Thrive Global Interviews Animoto CEO on Workplace Culture

Thrive Global

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brad Jefferson. As CEO and co-founder of Animoto, Brad leads the charge in driving Animoto to be the global leader in do-it-yourself video making for businesses, photo professionals, and consumers. Animoto has 100 employees and over 100,000 paying customers across their web and mobile products. Prior to founding Animoto in 2016, Brad spent eight years with Onyx Software, an enterprise software company, and helped the company grow from a 17-person start-up to an 800-person public company that was eventually acquired. Brad lives in Oakland, CA with his wife and two children, all of whom star in lots of Animoto videos.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My two co-founders at Animoto, Stevie Clifton and Jason Hsiao, are good buddies of mine from Bellevue High School near Seattle, WA. The three of us also went to Dartmouth College together and became even closer.

After college, both Stevie and Jason moved to New York City to pursue careers as TV and film producers and editors. I focused on CRM enterprise software in the Bay Area with Onyx Software.

Stevie and Jason thought of the idea of Animoto while discussing how difficult it was to create high-quality videos. They essentially wanted to make professional video post-production accessible to everyone. They knew first-hand how powerful video is as a medium and artform and wanted to empower the average person with video-storytelling capabilities. They approached me with the idea, and I agreed it was a big enough idea for all of us to quit our jobs and pursue full time. That was in August 2006.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting thing that’s happened since I began leading Animoto is the growing market for video itself. In the last few years, changes in social media platforms and the evolving preferences and behaviors of consumers have made video more than just popular — it’s now a necessary part of online life. When Animoto first started, video was a nice-to-have for brands. Maybe they’d have one video on their homepage or create a video once a year for a big product launch. But in the last couple of years, brands have felt the unprecedented demand for video, and consumers have developed an insatiable appetite for video content.

To best address this market opportunity, we created a whole new product. We’ve experienced a rebirth at Animoto in the last couple of years.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re working on some exciting projects to make it easier to create distinct and awesome-looking vertical videos for Instagram. Instagram is obviously the social platform that is commanding a lot of consumer attention at the moment. It’s also surfaced creative opportunities for brands to get discovered, showcase their personality, and interact with their audience.

Video and Instagram are a winning combination. The new project we’re working on is going to help brands adapt even faster to the opportunities that are before them. Instagram Stories offer a whole suite of opportunities for brands to use video regularly — daily, even. We’ll be helping businesses of all sizes and industries create differentiated video content to attract and sustain attention for their brand online.

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?

Employees want to be appreciated and also feel like the work that they are doing matters.

One of the things I’m most proud of at Animoto is that we’ve been named (a few times now) as one of the Top Places to Work by Crain’s NYC. This means so much to me, because we’ve deliberately created a culture that’s predicated on the idea that people should enjoy going to work every day. I think there are few techniques you can use to keep employees happy.

First of all, I’ve found employees are happier when employers foster a culture that’s centered around positive company values that don’t feel forced. Proactively hiring for and reinforcing those values is key. The culture of a company is ultimately defined and reinforced by the employees.

At Animoto, we’ve invented three words that help define our core, essential values. We encourage these attributes and hire for people who possess what we call “humbletude”, “betterfication”, and “oomphosity.” I believe they are what make our workplace fun, functional, and help drive employees to do the best work of their lives at Animoto.

Let me explain our values. “Humbletude” is having confidence in what you do, but also being humble enough to listen to outside perspectives. As for “betterification” — we want people who look for opportunities to improve situations and execute on their ideas. Lastly, we want people who have energy and enthusiasm, or what we call “oomphosity.” This often means having passions and hobbies outside of work. We encourage people to bring what makes them unique to work, and we celebrate that as it adds to our diversity.

Leaders at companies can also contribute to a happy culture and develop trust with employees by providing both honesty and transparency. One thing that the executive leadership team at Animoto strives for is transparency and proactive communication with employees. Of course, there are times where being fully transparent is impossible. However, leadership should aim to communicate changes, upcoming opportunities or roadblocks, updates to strategic thinking, and so forth very proactively and honestly.

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?

A happy employee is a thoughtful employee. I find that when employees feel appreciated, trust their employers, and are in an inclusive environment that celebrates their uniqueness, they bring their best selves to work.

That’s a big win for any company because when employees are engaged they are motivated to go above and beyond for the company, the product and it’s customers. A certain level of loyalty and investment in the company’s success is brought to work when employees know they’re cared for.

This creates a more supportive work climate and attracts positive-minded candidates who also want to contribute to a strong work culture.

