About 4 years ago, we launched a speaker series at The Fool.
Through this program, we bring in interesting people to teach, entertain, challenge, and inspire our employees. Over the years, we’ve had an array of different guests, from business leaders (Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, former Costco CEO Jim Sinegal) to top-notch authors (Michael Lewis, Joshua Foer, Dan Pink) and fun personalities (fitness guru Billy Blanks and the Aflac duck).
The audience varies depending on the guest. Michael Lewis holds the unofficial attendance record: about 180 Fools turned out to see him speak last fall.
At a more traditional firm, an initiative like a speaker series might be discouraged. After all, when employees are watching a speaker, they’re not at their desks.
We have roughly 250 Fools in our office in Alexandria, so when 180 turned out for Michael Lewis, over 70 percent of our employees weren’t doing their day-to-day “jobs”. When companies are focused on the bottom line, it’s easy to ask the question: is a speaker series worth it?
I posed that question to our head “People Fool” last summer. His answer was an emphatic “yes!”
The speaker series, he told me, is all about enhancing the education and development experience of our employees. Fools get inspired when someone great comes to speak to them. They get challenged when they hear something new from an outside expert. Their brains stretch in new ways, and they return to their jobs refreshed and ready to innovate. That trickle-down effect outweighs any productivity they might have foregone to attend the speaker.
Like most of the cultural initiatives we put on at The Fool, the speaker series also helps raise employee satisfaction. Exposing our employees to great minds beyond our doors helps keep them happy and engaged. Such engagement is important in the DC area because there is an abundance of places where high-performers can ply their trades. If the speaker series helps keep our high performers satisfied at The Fool, then it has done its job and then some.
I’ll close with Michael Lewis. I’ve mentioned him a few times because he provided my all-time favorite speaker-series moment. Toward the end of his appearance, Lewis took questions from the audience. One of our investing writers asked him about some of his writing heroes (at 50:30 in the video). And Lewis gave a wonderfully genuine and heartfelt answer about his role models from the New Orleans writing scene. I’d like to think that our writers – who view Lewis as a hero of their own – were inspired by his answer and returned to their jobs with renewed vigor. I can’t quantify the effect his appearance had on our bottom-line that day, but it was a day I won’t soon forget.
I think every Fool has that moment – and it’s not always with the same speaker.
We have diverse guest speakers because we have diverse Fools, and you never know when one speaker will spark innovation inside of any one Fool.
My journey with The Motley Fool all started two years ago in my senior year of high school. Tom Gardner, co-founder and CEO, was a guest speaker in a finance class I was taking through Georgetown University. About a half hour into his talk, I was a complete Foolish convert. I admired The Motley Fool for stressing the importance of taking personal control of your financial health. And I loved the way the company emphasized viewing an investment as a long term commitment to part ownership of a company rather than simply a quick way to make some extra change.
But what really got my attention was the way Tom spoke about people. In discussing the companies he admired and invested in, Tom stressed the importance of aligning passion with purpose. He believed everyone should be passionate about the company’s mission, and should be working in jobs that allow them to exercise their strengths and feel truly fulfilled personally.
He brought this idea to a more personal level with us, too. Most of the students in my class were about to take their first steps into the real world, and Tom gave us a bit of advice about giving purpose to our passions: “Stop getting tutors for your C+ classes, and instead try getting extra credit in your A+ classes.” He then paused and added, “Trust me, you’ll be a lot happier.” This idea’s intuitive validity struck me, and right then I knew that The Motley Fool was the place for me—because any place that perceives work as love made visible is a place to grow both as a person and as a company.
I worked as a full-time intern that summer, and here I am two years later back for my third summer internship. Without a doubt, my experiences here have been nothing short of incredible. The Motley Fool truly values and trusts its employees (here we call them “Fools”). Interns here don’t do any filing papers or making coffee or anything like that—it’s all about making a true impact. The culture lives and breathes the alignment of passion with purpose. I have had the chance to work on all kinds of projects in various departments depending on my interests—HR, finance, internal communication, research, internal education… Few companies give interns that kind of liberty.
