CV #27 Comfort Research: How to Build a Culture of Awesome
COMPANY AT A GLANCE
Founded: In 1997 by Chip George and Matt Jung in their dorm room at Hope College. Today, Comfort Research designs and sells affordable furniture. They have three locations: the Command Center (HQ) in Grand Rapids, MI, the Tenn Control Center in Lewisburg, TN, and the UT Satellite in Tremonton, UT.
Revenue: $73M | Ambassadors (Team Members): ~220
Why: Comfort for all
How: Delivering unexpected Awesome
What: Revolutionizing affordable branded consumer products
Find a better way (FAB).
Expect the Best
Do the Right Thing (DIRT).
Community: Comfort Research loves to give back and they have fun doing it. Examples of giving back, include creating a GIANT dinosaur egg for a 24 Local Make-a-Wish Foundation Project and providing “Napportunities” (opportunities to take a nap) to their local community, and donating to a good cause for every nap enjoyed. They also donate 10% of all profits back to the community and provide volunteer opportunities at each location.
Sustainability: Five years ago, Comfort Research, started the “Green Team Initiative” with the goal of becoming 0 waste. Today, Comfort Research is landfill-free and continues to reduce waste in all that they do. They compost, recycle, and terracycle every day. They create sustainable products from recycled frills. They also “Freecycle”, where team members can bring in items they no longer want for others to pick up, which is especially great for those with children.
Financially Transparent: Comfort Research shares all their financials with the entire company every month. They also provide financial education to help team members better understand the numbers.
LET THE TOUR BEGIN:
Sitting on an uncomfortable bean bag chair in their college dorm room back in 1997, cofounders and co-CEOs Matt Jung and Chip George looked for a way to give the bean bag an upgrade. Surveying their surroundings, they found foam mattress pads and began to shred them and restuff the bean bag chair. A few hours later and the chair was good as new. Their friends took notice and they realized that a business idea was born: The Fuf. After some success with trunk sales on their college campus, they approached a General Manager at Meijer and convinced him to purchase 50 bean bag chairs. They sold out in 8 days. Since then, Comfort Research has created and sold over millions of units of the Fuf, as well as pool floats, pet beds, and other affordable furniture.
A key contribution in their success is their willingness to take risks and their overall obsession with innovation. In early 2000, Studentmarket.com approached Comfort Research and asked if they would be willing to do drop-shipping. “For us, we thought one order is better than none,” said Co-Founder and Ambassador of Awesome, Chip George, so they went for it.
This was their same mentality in 2005 when they became one of the first non-electronics or book vendors to work with Amazon. “We were one of the first 100 vendors to work with Walmart online shipping and Amazon,” said Chip. “It took us 1 ½ years to get set up. We had to upgrade our firewalls and build a lot of systems around drop shipping, but it was worth it.”
In fact, innovation — or as Comfort Research calls it “FAB: Finding a Better Way”— is one of their three core values. FAB is one of the key reasons why Comfort Research has over 100 patents, and has grown to over 220 team members and $73 million in revenue. While visiting, I had the opportunity to do a tour with Culture Concierge, Becky Ploeg (3-year team member) and Co-Founder & Chief Ambassador of Awesome, Chip George. I also had the opportunity to speak with three team members: Roberto Maridueña, Disruptor/Designer (8-month team member), Jermaine McCulloh Fuff Lead, (3-year team member), and Brooke Gatewood, Enrichment Orchestrator, (2-year team member). Here’s what I learned:
1. Simplify Everything (Find a Better Way):
Over the last 22 years in business, co-founders & co-CEOS Chip George and Matt Jung have always looked for ways to simplify and innovate. When they first learned how to write a business plan, it was 120 pages long. Nine years later, they stumbled upon Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, where they learned about the one-page business plan. Shortly after, they condensed their 120-pages into a one-page strategic plan, which they continue to use to date.
They also simplified their company purpose. What started out as a lofty mission statement, was condensed into three simple sentences after reading Simon Sinek’s: Golden Circle. Through Sinek’s work, they answered three questions: What’s your why? (Comfort for All), What’s your how? (Delivering unexpected Awesome), and What’s your what? (Revolutionizing affordable branded consumer products). By simplifying their why, how, and what, Comfort Research Ambassadors (team members) and future Ambassadors can immediately identify with the Comfort Research culture and whether they want to be a part of it.
Comfort Research also simplified their core values. They used to have 14 core core values, then nine core values, and now three: Do The Right Thing (DIRT), Expect the Best. and Find a Better Way ( FAB). “We learned that the fewer there are, the better,” said Co-Founder, Chip George. “I’m sure that if you asked everyone out at the floor right now, that that 99/100 would be able to tell you our core values.”