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?

  1. Send out an engagement survey once or twice a year and a few smaller “pulse” surveys throughout the year. These help gauge how you’re doing as a leadership team and let you know what’s on your employees’ minds. The open-ended sections of these surveys provide qualitative feedback from employees on how they’d like to see you improve. This also allows managers and executives to get real insight and metrics into whether or not employees are satisfied.
  2. Look for opportunities for employees to bond in a positive setting. Days of service, trivia nights, and hackathons are all great places to start. Taking some working hours for these activities is worth it in the long-run, in my opinion. Make sure you have the buy-in from managers and executive team members.
  3. Identify what your company’s values are and screen candidates for them. All people in an interview cycle at Animoto screen for our company’s values, and I still do the final interview for every single candidate, primarily to double-check for culture fit.
  4. Adopt an clear ownership model like the RASCI model. RASCI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Support, Consultant, and Informed. We use RASCI a lot at Animoto to make ownership clear and take the awkwardness out of people asking who is in charge of specific aspects of a campaign or even big company strategy topics.
  5. Allow for constant training. We’ve brought in external trainers to teach our management team and employees key concepts, ideas, and best practices around productivity, communication, and more as well as utilized our internal People Team. If bringing outside experts is too cost prohibitive, then consider sending a team member who is a talented public speaker to learn something that will enhance the management team or company at large. Have them bring it back to train and strengthen the overall company.

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?

Society definitely applauds working hard. However, burnout is a real side effect when it comes to working too hard.

Knowing that people have dimensions to themselves outside of work is important to realize and celebrate. Employers must make workplaces comfortable for all different types of people with all different types of interests, as studies show that diversity of thought isn’t just good for culture, it’s also good for the bottom line.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I try to first and foremost lead by example. I work hard for Animoto. I want employees to know Animoto’s leadership team is working at least as hard as they are to ensure we fulfill the potential that Animoto has.

I also try to strike a balance between having an attention to detail and knowing we’ve hired best-in-class experts to ensure things are running smoothly. I take the time to read emails, comment in documents, and understand other teams’ strategies. I stay informed and engaged while also staying conscious of not being overbearing or overly prescriptive with my opinions.

We hire experts at Animoto precisely because they are good at what they do. With that said, I will question assumptions, hypotheses, and so on. I encourage healthy debate. When employees are truly engaged with their work, healthy debate happens naturally and and as long as there’s deep trust between team members, the company always wins when we respectfully challenge each other.

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?

The CEO of Onyx Software, Brent Frei, was a mentor of mine from the early days of Onyx, and when I started thinking about starting my own company he offered great insight, having already done it twice himself. I still consider him a mentor today. One of the foundational pieces of advice he gave me was to ensure my co-founders and I were — and remain — on the same page about where the company is and where we want to take it. This meant a founder agreement and regular check-ins. My co-founders and I have now been working together at Animoto for nearly 13 years, and I think Brent’s early advice is a big reason why.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

As a company leader, I feel that I’ve created a positive work environment for people to do the best work of their lives. People at Animoto have developed real friendships, developed new skills, and have reported doing work that they’re unbelievably proud of.

And as a founder of Animoto, I feel grateful to have empowered so many people who’ve created meaningful videos that have brought a lot of goodness to the world. We have people celebrating loved ones who live halfway across the world with video when they can’t be there in person.

We also see brands conveying important messages with Animoto. For example, the Jane Goodall Institute just posted a video to their Instagram account about how recycling cell phones can save apes and preserve our natural resources. It’s been viewed tens of thousands of times in just the first few hours after it was posted.

Our customers convey meaningful, positive messages with video regularly. Animoto videos help make special occasions all the more special and brand messages even more potent.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“No one cares what you know if they don’t know that you care.” There are a lot of smart people out there in the world. When smart meets nice, that’s when the real magic happens.

Leaders at a company don’t simply get to declare leadership. It’s earned. The rest of the company must be on board. This is so much easier (and quite frankly, more human) to do when you take the time to show that you care.

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.

At Animoto, we deeply believe that video is the most powerful and effective form of communication. It evokes the senses and helps deliver a message better than any other form of communication, and it’s universal in its understanding and appeal. Yet it was only a decade or two ago that only companies with deep pockets could afford to communicate using this medium. Our vision is to empower everyone around the globe — companies and individuals alike — with the ability to very simply communicate using the medium of video. We want to democratize this powerful communication medium so everyone — irrespective of means — has access to communicate, market, promote, or simply share using video.

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