For the better part of 30 years, software, hardware, online and social media companies have enjoyed exceptions to almost every traditional rule in business:
- Valuations based on tomorrow’s potential, not today’s financial performance
- Visions of changing the world for the better with little track record of doing it
- Organizational culture defined as an abundance of perks not seen anywhere else in corporate America
- The best and brightest talent waiting in line to change the world—and in the process, getting paid exorbitantly with little experience
- “Cool” campuses that encouraged late nights and acted as a surrogate for many employees’ social lives
- And, of course, tons of cachet with investors and media, who looked past the downsides for fear of missing out on the next big thing
As we near mid-2023, it’s become clear that the technology sector’s days of unbridled awesomeness and envy are behind us. The past nine months have forever changed how employees, investors, and the media will see the broader technology industry. For those in the sector, business as usual is over. And new priorities must take shape for those leading these businesses.
Priority 1: Commit to culture in a big way
Tech company culture is often defined by its perks: flexible hours, remote working, free food, game rooms, yoga, massages, sabbaticals, and numerous other wellness niceties. For many, this has defined what’s great about working in the tech and startup sector. And if you looked at the third-party rankings for best places to work, like Business Insider’s 2022 list, these niceties have come to define great workplace culture.
But perks aren’t culture. They’re part of it, sure. And as we’ve seen over the past nine months, many other ‘non-perks’ shape what it’s like to work at these companies. When the perks are reduced, or disappear entirely, what becomes, or defines, the culture?
Arguably, the more influential things that influence organizational culture include how leaders treat their teams and walk the talk, how colleagues communicate and behave, the values that shape business decisions, and how everyone is rewarded and recognized. Things like this will endure well beyond the end of sabbaticals.
Yet consider how so many of these companies went about trimming their workforces over the past six months. Many were done via mass emails or group Zoom calls. Many leaders did little to demonstrate humanity and explain why these things were happening, and real leadership, empathy, internal communications, company values, and meritocracy were all brought into question. As a result, many of these companies stumbled in a high-profile and public way, leaving workers in the industry with a feeling of betrayal and resentment.
Going forward, technology companies will need to rely on real organizational values—values that shape what it’s like to work with one another, how customers and partners should be treated, and what makes a great employee at their company. This starts in the C-suite, but human resources, middle management, corporate communications, and brand all play critical roles in helping a company find its way forward.
This approach is what tech sector companies need to prioritize. Because restoring faith with employees (and potential employees) should be job one for the leaders of these companies. Those in the C-suite in tech need to show that careers for the people they employ will be valued even in the mildest of economic headwinds. Outside of the tech sector, brands like BCG, DaVita, and Southwest Airlines have proven that values modeled from the C-suite can shape culture and enable employees to feel confident in their leadership and trust their careers to their employers – no matter what happens in the economy.
Priority 2: Develop an employer value proposition beyond compensation
As technology companies retrench, they also need to reconsider what reasonable compensation packages look like, and what their real value proposition is for employees. And in today’s climate, where most investors are asking for revenue AND profitability from their companies, higher salaries are likely off the table. To make matters worse, in recent years, many tech companies have overpaid for talent, setting up a reckoning of sorts as to what “market value” compensation means.
One February 2023 report cited that many Amazon employees saw a 15-35% reduction in their total 2022 compensation because of the organization’s reliance on restricted stock units (RSUs). As the stock sank, employees saw their compensation do the same. And what happened in 2022 may very well happen again in 2023. But Amazon isn’t alone. Many large tech companies have generous RSU or stock vesting packages that could pay well into the six figures and beyond as valuation grows—but that doesn’t fly in a flat stock market with companies increasingly worrying about their margins or racing to profitability. The industry needs to rethink this aspect of employment in a big way. But how?
First, think hard about your value proposition for your employees. What do you uniquely offer that they can’t get at other places? How does that manifest in everyday employee experiences, professional development and personal growth? For a long time, technology companies didn’t need to spend much time on an employer value proposition because they were able to offer the best comp packages to the pick of the litter. But everyone outside of the technology sector competing for engineers, designers, product managers, and data scientists had to – and it worked.
Companies outside of tech still managed to secure top talent – by ensuring their employer value proposition and employee experiences were tied to their brand and its overarching value proposition. They also made sure the experience recruits had while ‘dating’ the company was aligned with their organizational values and purpose. That meant in-person interactions, printed, social and digital communications, and the new employee experiences all worked together to show a walk behind the talk.
But the best companies found ways to also make their employer value propositions tangible daily to those that worked there. Through the experiences in the workplace, career development programs, incentives and recognition efforts, benefits packages and in the communications that reinforced all of it daily.
Some great examples of companies that do this well include KPMG, Gartner, and PwC. And even some elder statesmen of the tech sector, like Microsoft and Apple, do a great job. It’s important to be reminded that money isn’t everybody’s sole or even top priority. Many are driven by a higher purpose, team camaraderie and professional development.
Priority 3: Be proud to stand out from the crowd
Over the past ten years, along with the rise of direct to consumer (DTC) businesses, many brands in tech have rushed to skinny down the role of design and messaging. And as a result, they appear stale and emotionless.
