4 ways 5 big Chicago companies act like startups

by Tessa McLean
February 12, 2015
What many of us in the startup community tend to forget is that every business started here — with a great idea. Whether that idea is for an affordable hamburger spot or a unique way to sell concert tickets, larger corporations spent time as a startup too. They went through the same hurdles and growing pains we’re going through now, and we can learn a lot from them as we scale. We talked to five of the Chicago-based big guns and asked them how they maintain that startup culture, even with thousands of employees. They all touched on four aspects:
 
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Photo: The Ticketmaster “Tailgate” company party in September 2014
 
1. They have a startup mission
 
Every company has a mission — the hard part is maintaining that simple vision as your company grows. Julia Vander Ploeg, U.S. Digital Vice President of McDonalds, explained that having this with more employees promotes larger collaboration.
 
“We aspire to be a leader in the digital space by encouraging big thinking and quick action that is characteristic of startups,” Vander Ploeg said. “We have the advantage of many individuals and markets around the globe to develop concepts and share them collaboratively across our system internally.” 
 
Cars.com maintains that startup mentality by leading by example. “We’ll always be a startup at heart, and that mindset radiates from our senior leaders, many of who have been around since our bootstrapping days,” Susannah Graf, senior recruiter for Cars.com, said. “For example, we don’t have offices at Cars.com (this includes our CEO) and that’s intentional. It puts everyone in the organization on equal footing and reinforces our belief that collaboration always makes us stronger.”
 
Digitas fills their team with employees who know how to execute in a fast-paced environment. “We are fearless experimenters and doers. We back the collaborator. Well timed provocation is our art and science. We are a restless community, better today than yesterday. We are proudly imperfect, creating and executing in the now. We believe in our successes as a team, and learn to fail better than we did yesterday. We risk and rise together.” Brittney Deaver, Associate Director of Human Resources, said.
 
Ticketmaster has the resources, assets, brand recognition, and relationships of a larger company, but make the startup mentality a main focus. “We maintain a startup mentality by keeping a focus on agility in decision-making; placing importance on delegation and empowerment; nurturing an entrepreneurial corporate culture; watching our expenses and investments closely; fostering open communication to promote team alignment; setting high standards; and challenging everyone to make this year not just better than last year, but better than the best we’ve ever been. Everyone here knows, there may be a room filled with 44 people saying “no,” but it only takes one person to say 'yes.'" Larry Plawsky, GM and SVP of Ticketmaster Marketplaces, said. 
 
 
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A Cars.com meeting
 
2. They put a focus on culture
 
As McDonald’s moves its digital team from Oak Brook to River North, they’ll be able to grow out their digital culture, while integrating it with what McDonalds has set as the standard. ”We are pivoting into an agile development culture. McDonald’s is well-known for being able to scale ideas quickly. We’re going to marry the operational excellence of what we do with the digital backbone we’re building, and use that capability to define what the digital customer experience of the future holds,” Vander Ploeg said.
 
But some culture isn’t defined, it evolves on its own. “Though we have organized company celebrations that bring us all together, like this year’s holiday party at the House of Blues, our culture is much less forced – it’s organic. From softball leagues and happy hours to philanthropy events and impromptu eating competitions, our culture stems from being connected to one another. On any given day you might find a group of folks from Cars.com making a lunchtime trek to Shake Shack, raising a pint at the karaoke bar after work or painting a school on the west side as part of our volunteer program, it’s all a part of our collective culture,”  Graf said.
 
Ultimately for culture to flourish, employees have to buy into it. “Our culture is something we’re very proud of. We believe that our people are full of wickedly awesome potential, we speak from our hearts, and we produce work that reflects the worldwide audience we want to attract,” Deaver said. “Whether it’s the dodgeball team or a client team, the effort we put into our relationships as a whole is what keeps us together.” 
 
At Ticketmaster, they understand what type of people they'll attract to work at their company, and nurture those interests. "At our core, we are all fans, too. We embrace that common element and weave it into our company culture; the “fan-centric” concept is central to many of the company events and recognition programs we offer. Ticketmaster has an annual social calendar that features monthly employee events for which we provide a budget. Most events are “themed” such as our tailgate parties, Thanksgiving potlucks, and Halloween costume and office decorating contests. Additionally, many offices partner with local organizations to provide tickets for charity, prepare meals for those in need, cleanup at local animal shelters, and more.” Plawsky said.
 
3. They are proud of who they work for and promote teamwork and communication
 
“We celebrate the things that make us uniquely McDonald’s, but with a digital twist. Whether it’s a fry phone case or dressing in Digital Chic with Happy Meal characters on our t-shirts, we have fun with it. McDonald’s is a well-loved brand – and we love to celebrate what makes it fun! We’re proud of who we are.” Vander Ploeg said.
 
Deerfield-based Walgreens knows that communication is key to happy employees. “We run a very large and complex organization, which means we need to communicate in a number of different ways to ensure we are reaching our employees and keeping them engaged with the big picture. To that end, we’ve created lots of different opportunities to communicate, in ways that make sense for our teams," Abhi Dhar, CIO at Walgreens, said. "At the corporate level, we share company updates in town hall meetings, emails, newsletters, videos and through our intranet. Down to smaller teams, we’re able to communicate more intimately, with fireside chats and internal social media groups. Within our Digital and Marketing division, we recently launched a monthly webcast series where employees share their domain expertise to build up institutional knowledge across the division, and the audience walks away with a few major insights.” 
 
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Digitas Team Members
 
4. They have great startup perks
 
From free lunch to unlimited vacation, startups are known for their perks. 
 
“In addition to extra vacation time and bragging rights, these types of awards generally come with a bonus gift card, tickets to a ball game or some other type of Cars.com swag. It’s always in good fun, but there’s definitely some heated competition! Graf said. 
 
“Because we allow people to grow with us and recognize them for their efforts, we have many people that reach high tenures with the agency. Thus, DigitasLBi also recognizes employees who have reached their 1, 3, 5, 10, 15, and 20 year anniversaries.” Deaver said. 
 
“Perhaps our most popular perk is our Free Ticket Program, which employees can participate in from their very first day at Ticketmaster. Essentially, each employee receives two, free tickets to any Live Nation concert of their choice. Employees also receive free lawn access and free general admission to most Live Nation promoted events. We also have a Ticket Concierge service, which assists employees with ticket purchases.” Plawsky said.

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