CEO Role #2: Defining the Culture

April 5, 2011

Here’s an early excerpt from the article “The CEO Job Description.” It’s an early “unfinished” version that I’m just getting out there because I can’t stand writing sitting on a computer doing nothing :-) . Enjoy!

On the topic of building culture, take a look at this News & Observer article on iContact’s office space if you haven’t seen it yet…


Excerpt from “The CEO Job Description” by Ryan Allis

CEO Role #2: Defining Your Culture

One key role of the CEO is to set the tone for the culture of the organization. Fish rot from the head down. How you act and the words you use will have a big impact on your ability to recruit the best and brightest and create an unforgettably wonderful work environment to retain your superstars. So will how your senior team acts and the words they use.

So, what the heck is culture anyway?

A culture is the set of unique activities that a group of individuals do that differentiate them from another group of people. These groups could be called tribes. So what it is that your tribe does that differentiates them from your competitor’s tribe? What are your unique tribal traits (UTTs)?

Culture (n.) - the set of unique activities that a group of individuals do that differentiate them from another group of people.

Defining your company culture clearly can attract the type of people to your tribe that you want, in turn creating a more passionate team who then create wow products and provide wow service to your customers, ending the cycle in creating a base of loyal customer evangelizers.

Culture is something that must be authentic. It can’t be faked. But it can be guided over time by hiring people that align with the values you hold dear and holding them accountable to living these values.

There is a three step process to begin to define your culture as CEO:

  1. Define your unique tribal traits
  2. Define your values
  3. Define the actions you take to support your tribal traits and values

Step1 in Building Culture: Define Your Unique Tribal Traits (UTTs)

Step one in defining your culture is defining the words that you want to describe your culture that are inherent in your team DNA. In August 2010 we went through an exercise during a monthly Culture Committee Meeting at iContact. We asked a cross-section of our employee base to write down the five words that they would use to describe our culture. The five words that came up the most frequently in the group of employees were:

  • Fun
  • Creative
  • Energetic
  • Challenging
  • Community-oriented

Great. Now we knew how team members described our company culture. At least according to our tribe, we were MORE fun, creative, energetic, challenging, and community-oriented than most other companies. These were our Unique Tribal Traits, our cultural DNA. This process gave us critical knowledge about our culture and how to invest in it.

What are your company’s UTTs?

Step 2 in Building Culture: Define Your Values

Step two in defining your culture is defining the values you and your company holds dear.

Values – Your company’s values are the unique precious behaviors you want your team members to hold dear and go above and beyond in bringing to life. For a value to be a company value you must be willing to fire someone if they didn’t display that behavior. You should have no more than five values so they can be remembered. Ideally you’d have an acronym that can be pronounced to correspond with your values. Avoid generic values that everyone uses that don’t actually differentiate (honesty, integrity) and ensure your values start with verbs and not nouns. Most people think values are things. Values aren’t things they are behaviors.

iContact’s Five Values (WOWME):

  • Wow the Customer
  • Operate With Urgency
  • Work Without Mediocrity
  • Make a Positive Wake
  • Engage as an Owner

Step 3 in Building Culture: Define The Actions You Take to Support Your Tribal Traits & Values

Step three in building your culture is defining the actions that you take as a company that support your cultural descriptors and values.

We’ve learned a lot about consciously building culture as the company has grown from awesome companies like Zappos and Google.

Here are some of the things iContact does to help us live up to our tribal traits:

Fun, creative, & energetic:

  • We have Cool benefits like monthly massages for employees, free drinks, monthly lunches, annual car washes (along with the standard health, 401(k) matching, and options)
  • We hold a quarterly high-energy team kick-off with costumes to share, align, and celebrate
  • We hold new employee graduations in full regalia with pomp and circumstance
  • We have a 17′ slide that goes from the game room to the product and marketing area
  • We divided our two floors into the northern and southern hemispheres (with the slide between them). The continents of Africa and South America are on floor two and Europe and North America are on floor three. Each continent has four region. Each region has a team leader. Each regional area has designed their space and conference rooms to be representative of their region of the world including turning cubes into African huts in the Serengeti and mounting taxidermied moose in Eastern Canada.