One look at the visual and verbal identities in technology, and you’ll quickly realize it’s become a boring sea of sameness. Lowercase logos, similar fonts, blue color palettes, narrow and limited visual systems, and indistinguishable verbal identities that all sound “friendly.” What was once supposed to be a point of distinction – branding – has now become criteria for fitting in. Today, we have an industry that should look, feel, and sound very different but appears as homogenous as health insurance.
We all know why this happened. Technology is one of the biggest copycat industries, with “visionary CEOs” who are more interested in mimicking the playbook of those who came before them, than blazing their own new paths. Add to it the belief that rich design and emotion gets in the way of product functionality, and you have an industry that’s missing a critical opportunity to use visual and verbal identity for differentiation, connection and growth.
It is safe to assume that over the past nine months, the rapid rise in interest rates has diminished the futures of many DTC brands. And while their look and feel likely didn’t create the headwinds they now face, copying a struggling category also seems silly. Instead, marketing and brand leaders at tech companies should look for inspiration outside of their own categories.
There are many well recognized global brands that continue to parlay a rich visual and verbal brand palette to drive growth and relevance. And their apps, websites and social media channels work just fine.
American Express, a brand that many thought would be obsolete with the rise of digital wallets, continues to thrive. And it does so by leveraging its rich library of unique visual and verbal assets to connect with consumers emotionally, be seen as something distinct, and stay relevant. You can add Bristol Myers Squibb, H+R Block, and Nielsen as additional examples of companies embracing the power of design and language to stand out, say something unique, connect emotionally, reinvent, and win.
The entire technology sector could take a page from some of these old-guard businesses who’ve used their brands to blaze their own trails. Branding, as many have forgotten, is about standing out, not fitting in.
Priority 4: Get the brand story right
Your brand story is your investor story. Turns out, fueling rapid growth and innovative side projects is much harder than advertised without cheap money. And in a down—optimistically, flat—market, executing the famous “hockey stick of growth” chart combined with profits seems improbable. So, what do you tell investors and media who expect double-digit growth, defendable business moats, and 50%+ margins?
At the core of this answer is a brand story. Great brands tell big, clear, compelling stories—in a way that is unique to them. A story that underscores the problems they seek to solve and the value that’s unlocked as they grow. As tech companies scramble over fewer investor and VC dollars and more competitive market dynamics, a brand story will help them stand out for the right reasons and create clarity around why they’re the right choice.
One critical piece of this puzzle is clarity around what your organization does—and why. Too many tech brands perfect their initial product or service and then branch off to satisfy investor demands. In this first chapter of their growth, they often have a crisp story. But as they search for growth, that story becomes increasingly muddled and unclear.
Take Google and their Google X division for example. Combined they have a laundry list of pursuits, ranging from disrupting pharma and life sciences, autonomous cars, operating systems, advertising platforms, network infrastructure, network security, cloud services, streaming services, and energy kites. And I’m sure I missed a few. But the point is, what this company does now well exceeds what we all know it as, a company “organizing the world’s information to make it universally accessible and useful.”
And Amazon is no different. It didn’t just purchase Whole Foods; it added GrubHub, OneMedical, MGM, iRobot, Zappos, Zoox, Ring, Twitch, and Kiva. You might’ve known some of those Amazon purchases, but you probably didn’t know all. And that’s the point. With so many irons in the fire, what is the story? And where is the growth going to be? Where are the synergies with existing customers? And what are the benefits for shareholders with so many new pieces being folded into an ever sprawling and disconnected giant? Amazon’s vision is to be the earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” But what was outlined above sure seems a lot different than that.
And while Amazon may be the industrial-sized example of having a story that doesn’t align with its purpose in the world, many smaller companies in tech do the same thing. And often, it comes at the expense of presenting their capabilities clearly and meaningfully as they go to market. Look no further than Twilio if you’d like to see a high-growth, now-sprawling company that also experienced downsizing in the past six months. Their growth has been meteoric, but one look at their products page will leave you wondering what this company does, how do all these things fit together and what is the end benefit for me as a customer? The litany of capabilities and clever names sure looks impressive. But it also looks overwhelming—and that’s not how any company should come across.
Gone are the days of dropping “SAAS,” “Cloud,” “Digital Transformation” and “Platform” and expecting the world to know what business you’re in.
So, for technology leaders, getting the brand story right is imperative. It isn’t just what you say, but it’s how you say it, and how it becomes easily accessible for those inside and outside the organization. Clarity can be a game changer not just to customers, but investors as well.
It’s been a good run for those in technology. Defying all the business and market norms that shape every other industry for three decades is unprecedented. But it couldn’t last forever. The early years of the sector – ranging from technology stalwarts to high-flying startups – have changed many aspects of business and culture around the world. And that’s impressive.
But change is here, and it cannot be ignored. It’s time to grow up and take a page from those that came before you. And if you do it right, you can restore growth, rebuild trust, and drive profits.
Jason Cieslak is President, Pacific Rim