How an Ugly Award and Strong Values Built a Sticky Culture

NetMotion was recently acquired by Absolute. Here’s the people strategy that built a great company.
Written by Eva Roethler
September 27, 2021Updated: September 27, 2021

It’s easy to see how a company like NetMotion would have long employee tenures and low turnover. In 2019, the company reported that just 2 percent of the staff left, which it attributes to life events such as moving overseas or following a lifelong dream.

“When I first joined I wondered why employees stayed with NetMotion for so long. We’re a software company in Seattle where the average tech company tenure is two to three years,” said Christina Balam, vice president of human resources. 

It isn’t very hard to find the answer to Balam’s question. One thing that is abundantly clear is the NetMotion team’s great sense of camaraderie. Laughs come easily, and the group builds seamlessly on each other's responses. The team cites the culture and core values — particularly trust, collaboration, ingenuity and a focus on customers — as the foundation for their achievements.

NetMotion offers a range of software solutions geared toward improving connection for distributed workforces, such as emergency responders, airlines and delivery services.  The company was acquired by Absolute in July 2021 for $340 million. Over the two decades since the company was founded, its success has been supported by the pillars of its people strategy.

 

Core Values

  • Whatever it takes
  • It takes a village
  • Earn trust through communication
  • Positive attitude and a family spirit
  • Be creative and take initiative

 

With so much to offer jobseekers, Built In Seattle connected with cross-functional members of the team for a glimpse into life at the company. Spoiler alert: It includes a comically “ugly” Stanley Cup that epitomizes office culture and clutch Fast and the Furious film references.

 

What role does trust play in NetMotion’s culture, and how has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted that trust?

Principal Product Manager John Hillock: You always hear companies talk about providing great work-life balance, but sometimes I wonder if they do because you cannot have that without trust. I’m a perfect example of that because I volunteer my time to coach little kids at night, and there are three months out of the year where my life is chaos. The people on my team at work all know that, and understand I can’t have meetings after 4 p.m. because I am volunteering. But they trust that I am going to get my work done. It can’t be overstated; it’s really just understood across the organization.

We had to get over the logistics of technology before the pandemic when we were opening up other offices. No one should feel like they are on an island; they should feel like they are part of the process. We have members of our team all over the place, some who work from home for medical reasons, and we had to make sure all of those people had access even before the pandemic.

Technical Support Manager Brian Bailey: My team has been working remotely for years. It’s not something everyone can do. You’ve got to trust that people are doing what they are supposed to do, when they are supposed to do it. Micromanaging is not my style.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of different family issues come up, and I’ve been able to talk to HR and let them know what’s going on in my life and they have my back and make me feel like I’m part of a family. I had an issue last year where I had to be out for a while, and I got a call from Christina offering to pay for dinner for me and my family, so I didn’t have to worry about it. That’s the kind of environment we work in. Someone is always looking out for you.

 

Describe how collaboration plays a role in NetMotion’s culture and success.

Bailey: Whether it’s sales, product management or development: Who don’t I collaborate with? Just a couple of days ago, there was a meeting for a new release that included the support team. That doesn’t always happen at other companies. Sometimes there is a mindset like, “We’re going to do this product this way,” and the customer is an afterthought. In this company, we always ask, “What is the customer doing? How can they use this product? What can we do to make it better?”

VP of Human Resources Christina Balam: Collaboration is a huge part of our culture. Years ago, we had an employee focus group where we asked questions like, “What does it take to make someone successful at NetMotion?” Their response was: “It takes a village.” So we added that to our list of core values. We work to reinforce those values in every capacity possible. 

Also, we have a peer-based recognition program that has a really ugly trophy. Our Q2 winner was just announced recently. It’s not something that’s driven by management, either, it’s genuinely the team members asking it of one another and reinforcing these values every day. 

 

Can you describe this ugly trophy and award program?

Balam: It’s called our BFA, which stands for the Big Friggin’ Award. It’s maybe a 15-pound trophy and at some point over the years, someone taped a rubber vulture prop to the top. Each quarter the winner gets to sign their name on tape and stick it to the trophy. It’s gotten pretty hideous over time, but it’s so beloved and everyone who is nominated also gets recognized with a personal banana-shaped trophy to keep. People post these on LinkedIn, so it’s something really fun to reinforce what we believe in.

NetMotion Big Friggin Award: Vera the Vulture
Netmotion

How does the company encourage ingenuity, or respond to an outside-of-the-box idea that doesn’t work as anticipated?

Balam: We don’t believe that ingenuity and innovation can happen without inclusivity and trust. People make mistakes — that’s just human nature. I’ve never had an experience at NetMotion where someone makes a mistake and they get fired for it. If someone owns a mistake, everyone jumps in and says, ‘What can we do to fix this?’ I’ve never seen finger-pointing. That’s something we are very careful to hire for.