  • To work at iContact you must be passionate about serving the customer and working hard. We are a high-growth internet company and recruit the best and brightest. We very much are a performance-based meritocracy and those who perform well stay and grow.


  • We are a purpose-driven company and B Corporation
  • We have a 4-1s Corporate Social Responsibility Program. We give 1% of equity, 1% of product, 1% of payroll, and 1% of time back to the community.
  • We give each employee an added 2.5 days off every year to volunteer in the community, tracked via a tool called VolunteerForce

Define The Actions That Support Your Values

In our annual performance review process and in every coaching conversation we refer to our values and give each employee a 1-4 ranking on how they are doing in living up to the value. (1=red, 2=yellow, 3=green, 4=supergreen).

Noting that some of these are aspirational and still being perfected, other actions that we work on taking at iContact to support our WOWME values are:

Supporting Actions to Wow the Customer

  • We work to create an unforgettable overall customer experience.
  • We take complicated things and make them simple through design and UI.
  • We make the product experience unforgettable.
  • We make the service experience unforgettable.
  • We work to highlight the customer’s success in everything that we do.

Supporting Actions to: Operate with Urgency

  • We use the agile development methodology on a ten week release cycle so we can get new features to market quickly.

Supporting Actions to Work Without Mediocrity

  • We put out quality work that is engineered for scale.
  • We put every new team member through company training and product training to share with them our values.
  • Every year all new managers go through our Managerial and Leadership Training (MALT) Program.
  • We don’t accept mediocrity as leaders and managers.
  • We move people out of the organization that are not performing well.

Supporting Actions to Make a Positive Wake (similar to actions to making us community-oriented)

  • We ensure team members build people up
  • We are a purpose-driven company and B Corporation
  • We give back through the 4-1s and VolunteerForce
  • Our employees receive an extra 2.5 days of PTO for volunteering each year
  • Our internal and external communications are fun, creative, and energetic
  • We have a slide in the office and decorate the office like our sixteen geographic regions to further creative thinking

Supporting Actions to: Engage as an owner

  • Every employee receives options to be able to become a shareholder
  • We act like owners because we are owners.

So what actions will you take to ensure you and your team members live your values?

In Summary

So, in review, the three step process to begin to define your company culture as CEO is:

  1. Define your unique tribal traits (UTTs)
  2. Define your values (precious unique behaviors)
  3. Define the actions you take to support your tribal traits and values.

What is your company culture like? What are your unique tribal traits? What are your values? And what actions will you be taking to define and build your company culture as you grow???

You’re Invited: A Metropolitan Safari for Rwanda at iContact

November 2, 2010

I wanted to invite Dare Mighty Things readers to a special event coming up at iContact. We are hosting a “Metropolitan Safari” on Monday November 8th at 6:30pm at our new offices in Morrisville.

We will have as guests two remarkable women from Rwanda who will share with us their perspective of the Rwandan genocide, how the country has turned their economy around through technology and entrepreneurship, and the role of women in rebuilding the country. We will also be giving the grand tour of our beautiful new space and offering rides on our new slide.

We will have African food, African music, and an open wine and beer bar.

Tickets can be purchased here. You can also RSVP on Facebook. You can use the discount code “ICONTACT” when you register if you wish. All proceeds from the evening will benefit The Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali, Rwanda. More information is in the invitation below. I hope you can come. Thanks for helping us spread the word!

You can also download a PDF invite for the event.



You’re invited to join us for a very special evening at iContact’s new offices in Morrisville, NC

What: iContact’s “Metropolitan Safari” Fundraiser for the Akilah Institute for Women Rwanda

When: Monday, November 8th, 2010 6:30pm to 8:30pm

Where: 5221 Paramount Parkway, 2nd floor, Morrisville, NC 27560

Purchase tickets here

(You Can Use Discount Code “ICONTACT”)

Join us November 8th and see iContact’s new offices in Morrisville for the first time while supporting a great cause.