Furthermore, the work environment embraces open collaboration and genuine kindness. I can honestly go up to anyone at The Motley Fool and plan a coffee date—no matter what his or her title may be. In fact, I would consider both the CEO and CFO close friends of mine. Truthfully, I have lost count of the number of people who have taken the time to patiently answer my questions and help me with whatever I’m working on. And I will be forever grateful for that.
Interning here is the best decision I’ve ever made, and it is among my most treasured experiences. I would not be the same person today if it hadn’t been for the people here and for the learning opportunities I’ve had. If you’re applying for internships this summer, choose The Motley Fool. You won’t regret it.
The proverbial “they” say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. “They” also say that one should be constantly learning and growing. At The Motley Fool, we believe a bit of both. While we know we’re a great place to work, we also know that other businesses are doing incredible things when it comes to taking care of their employees and customers. Fortunately for us, most places are generous in sharing with us what makes them so special.
We’ve sent Fools out on what we call Expeditions in Learning to well-known companies like Zappos, REI, and Whole Foods. But some great places to check out might be right in your own backyard – or in my case, down the street. BicycleSPACE is a bike shop in my up-and-coming DC neighborhood that has quickly become a center for the city’s cycling community. The owner graciously spent time with me recently, and here’s what I learned:
- Hire the best people and take care of them: BicycleSPACE’s mechanics, combined, have decades of experience building and maintaining bikes. I’ve had my bike tuned up there, and have sent friends there when their own bikes needed repairs. After meeting the staff, I wouldn’t send my bike anywhere else. Usually winter is a slow time for bike shops, but to keep their staff working (and bringing home paychecks), BicycleSPACE offered a Groupon for tune-ups. They didn’t make much money off of the deal, but it kept the shop busy and morale high.
- Know your Business: The mechanics, as I mentioned, are extremely skilled. The buyer has been a self-proclaimed bike nerd since childhood. The owner works with the DC city council on bike advocacy issues. They don’t just sell bikes to whoever will pay for them – they know and stand behind the products they sell, they understand how city politics can affect their business, and they understand their competition. That said…
- Don’t sweat the competition: Do what you do best, and the business will come. In the case of cycling, competition is a good thing. The more bike shops there are, the more biking becomes a normal part of life in DC. This ultimately benefits BicycleSPACE in the long run.
- Be welcoming to everyone: In the U.S., most cycling is done for sport. Walking into a shop as a newbie can be intimidating – the gear, the $3000 road bikes…if you’re not a triathlete, you feel like you just crashed a party. BicycleSPACE aims to make everyone feel like they belong. If you tell them you’re buying your first bike since childhood, and you want it to be red and have a wicker basket on the front handlebars, they congratulate you and hook you up with a bike that fits your needs and budget. At The Fool, we know investing is an intimidating thing for people to do for the first time. If they think they missed the boat and started too late, we just congratulate them for joining us and help them get started!
- Build a community: BicycleSPACE offers informal rides, yoga classes, and other events that generate word-of-mouth publicity and create new customers. It’s also a great way to market toward women because women really value community. At The Fool, our community is a rich source of investing information, and a pool of people we often hire from.
I learned all of that in one hour! If you have the time, I encourage all of you to take your own Expedition in Learning. Interview the owner of a local business, or check out a company headquartered in your hometown. You never know what you can learn or what idea the visit may spark.
Olga Khazan from The Washington Post writes an article about a Foolish visit to Honest Tea:
To learn new business ideas, Motley Fool
tours Honest Tea,
Dogfish Head and others
Seth Goldman is a successful business owner, having grown beverage company Honest Tea from a scrappy Bethesda start-up to a flourishing subsidiary of Coca-Cola. But on one recent Thursday, Goldman found himself working as a tour guide.
