan can take the shape of shadowing a mentor, completing company courses to learn a new job, going to college, even reading relevant books.

Because of on-the-job training courses, nearly all of the new job postings are filled from within, says Hwang.

Studies have found that companies that emphasize learning are more likely to innovate, and are more productive and profitable. Employees say they prefer getting access to learning opportunities over a spontaneous cash bonus or time off, according to the employee-engagement-software company Quantum Workplace.

To find out what they value, Buckley asked Thumbtack employees about the 49 perks the office offers or was considering adding. He eliminated the monthly desserts to celebrate employment anniversaries and added another chance to learn: Dave Ramsey's SmartDollar personal finance courses.

The constant drive to improve the workplace is a rejection of antiquated notions of work, says Buckley. "Why does work have the motif that it has to be hard and you get beat up? We just don't believe in that. … We're always trying to do fun and great things outside of work. Why can't you do fun and great things inside of work?"

As Thumbtack's recruiting development manager, Brandy Heinberger oversees 40 employees — whom she views as her customers — who seek out software engineers to work in San Francisco. The 33-year-old had a background in operations, but not recruiting, when she took the job.

Thumbtack empowers here by giving her the chance to learn new skills, she says, unlike other workplaces that may expect employees to know their job and little else about other operations. She can sit in on any meeting at Thumbtack because all are open so employees can come and learn. She attends weekly manager-training sessions, and she found a mentor in Hwang.

"He allowed me to make mistakes, which I think that's probably something I love about Thumbtack," she says. "We very much welcome that. You're obviously learning if you're making mistakes."

As a boss, she is willing to help employees grow, even when she knows they aren't planning to stay at the company for long. For one employee who was headed to medical school, Heinberger says she helped her map out her day so she could manage work and school. "My job, as their leader, is to help them grow and improve, whether here or somewhere else."

Alex Lott says Thumbtack takes care of him, and he, in turn, gives his all when he's on the job.

Not only did he receive a stipend to cover business courses he took at Orem's Utah Valley University, but Thumbtack also trusted him with the alarm code so he could work a couple of hours early in the morning before school. He started at an entry-level position; two years later, the 29-year-old manages the team that moderates the website.

"I had aspirations to move into those positions. They helped me find the projects and education to help me get there," he says. "They put me in a place to help myself succeed."

When Lott graduates, he says he has no plans to leave Thumbtack.

"When the company cares about me, it makes it easy for me to care about the company," he says. "I try to obsess over those customers because I know that's what's best for the customers."

Best. That's a word often heard at Thumbtack.

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