We’ll be giving the grand tour of our brand new building on the Lenovo Campus that gives us room to grow to 550 employees and offering free rides on our slide.

We’ll start out with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres on the 2nd floor at 6:30pm then going upstairs for the Akilah presentation. I hope you will join us for this special evening.

Ticket Information

(Use Discount Code “ICONTACT”)

All proceeds from the evening will support the Akilah Scholarship Fund and empower young Rwandan women to become leaders in their communities.

About the Akilah Institute for Women

Akilah empowers young women to transform their lives by equipping them with the skills, knowledge, and confidence needed to become leaders and entrepreneurs in East Africa. Learn More | Make a Direct Contribution

The Brand New – Oh My How Design Standards Have Changed!

June 22, 2010

In late 2002 I met my business partner Aaron Houghton at the October meeting of the Carolina Entrepreneurship Club on the UNC campus over Chic-Fil-A nuggets. At the time, Aaron ran Preation and I ran Virante. We partnered to launch IntelliContact Pro, which became IntelliContact in 2005 and then just iContact in 2007.

Today, iContact is a 205 employee company here in Durham, NC with 64,000 customers and 700,000 users. Our marketing and IT teams launched a brand new web site today on As a former web site designer myself, it’s been fascinating to see the site evolve as design standards have changed.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane to show how the web site has evolved over time…

Which one was the worst? Which one was the best? What do you think of the new site?



iContact, Nourish, and Life Update

June 2, 2010

I’ve been super focused the last six weeks on iContact and Nourish since making it back from Skoll World Forum and the Icelandic volcano.

iContact Update

The baby that Aaron and I started way back in 2003 is now 7 years old (see our company picture below).

We’ve hired 45 new team members so far in 2010. iContact has now passed 200 employees and 63,000 customers and are at a $37M annualized revenue run-rate. Here we come $100M.

We’re working to build a ‘great global company, based here in North Carolina, for our customers, employees, and community.’ Our 2020 mission is to be the largest global provider of email marketing software and services to the Small Business and Mid-Sized Business market.

Recently iContact has come out with and announced:

iContact’s Social Responsibility

In May, Matt Kopac  joined iContact, helping us with our social and environmental responsibility work. Matt is helping iContact become a B Corporation (for-benefit corporation), create a system to quantify our social and environmental impact, and prepare for writing our 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report. Matt is comes to us from Yale University where he finished in MBA in 2009. Matt has worked in the Peace Corps in Benin and for VisionSpring in El Salvidor.

Making iContact a  Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Company

A triple bottom line company is a company that focuses on its financial results, social results, and environmental results. This three-pronged measurement system also goes by the moniker of “Profit, People, Planet.” iContact already measures and report on our financial results religiously.

We are now setting up a system to measure our social results and our environmental results. My hope is that iContact can become a global example of a socially responsible triple-bottom line venture-backed technology company. My strong belief is that by measuring and focusing on social impact and environmental impact, financial results are actually improved and not the other way around. We are just at the beginning of this process.

We’ve got even more exciting things to share that we will announce by the end of July including our first acquisition and something so wonderful I can’t even allude to it…

Nourish Updates

Besides a few days in May at the DC Summit Series and trying to write articles and posts when I can, I’ve been very focused on two things professionally–iContact and Nourish International. I’m the Board Chair this year for Nourish so I was part of a committee to select Nourish’s next Executive Director Ryan Richards, who started on the job last week here in Chapel Hill.

Ryan comes to Nourish from NYU’s Wagner School and has worked with ReadingVillage, StartingBloc, Ashoka, and Asturias Academy previously. Ryan is taking the role from James Dillard, who as ED grew the organization from 8 to 22 college chapters.