Bailey: I love this team that fits between support and development. We call it the Quick Fix team. They are the saviors for the support team when we are just stumped on a customer issue. We can escalate it to that team, and they go into their little coding cave and pound out some code to fix the issue on a quick turnaround. When we talk about customer satisfaction and being able to just make something work, the Quick Fix team is integral to the support and development teams. They’re fixing things and rolling that into development for the next release.

Hillock: I run into this a lot. We get input from teams about what doesn’t work or should work better. It’s my job to digest that information and communicate it to the teams who are going to be building new features or releases. I’m writing user stories, and oftentimes I miss the mark. Then we’ll get in a room weekly or biweekly and have a grooming session where I go through the user story with the development team and figure out where things could go wrong and how to make it better. We go back and forth, everyone has input and we literally take a vote.  

 

I love how candid you are about sometimes missing the mark. What is the culture like around failure or ideas not working out?

Hillock: It’s understood that a lot of times you are in the unknown when building a new feature. There is no blueprint, or no one has done it before. We’re guessing and making assumptions. Everyone understands that. So we’ll test it and get together to solve problems. There is no, “You screwed up, you’re an idiot.” Instead, we figure out how to solve it, because it needs to be solved.

 

Describe how you see a customer-centric mindset show up in daily life at NetMotion.

Hillock: For product management, every year we used to have customer advisory board meetings bringing in 15 to 20 of our largest customers from around the world for two or three days to talk through our roadmap, listen to their complaints, and understand what their business challenges are and where they are headed. This allows us to get ahead of the curve, so we aren’t just putting out fires. We are thinking 12 to 24 months down the road. As a product manager, what’s great about that is that we can release these features and the next time we meet with the customer advisory board, we can show them that we listened. So much of our product roadmap is completely driven by customer input and probably 80 percent of features going into big releases come directly from customers. The other 20 percent is mainly to ensure that we’re competitive in the market.

Bailey: When you’re a customer-facing team, it’s about making sure the customer feels like they are dealing with professionals. In my opinion, that comes down to how happy your team is to be there. That’s something I work on with Christina; we check in to see how the team is doing and if they have any problems.

Balam: Interestingly, I see our customer-centric mindset being the result of longer tenures. I asked our CTO why longer tenures are so common and he said, “Our product saves lives.” NetMotion’s first customers were originally predominantly in public safety, and you can see how inspired our people are by supporting first responders. When you think about our software in the field and helping the community, that’s something you can take home at night.

 

NetMotion Emergency Responder Support In Action

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, killing nearly 150 residents and creating an estimated $70 billion in damages, making it one of the costliest storms in U.S. history. A week before it hit, the city of Toms River, New Jersey, had piloted 50 NetMotion licenses for its emergency vehicles. When the storm blew through, the wireless connection went down in all vehicles — meaning they couldn’t obtain addresses for emergency response, write reports or connect to databases — except those utilizing NetMotion. The city called NetMotion tech support asking for more licenses, immediately. Instead of forcing the city to purchase new licenses, the company offered 25 temporary surge licenses until order could be restored. In addition, it sent generators to leadership team members needing power. After the storm, the city executed a full-scale rollout of NetMotion across its fleet.

 

The company was recently acquired by Absolute. How do you think these core strengths keep your teams anchored, especially as you move into this transition period?

Bailey: When people come here they are integrated into this culture, this family, and they don’t leave. I always say it’s like a family — I feel like Vin Diesel from Fast and the Furious. I’ve felt it since the moment I started. 

I feel like I can talk to anyone in the C-suite without feeling like they are above me. It’s a natural conversation, and I’m not just a subordinate. That makes it easier to do your job.

I always say it’s like a family, I feel like Vin Diesel from Fast and the Furious. I’ve felt it since the moment I started.

Balam: Every day we try really hard. This is an ecosystem that relies on everyone. Often the word culture is ambiguous; people don’t know what that feels like. I think we’ve been able to, as a team, identify what our values are and reinforce them through programs like the Big Friggin’ Award. We can more easily identify people and behaviors that would be a cultural add and what they’re contributing to the ecosystem.

Hillock: When I was interviewing here, I was really picky. But what impressed me was that my boss had been here for 20 years, and his boss had been here for 20 years. Everyone in the interview circuit, which was around 12 people, had been at the company for more than 10 years. That is extremely rare. 

Here there is no saying, “No, that’s not my job.” We’ve all got goals to meet, and that means we’re all going to be licking and stuffing envelopes or helping out on the phones if we need to. We’re going to get the job done together. That’s just the attitude. If someone doesn’t know how to solve a problem, everyone will pipe up and figure it out. I really couldn’t be happier with the choice I made to join the company.

 

 

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