In this series, Leader Board, we speak with CEOs, managers, founders and others who lead organizations to learn what makes them tick, what they look for in new hires and even where they eat lunch.
As the elevator doors open, I step into an office full of treats and toys, but they’re not for humans. They’re for dogs, who were running around. That’s appropriate, considering this is the New York office of Bark, a retail, ecommerce and tech company that offers products and experiences for dogs and their owners. During my visit, there also happened to be a party going on.
You might better recognize Bark by the name of its well-known monthly subscription service for dogs, BarkBox, which launched in 2012. Since then, the company has seen incredible growth, launching new product lines and services and expanding to 262 people with offices in New York and Columbus, Ohio. Along with BarkBox, the company also operates BarkShop.com and now, with a recent partnership, sells it products in Target stores.
Interrupting the party, which turns out to be a celebration for an employee who is getting married, I meet dog-loving Bark co-founder and CEO Matt Meeker and pull him away from the fun. Bark is Meeker’s fourth startup and another success following his co-founding of online social networking platform Meetup.com, which Meeker serves as an advisor.
Bark has sold more than 50 million products to date, with 10 million BarkBoxes shipped. The company has raised a total of more than $77 million in funding and surpassed $100 million in revenue in 2016. So it’s safe to say Meeker knows a thing or two about launching, growing and running a successful business. And whether he’s running a company of less than 25 employees or one with more than 250, the secret to Meeker’s success lies in the culture.
“You’ve got to be very thoughtful about what you say and what you don’t say, [and] how things are framed,” Meeker shares with Entrepreneur.
From Danish-themed Christmas parties, annual trips around the U.S. to not having any sort of vacation or sick policy, Meeker strives to build a culture of authenticity and success. Not only does that involve celebrating wins at work, but in people’s lives outside the office to, such as weddings, new family members, home buying and more.
From hiring to managing meetings to decision-making, we asked Meeker for his secrets to effective leadership.
On the most important leadership traits:
“For me, [it] is about serving two different customers: the Bark customer — the dogs and their people who we’re making products for — [and] being very focused on their needs and how they’re changing. And our team: Treating them like customers and being very thoughtful about what they need, what they’ll need in the future and building the design to encourage that.”
On leadership style:
“First, [it is] vision-based — trying to set a clear vision and communicate it. [Also] being really conscious of the culture and what type we want to build, and how we facilitate [and] encourage that. Of course, keeping the [wrong] people out of that, and getting many more of the right ones in.
“And I’m very analytical. I’m in the numbers, the data, and I think that’s important. It’s easy to try to fool yourself and say [you’re] doing better than [you] are or frame a stat or number in a different way than what reality is. I try to be very analytical and sober about it and communicate that to the team.
“Setting a vision and setting the culture have been an evolution. This is my fourth company I’ve started, and I’m very used to an environment of 25 or fewer people. It’s really easy to do those things naturally in that environment — everyone sits around you [and] hears everything you talk about. [But] once you grow to 10 times that, it’s a whole different thing. You’ve got to be very thoughtful about what you say and what you don’t say, [and] how things are framed.”
On habits that help him lead:
“I do weekly and monthly reporting, consolidating a lot of metrics and analyzing numbers to tell an overall company story through those. And some of that [is] built into setting the vision: Are we on the right strategic path?
“Every couple of weeks I do AMAs, ‘Ask Matt Anything.’ It’s literally ask me anything, so it gets into the personal … into everything. Recently, there’s been an ongoing theme of ‘Would you rather …’ questions being asked.
“Another daily habit [that] is relatively new: I wake up in the morning and email everyone who has been a subscriber to BarkBox for more than three years and who canceled the previous day. And I just say, ‘Hey, thanks for sticking with us for such a long time. I saw you canceled. If you ever need anything, here’s my contact info.’ I put my phone number in every single email, [but] no one’s ever called [or] texted.”
“Again, it’s the culture and having the systems in place to make sure that the right people are coming in. Building that team is tough because we’re growing fast and everybody has urgent needs, [so] having patience. Good enough isn’t good enough — we need the best, every new hire has to be better than the last.”
On the toughest business decision:
“We try a lot of new businesses and ideas here and we’ve had to shut some down. One of my favorites we shut down was called Bark Care, which we started in 2013. It was an in-home vet service. I have a Great Dane so it’s really difficult to get him in the car and over to the vet so I loved the service but we weren’t ready for it [and] made the tough choice to shut it down. That’s really hard.”
On the most important traits in a new hire:
“We hire a lot of entrepreneurial people. That sometimes results in them having non-Bark entrepreneurial ideas and chasing after those and leaving, which is something we celebrate. We want that to happen and it has happened a few times this year which is super cool. They tend to be the ‘first principle thinking’-type of people, where they are always thinking about what’s best for the company, how to do it quickly and get to an answer really fast. They’re not afraid of making mistakes or trying new things.