Nourish is focused on training US college students to become global citizens. Nourish teaches entrepreneurial skills to college students who then run small businesses and ventures on their campuses, make a profit, and then invest those profits in community-based organizations in the developing world (thirteen countries so far including in  India, Bolivia, Mexico, and Uganda) who work to implement community-led sustainable economic development projects.

Nourish’s Board of Directors now includes…

  • Pallavi Garg, UT- Austin
  • Jud Bowman, CEO of PocketGear
  • Neil Bagchi, Bagchi Law
  • Buck Goldstein, UNC Entrepreneur-in-Residence
  • Jim Kitchen, TUI Travel
  • Lee Buck, LaunchBox Digital
  • Joel Thomas, UNC-Kenan Flagler
  • Chris Bingham, RileyLife Industries
  • Marcia Angle, Intrahealth
  • Ryan Allis, iContact
  • Ryan Richards, Executive Director

If you’d like to learn more about Nourish International, make a financial contribution, or get involved you can visit the Nourish web site or contact Exec. Director Ryan Richards at ryan[at]

Life Update

The past few months I’ve been living in Chapel Hill and traveling a lot for work to wonderful places like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, D.C., and New York. Our ‘house of entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs’ has grown. We have welcomed Zach and Ryan to our house recently and are up to 6 roommates (Phil, Ryan, Ryan, Joe, Zach, Andy) with Riley the Dog running around. Somehow we keep a good system going.

I’ve not had time to host an Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetup for a few months but hope to bring them back in the Fall. I’m hoping to be able to head to Kampala to visit Roey with VillageEnergy in October as well as see Kigali and Zanzibar for the first time.

My girlfriend Jess has graduated from UNC with a degree in Peace, War, and Defense and is now working on both finding a job in the socially responsible investing or international relations field as well as writing a business plan for a new venture called Borderless Books and volunteering for Jim Thomas’ AfricaRising.

If you know of anyone looking for a brilliant UNC grad and social entrepreneur who’s worked in Tanzania, Guatemala, and Uganda to work for their non-profit organization or company, email Jess at jess.shorland[at]!

My parents Pauline and Park moved back to Bradenton, Florida in December. They have now sold their house in Carrboro, NC and this weekend will be the big family furniture move to my house.

Off to do a reference check call…


iContact's Social Responsibility 

In May, Matt Kopac has joined iContact as a 20 hour per week consultant, helping iContact on our social and environmental responsibility work. Matt will help iContact become a B Corporation (for-benefit corporation), create a system to quantify our social and environmental impact, and prepare for writing our 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report for the Board of Directors. Matt is comes to us from Yale University where he finished in MBA in 2009. Matt has worked in the Peace Corps in Benin and for VisionSpring in El Salvidor. He works in a cube outside Cindy Hays' office. Say hi to Matt (picture below) when you see him! 

What Does a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Mean? 

A triple bottom line company is a company that focuses on its financial results, social results, and environmental results. This three-pronged measurement system also goes by the moniker of "Profit, People, Planet." We already measure and report on our financial results religiously. Part of the work Matt will be doing is setting up a system to measure our social results and our environmental results. My hope is that iContact can become a global example of a socially responsible triple-bottom line venture-backed technology company. My strong belief is that by measuring and focusing on social impact and environmental impact, financial results are actually improved and not the other way around. We are just at the beginning of this process.

iContact Wins CEDs Growth Company of the Year

October 23, 2008

Last night iContact was honored by the Council for Entrepreneurial Development as the 2008 Technology Growth Company of the Year at Bay 7 at American Tobacco Campus.

Aaron and I accepted the award on behalf of the iContact team. You can watch a video of the award announcement.




We’re Hiring at iContact

June 23, 2007

Print This Article


We’re hiring at iContact. We currently have 11 open positions and 14 open jobs at iContact. If you are interested in any of these positions please email jobs[at] with a resume and cover letter. If you know someone who might be interested, please ask them to email jobs[at]

About iContact

iContact is a four-year old venture-backed company based in Durham, NC, that provides email marketing and online communications software. iContact is only 4 years old and is doing extremely well. It has over 70 employees and has strong recurring stream of revenues. The company already has an effective lead generation system, a robust sales pipeline, over 16,000 customers, and many blue chip companies as reference-able clients. iContact has positioned itself as the #2 player in the industry and consistently takes clients away from the big vendors. Now, we need to continue to add world-class individuals to the team as we focus on becoming the world leader in email marketing and online communications software.