“And this is our wall of discontinued products,” he said, gesturing toward a shelf holding dozens of bottles of now-defunct beverages. “We think of them as branches on a tree. Some thrive and some don’t, but those that don’t fertilize the ground for the others.”
Absorbing his words were a team of 10 employees from the Motley Fool, an Alexandria-based company that provides investment advice. In an attempt to glean best practices from other businesses, for the past few months Motley Fool’s executives have been sending teams of the company’s employees on a “Great Idea Hunt” to area companies.
The field trips are part of Motley Fool’s overall educational mission — the company has a “university” where employees instruct each other, and the executives regularly invite other business owners to staff luncheons in order to pick their brains. (Motley Fool contributes a column to Capital Business, On Small Business’s parent publication.)
“We’ve gotten really good at learning from each other, and I wanted to add an outside learning component to that,” said Matt Trogdon, whose role at the company is to connect Motley Fool employees — they call themselves “Fools” — with mentors from other businesses. “The more influences you can get, the smarter you can get.”
The groups are visiting companies such as Affinity Lab, National Geographic and even Delaware’s Dogfish Head brewery, documenting their voyages and making videos to be shown at an April company meeting.
Each business was chosen for a different reason — Dogfish won for its storied positive office culture; at National Geographic, a chief sustainability officer will show the Fools how to green-ify an office building. Despite the differences between their industries, Trogdon said his company shares a similar culture to Honest Tea.
“Honest Tea is trying to be transparent about what they put in their drinks,” he said. “At Motley Fool we are trying to be more transparent by providing advice people can understand.”
A frugal tradition
Back at Honest Tea, the Fools gathered around an island in the company’s kitchen, where one fridge holds employee sack lunches and the other holds test batches of Honest Tea’s new formulations. A product developer stirred red potato powder into a jar of water to show how the company tints its organic teas without artificial coloring.
Goldman passed out tiny cups of a new green tea formula, adding that the company doesn’t rely much on focus groups.
“Everyone has a say in product development,” explained Debra Schwartz, vice president of human resources at Honest Tea. “We literally go from desk to desk so that people can try new products.”
Their spartan approach quickly became a theme throughout the presentation. On trips, employees are usually asked to share hotel rooms. In a video message, one worker said he slept in his car to escape his roommate’s snoring.
“It points to what a young, entrepreneurial business they are,” said Vienna DeGiacomo, who works in blogger relations at the Motley Fool. “They’re always looking at the bottom line. Sleeping in the car, though, that’s not something I’d want to do.”
Honest Tea also leaves its employees well enough alone for most of the day (the majority work remotely.) All company updates, holiday and other announcements come in a once-daily newsletter they call “Afternoon Tea” — a concept that appealed to the Fools.
“We were inspired by their afternoon tea idea and may try to come up with something similar,” Trogdon said.
Maintaining the culture
At one point, a Fool asked if the company culture had changed since Honest Tea was acquired by Coca-Cola in 2011. Schwartz said both companies knew what they were getting into and haven’t butted heads much.
“You can think of the Coke deal as a three-year engagement: We got engaged in 2008, and we got married in 2011,” Schwartz said. “By the time we made the final deal with Coke, they knew we left the dishes in the sink, and we knew they left the cap off the toothpaste. It’s my job to maintain our culture — if that means pushing back on them, that’s what it means.”
Goldman, who refers to himself as “Tea-E-O” instead of CEO, told the story of how he once stood up to Coca-Cola executives when they asked Honest Tea to remove the words “no high fructose corn syrup” from its juice packages. Goldman refused, and Coke execs eventually gave in.
“I like that they’re unyielding in the face of the industry,” said Rex Moore, a stock analyst with Motley Fool. Many of Honest Tea’s competitors have rolled out lower-sugar and lower-calorie products as the company has become more prominent. Honest Teas have between zero and 40 calories per 8-ounce serving, fewer than some other brands.
“They have the industry bending to the way they’re doing instead,” Moore added. “It did help remind us that it’s something we’re always going to have to watch as we grow — staying true to what we are.”