“It’s the fit within the team as well. We’ve had some really talented people who didn’t work because they’re talented jerks and that doesn’t fit here.
“I’m kind of inspired right now — we just hired this guy from Nike to run global sourcing for us. I told one of our board members about it and gave him his name and LinkedIn, and he [was] like, ‘Why would he come work here?’ But that’s the sort of the reaction we want from every hire, like, “Wow! How did you get that person to join?’”
On recognizing employees:
“We don’t have a formal mechanism for it. It’s not something I can fake or not be genuine about. There are a lot of ways to communicate but when I see something, I’ll just say it. It tends to be more in the moment and ad hoc.”
“We do an annual trip with the whole team that started with a ski trip to Vermont, where we had 25 of us in one giant house and everyone went skiing and had a good time, and it’s continued to grow. Two years ago, we took everyone to Orlando for a week at Disneyworld and Universal.
“We [also] have our legendary Danish Christmas party that only team members are ever allowed into. Families in Denmark have a series of traditions around a holiday party. It’s the food that they eat, they sing different songs — some of those songs taunt other people in the room to make a toast or to drink everything that’s in front of them. There are games involved like gift giving or gift exchange. We had a broken ankle last year. We’ve taken it to a really terrible extreme.”
On unique office rituals:
“When we hire someone new and they come to their first team meeting, they have to dance in front of everyone.
“We have our drop cameras throughout the office for security … [Sometimes] people fall out of these chairs [when] they’re just sitting there. So we publish videos and they get sent around constantly.
“Our employee agreement has quite a few things that you must do for dogs and different dog puns throughout. So everybody’s is different — a lot say that you have to give a certain number of belly scratches every month.”
On managing meetings:
“We’re constantly trying to coach people on how to be more effective in things like arriving on time and having an agenda. I’ve got a new personal rule where I won’t take a meeting before 1 p.m., so my whole morning is dedicated to customers and being focused on how to serve them better.
“There’s a new thing that I’m starting to try, which is if you want to schedule a meeting with me then you have to first send me an agenda and then I’ll determine how long the meeting is based on the agenda.”
“The 1 to 5 p.m. range is usually meeting with people who directly report to me or teams that want me involved in something. It’s a lot of culture, keeping up, managing people. And then I go home, spend time with my dog and I’m usually catching up on email [or] on metrics at night.
“I basically work myself tired until Friday night, then I go home and collapse and do nothing except go to the park with my dog on Saturday. [But] by Sunday morning I’m ready to go again.”
On office setup:
“I sit on the sixth floor because that’s where I was assigned to sit. I had nothing to do with the seating chart. And I actually sit on a little blue block — I don’t even have a chair. I have almost nothing on my desk. I don’t really want a desk. I need a place to charge my computer and my phone and that’s about it. I like to move around a lot and talk to people.”
“[I] just go out every day and bring something back. I’m starting this new thing where I take eight people who I don’t regularly eat lunch with [or] interact with day to day and go out to lunch as a group. I’m trying to do it every week.”
On a strong company culture:
“Consistency. [Being] clear about what we value and what we don’t. And I hope it’s a good way for people to weed themselves out, to say, ‘That sounds like a great place to work but it’s not for me.’ Trying to be very transparent, genuine [and] authentic.”
On cultural mistakes:
“Because I’m much more early-stage oriented, or that’s been more of my experiences, I have the constant temptation to jump into the day to day and see challenges or opportunities and prescribe ideas or solutions to them right away. I’m learning to step back and coach people on how to think to get to those same conclusions or different and better conclusions.”
On his biggest cultural win:
“The biggest win for me is always seeing people thrive personally. Rachel [downstairs] is getting married this weekend. We see people buy homes. There was a guy in Columbus who had a baby yesterday. We keep track of how many Bark babies we have.
“It’s really cool to see people doing well and growing and thriving in their personal lives, and having personal lives that are attached to us but not negatively affected by us. Hopefully very positively affected.
“We keep this a really fun and engaging and challenging place to work but we take the approach that we treat people like adults. There’s no vacation policy, there’s no sick policy. If you need time off, take time off, spend it with your family.”
On his role models:
“I’m a big fan of Jeff Bezos from Amazon. The biggest lesson there is customer obsession: always focus on the customer and don’t lose sight of that. The second is Walt Disney — being obsessive about pushing the boundaries, being meticulous about the design of the future and making it great.”
On his favorite leadership books:
“Made in America by Sam Walton.”
On where most leaders go wrong:
“For me, it comes back to the cultural nature of it. It’s getting the right people together and caring a tremendous amount about them, supporting them and getting the environment right. There’s temptation to just cut the corners on that especially if you’re growing fast. So I’d say the biggest challenges or mistakes come out of straying away from being true to yourself.”