Positions will be headquartered in the Durham/Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina. Relocation is available for the right candidates. This is an excellent opportunity to get in early at a successful company that is positioned for a very big and profitable exit. The iContact product is the leading email marketing and online communications platform used by over 16,000 companies worldwide ranging from small businesses to blue chip clients like International Paper, Ford, Bank of America, Super 8 Motel, Symantec, Re/Max, United Colors of Benetton, Nissan, and LG Electronics. iContact 4.0, designed for the SMB market and iContact Enterprise, designed for mid-sized to large organizations, are both available at iContact was named one of the Best Places to Work in the Triangle by the Triangle Business Journal in 2007.

Product Manager

Seeking a Product Manager to plan, analyze, and execute new releases of iContact email marketing and communication software. The ideal candidate will take vision and input from The Board of Directors, team members, and customers and synthesize them to build our product, project, and iteration plans. Excellent verbal and written communication skills and a bachelor’s degree and 3-5 years experience are required. Candidates with previous project management skills and experience with Scrum will be strongly preferred. Requirements include: experience developing and launching consumer technology products, intuitive sense for product usability and design—ability to think through every aspect of the user experience and general understanding of web technologies (e.g. AJAX, CSS, MySQL), how they’re implemented/served, and how they fit together.

Graphic Designer

Seeking an experienced Graphic Designer who has expert skills with tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. The ideal candidate will have experience in creating mock-ups and storyboards, a history of designing user interfaces for web applications with multiple features and a constantly-evolving feature set, experience designing with grids, excellent verbal and written communication skills, and a bachelor’s degree or five years of related experience. In addition, they must possess a design portfolio demonstrating related and relevant work, including links to at least 2 designs that are live, with a description of what role you played in the development and design of the web application and/or web site. Additional desired skills and experience: advanced HTML & CSS skills, with an extremely solid understanding of semantically valid markup; formal education in Graphic Design with a thorough understanding of color, layout, composition, typography, and iconography; experience with print design; a passion for web standards; proven skill at creating both vector-based and pixel-based user interface elements (controls, dialogs, icons, text, etc.); excellent prioritization and analytical skills; self-starter/highly motivated; passion for designing interfaces that are simple, usable, accessible, intuitive, consistent and beautiful; experience creating, maintaining and following GUI standards and design standards; technical writing skills; familiarity with Smarty; JavaScript and AJAX experience.

Account Managers

Seeking several Account Managers to work as part of the Sales Department, selling iContact Enterprise to organizations that desire a world-class E-marketing program. The individual will begin work in an intensive training program and be initially assigned to the Lead Generation team. After completing training successfully and generating leads at an acceptable rate, the individual will be eligible to move onto the Inside Sales team. The ideal candidate will possess a 4-year technical degree and 1-2 years technical, quota-based sales experience, achieving above quota.

Web Application Developer

Experience with web based application development, object-oriented design and programming, design patterns, finding and fixing bugs, test-driven development, and working in teams. Computer Science or related degree. Additional desired skills: PHP, MySQL, Linux, database indexing and optimization, and familiarity with agile development methods.

Customer Support Representatives

Experience responding to support issues, answering questions via phone, providing support via live chat, and assisting customers with use of web based software products. Proficiency with computers, experience with troubleshooting, providing technical support, and knowledge of HTML are all required. Experience with email newsletter, phone queue system, support ticketing systems or live chat systems a plus.

HelpDesk Support Specialists

One to three years experience in IT support, LAN, network printing, Windows XP Professional on the desktop and laptop is needed. Experience in Linux desktop is a plus. Some college or a 4 year degree in a technical field is preferred. Desired skills: Windows XP, networking protocols-TCP/IP or DHCP, networking hardware-patching a cube, working with switching, network printers, laptops, desktops, help desk tickets, Microsoft Office, Open Office, and Firefox.

