When I stepped into the Marmoset offices in Portland, Oregon I instantly thought, “this is a cool place.” Not in a hip, trendy way, but in an authentic, “wow, the people here seem so happy and welcoming” way. A global music agency based in Portland, Marmoset was founded in 2010 and now employs 42 passionate folks.
I chatted with their Founder and CEO, Ryan Wines, about how they’re creating a genuinely happy and inclusive workplace through communication, design, and community. In addition to building Marmoset, Ryan also maintains a journal at Nurture Theory, where he shares some of his most impactful experiences, and focuses on a new way of leading and achieving high team performance. I talked with him more about his, and Marmoset’s, journey towards inclusivity.
What does being inclusive as a company mean to you?
By definition, being inclusive means including everyone. To me, inclusivity is about making a community inviting and encouraging for everyone. Beyond that, inclusivity means being proactive and intentional in reaching out to people of every kind. Creating a place that is safe and happy—a place where everyone is welcome.
When did inclusivity become important to you as the CEO of Marmoset?
In the first couple of years of the company, our vision was never more than to have a three-or four-person organization that could be run from my basement. When thinking that small, I wasn’t thinking about inclusion—it was about whoever showed up, if anyone showed up.
After about two years, it became clear that Marmoset had legs and was going to be something more than a half-assed side business. We started thinking about our purpose, which is community. With that in mind, one of our foundational beliefs was inclusivity.
So we took a breath and looked around. I looked at myself and my co-founder Brian. I looked at our first hire who was Brian’s best friend, our bookkeeper who was Brian’s wife, and our senior intern who was also a white dude. We had four privileged straight, white dudes and one white woman doing bookkeeping. That got my attention. That wasn’t the environment I wanted to work in or the community I wanted to build. At that moment, I knew building a diverse company and an inclusive culture was going to be a priority… and a challenge.
This is likely an obvious question, but why is inclusivity important to you as a CEO?
Deep down in my soul I think it’s the right thing to do. Working at an inclusive company is an opportunity for everyone to learn and grow and contribute to the greater good. And ideally, it results in a net positive outcomes for everyone.
The reason why there’s so much homogeneity in the workplace is because it’s easy. We naturally enjoy spending time with people we can easily connect with who have similar cultural interests. As soon as you insert someone who’s different, it often becomes more challenging to relate, and sometimes even to communicate and work, with them. As humans, we tend to pull away from what’s hard and default to what’s easy.
I believe if we push ourselves to diversify, recruit, and retain people who are different from each other, the upside is so much greater. It’s especially helpful to have different perspectives and insights into what we do at Marmoset, because we work in music and film, which are so subjective and nuanced. Diversity in our work and in our craft can be a significant competitive advantage. No doubt, I’ll continue to push into these challenges as a leader. Matters of diversity, equality, and inclusion are such an iceberg area to me and I feel like I’m barely seeing the tip of it.
What me and other white, straight, privileged male CEOs have to ask ourselves is: How do we protect, encourage, empower and celebrate people who are different? Further, how do I achieve harmony without whitewashing all of the unique, diverse attributes I’m working to achieve? Diversity fails if we merely hire diverse people and then assimilate them to a mainstream, white culture.
What were the first steps Marmoset took to build an inclusive environment?
The first step is awareness. There was never an intention for the company to be five white, privileged, straight people. After becoming aware of the direction we were growing in, I’ve made it a priority to recruit diverse people, and have been progressively hiring for diversity, equity and inclusion since.
As much as I don’t want it to be true, Portland is pretty white and homogeneous, especially within the business community. Fortunately, Marmoset’s community is global and our biggest markets are NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, LA and Europe. Knowing this, we’ve had to look beyond Portland and become much more intentional about the diversity of our team. We’ve also been connecting to the LGBTQ community in Portland, and I’m learning I have to work a lot harder and put in more time and energy into recruiting in communities of color.
Have you involved other key members of your team in building inclusivity? If so, how?
The worst thing I could do is to start dictating, forcing or shoving diversity talks and trainings down people’s throats. Instead, I’ve been fostering team involvement with intention and care. The issue is that as a white, straight guy at the top of the org chart, I have to know when to get out of the way. It’s my job to recruit and develop leaders who don’t have the same makeup as me, and empower them to help lead the way on matters of diversity and inclusivity.
We have a well defined scope of who we’re looking for in new employees at Marmoset, and that either attracts or repels people very quickly. We are very intentional in how we articulate our values to candidates. Our initial filter when recruiting is to evaluate candidates on the company’s five virtues of a successful Marmoset employee. Our first interview is all about determining if someone embodies those virtues or not. The second interview is more focused on the role and the specific work at hand.
For me personally, the key to learning about building an inclusive workplace has been to seek out wisdom and experiences from people of different groups and communities than the ones I am a part of. To listen and learn from them. The whole journey is quite complex and nuanced. I’m fortunate to have people of color and people from many different identities and communities in both my professional and my personal life who’ve been great in offering me their help in building a more inclusive culture. I can approach them and say, “I don’t have the answer to this, please help guide me.” Of course, this requires a special level of trust. Having these relationships has been critical in navigating and learning about the broader endeavors around diversity and inclusion.
At Marmoset your team seems genuinely happy. Was employee happiness by design or did it evolve organically?
100% by design. Employee happiness is one of the number one things I work on. Seven years in, we now have amazing leaders who work autonomously and don’t need me day-to-day. This allows me to work on what I want, and that is people and human systems. That’s my main thing.
I spend a lot of time focusing on how to make people’s lives better. Most of the companies I have worked for in the past did not make me feel valued or cared for. I’m trying to reverse engineer my experience. Two of our core values speak to this: to take care of our people and to have fun, unplug, and enjoy the fruits of our labor.
We’re dedicated to having lives outside of work that are far more important than the work we do. Don’t get me wrong, the work we do is good and makes an impact. But if employees are pushing their limits too far and working too hard or too much, I remind them that no one needs to risk their peace of mind or their sanity for the work we do. The result is a group of people who are far more committed and passionate than they’d be at most other organizations. We get better quality work and increased productivity with our approach too. It's a win-win.
Does the design of your physical space play a role in building inclusivity and fostering happiness? If so, how?
Definitely. A lot of attention has gone into creating common, community space. In addition, each department has their own dedicated pod or area, which is open inside. I don’t like to see people siloed off by themselves. Some people criticize the noise and distractions of an open office, and while I totally get that, I’ve also learned to embrace the benefits. I want the team to take breaks and talk to each other. To be aware when someone is celebrating in the kitchen or spinning a new record in the lounge. Designing central open spaces provides a canvas for more community, relationships and human interaction.
For example, someone once asked for a mini fridge and a water cooler in their team area because the kitchen is a long walk from their space and I said no. I want the team to have to interact with people by walking across the office and spending time in the community kitchen. And the exercise is good too. I also refuse to get a commercial coffee machine. Instead, we have pour-over coffee. If someone wants coffee they have to take a little more time and talk to people they may not normally encounter while they make it. Again, this forces people to slow down and step away from their work for a couple extra minutes. There's plenty of research out there supporting these practices as well.
I’m new to Portland, but your company seems to have deep roots in the community. How does this impact your culture?
Being involved with the greater community keeps us more aware on a macro level. It gets us out of our chairs and our of our doors and into conversation with others. And it invites people in—in a way we wouldn’t achieve with our heads down just trying to get work done.
Most CEOs would ask what the ROI is on community involvement, but it’s had a positive impact on our business in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined. We often collaborate with clients on community projects that would have never happened if we didn’t have a community mindset.
For instance, we recently participated in two killer events for Design Week Portland. For one of them, we held an experiential art event, curating a live performance between a musician and a filmmaker, drawing in an audience of about 100 people from the creative community. Happening simultaneously about 12 blocks away we collaborated with a creative agency client, providing custom scored music for a visual art exhibit, drawing more than 1000 people in a cool industrial space. It was a crazy fun night on many levels.
Do you have any other advice for founders looking to build inclusive environments and happy teams?
The more trust, empowerment, and free reign I’ve given my team, the better results we’ve achieved. The worst thing I could do is have rigid rules and micromanage everyone by closely watching everything they do and scrutinizing them.
A lot of tech companies are using agile and lean methodology to operations and are looking for increased efficiency and high returns. But I think you can focus too much on efficiency, output, returns—so much so that one might forget about people.
Rather, I approach the two hand-in-hand, in harmony, simultaneously increasing efficiencies and taking care of our people. If my business is lean, efficient and free of bottlenecks and frustrations, then the work and quality of life for our people will inherently be better.
Not to be missed, using this approach, we’ve soared by more than 40% year-over-year growth every single year since we launched, with strong profitability, and it shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Knock on wood.
Photography by Dan Hawk Photography