Financial Assistant

BA in Accounting or equivalent. Two to six years of experience with payables and receivables, general ledger, payroll support and wire transfers supporting company’s finance team. High level of proficiency using MS Office programs, especially Excel. Knowledge of Quick Books or Sage Accounting software is an added advantage.

Vice President of Customer Service

Manages a 27 person department that may scale to 55 persons in 2008 and 90 or more in 2009. Proven ability to reduce phone call abandonment rate from 8% to 2% and reduce ticket response time. Ensures quality and consistency of support representative training programs. Establish a customer satisfaction score system and manage all product documentation including user guide, KB, and tutorial videos. Requires a BS or BA degree and 10-15 years of business experience. A Masters in Business is preferred or equivalent experience. Ability to build training and support materials for resellers.

Online Advertising Manager

Seeking an experienced A-Level player to manage and scale our lead generation and customer acquisition efforts through online advertising. Person will be extremely experienced with driving customer acquisition through online media buying. Experience utilizing an ad serving engine like Atlas, DoubleClick, Zedo, or a similar tool is required. Responsibility for coordinating all non-CPC online advertising and scaling customer acquisition from 1600 to 10000 customers per month. Main responsibilities include managing creation of ads, testing creative and landing pages, CPM media buys, negotiating and executing deals, campaign execution and optimization, determining competitors ad locations, and utilizing an ad serving engine. Requires degree and 2 to 5 years of successful experience managing and scaling online media buys in a fast-growth environment. Person reports directly to the Vice President of Marketing.

Affiliate Advertising Manager

Seeking an experienced A-Level player to manage and scale our lead generation and customer acquisition effort through CPA and affiliate advertising. Person will be extremely experienced with driving customer acquisition through affiliate networks, large affiliate recruiting, and established CPA-based deals. BA with 2 to 5 years of successful experience managing and scaling successful CPA advertising buys. The person will report directly to the Vice President of Marketing. Will have the responsibility for coordinating all of the affiliate and CPA customer acquisition and helping scale our customer acquisition from 1500 to 10000 customers per month. Experience with managing creation and testing of effective ads, affiliate recruiting, contract negotiation, business development, deal negotiation, campaign execution, customer acquisition cost and lifetime value calculation, return evaluation, and campaign scaling is essential. We are seeking an individual that has managed an affiliate program on a major network that had monthly commission payout of at least $100,000 and recruited at least 2000 affiliates.

Usability Engineer

Three to five years of experience working on web-based applications and managing the usability aspects of development projects. Strong interpersonal and negotiating skills and user interface design skills. Proficiency in statistics, data analysis,and survey design. Ability to make strategic and tactical design recommendations based on results from usability tests and customer surveys. An advanced degree in Human Factors, Cognitive Science or a related discipline is preferred. Additional desired skills include (X)HTML, knowledge of Agile development techniques, exposure to design and prototyping tools such as Photoshop, love for mentoring others in usability best practices, and familiarity with Section 508 accessibility requirements.

Senior Front-End Engineer

BS or MS in Computer Science (or related degree). Skilled engineer and architect that loves working on the controller and presentation layers. Ideal candidate will possess the following: at least 5 years prior experience working on web-based applications, in-depth knowledge of design patterns (including web presentational, object-relational, domain logic and session state patterns), strong team and individual work skills, and experience finding and fixing bugs. Additional desired skills include PHP, MySQL, XML, (X)HTML, JavaScript, CSS, AJAX, unit testing, functional testing, test-drive development, Linux development platform/environment, and Subversion.

For More Information

If you are interested and/or would like more information, please send resume with cover letter to jobs[at] If we determine you to be a qualified candidate we may send a questionnaire or contact you to schedule either an in-person interview or teleconference interview. Additional information on the company and software can be found at