2. Reward & Recognize Behaviors Through Core Values
Comfort Research lives and breathes their three core values: Find a Better Way (FAB), Do The Right Thing (DIRT), and Expect the Best. Here are examples of how they recognize Ambassadors for living the values:
Find A Better Way (FAB)
To create a culture where they are always finding a better way, Comfort Research encourages team members to submit innovative ideas every month. They call it a “FAB.” A FAB could be anything from finding a better way to package an item, to making a recommendation on how to improve the courses offered at their internal Comfort University.
Every month a FAB committee, which includes leadership and the plant manager, reviews the ideas and selects a winner. The committee evaluates the idea based on its quality and feasibility. Bonus points are awarded to team members if the FAB has something to do with their quarterly theme, which is chosen by the FAB committee. As Culture Concierge, Becky Ploeg, explained, “Themes are a great way to direct brain power towards solving a specific challenge the company is facing.”
All FAB nominators receive $25 in “comfy bucks”, which is Comfort Research’s internal currency to buy company swag or products for submitting an idea. Once a quarter, a FAB winner receives $2,500 in U.S. Dollars and once a year, a FAB winner receives $10,000 U.S. Dollars. Every FAB winner is tasked with implementation of their idea. This way, the team member actively gets to be a part of the solution.
All of their three offices participate in FAB. For a typical quarter, they see around 75 ideas. One example of a FAB winner was when the IT Director came up with the idea for one-click processing to help supply chain ambassadors do their jobs more quickly. This saved a tremendous amount of time and increased productivity. Now, they are working on expanding one-click processing to other departments as well.
Do the Right Thing (DIRT)
Their second core value is Do the Right Thing, or DIRT. Ambassadors can nominate one another for doing the right thing both inside and outside of the workplace. For example, when one Ambassador had a fire in their home, a handful of team members stepped up to help him collect his belongings, provide him with things he needed, and make sure he had a place to stay. A team member noticed and nominated all of the Ambassadors who went above and beyond for their fellow team member with a DIRT award.
To reinforce a culture where team members recognize one another, every team member who nominates another team member receives $25 in “comfy bucks”, which is Comfort Research’s internal currency to buy company swag or products. Those who receive a DIRT nomination, earn $100 U.S. dollars. Nominations are accepted every month, but once a quarter the leadership committee selects a main winner who is awarded $1500 U.S Dollars.
Expect the Best (Awesome Award)
The Awesome Award is a peer to peer award, which is given to one Ambassador per quarter for going above and beyond at work.
Every quarter, the previous winner selects the new winner. The prize? The winner receives the Awesome Award trophy, plus one extra week of paid vacation. According to Culture Concierge, Becky Ploeg, this might be the favorite award at Comfort Research,“Nobody expects to be nominated and nominations are always so pure and genuine...Plus, team members seem to prefer the extra week paid vacation as a prize!”
3. Language Matters:
By now you’ve likely noticed the unique language Comfort Research uses to describe their culture. For example, they started using the word “Ambassador” to describe their employees 10 years ago. Why? Read the definition:
“Ambassador”: a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity (in this case, Comfort Research’s culture),
“Employee”: a person employed for wages or salary.
Where would you rather work?
Referring to team members as “Ambassadors” reflects Comfort Research’s culture of their “How”, which is delivering unexpected awesome! And for team members to deliver awesome, they need to be a part of something bigger than just their job.
Comfort Research also strives to embody “awesome” in their job titles. “We started out with a feudal system. I was a King. Matt was a Queen,” said Co-Founder, Chip George, “Then we went to no titles, which worked in the beginning, but eventually got confusing. Now we have folks make up their own titles, as long as they have something to do with the job description.” said Chip.
For example, Co-Founder, Chip George's title is “Ambassador of Awesome” which reflects one of his core responsibilities as CEO - to lead by example. Becky Ploeg, who’s title would be similar to HR Manager or Employee Experience Manager, has the title of “Culture Concierge” because she is delivering the culture and experience to both internal team members and external relations. Roberto Maridueña who is a Product Designer, has the title “Designer Disruptor” to reflect his role in innovation with product development. By giving team members the opportunity to create their own titles, it reinforces a culture of trust, autonomy, and awesome.
4. The Importance of Having Fun at Work
It’s no secret that leaders set the tone for a company’s culture. And something that’s apparent as soon as you meet Chip is that he likes to have fun.
In reflecting back on the early days of Comfort Research, Chip shared “We had fun since the beginning. We could come in between 8:00am and 10:00am. Stay sometime between 8pm and midnight. Go for a few beers and repeat.”
Comfort Research prioritized fun even in the tough times. “We always had Christmas parties, even when we couldn’t afford it,” said Chip.
Why the emphasis on fun? “People spend ⅓ of their life at work, so it’s important to have fun with people as people,” said Chip.
Having fun at work isn’t just about making the time pass by faster, having fun at work humanizes leadership and helps people to bring their whole selves to work.
“The culture is amazing. They really take care of you as a person. They (leadership) are human and so are we. It feels good to have conversations with people – there’s no Mr. no Mrs. We’re family. I look forward to coming here everyday. I don’t think about the paycheck until it’s payday,” said Jermaine McCulloh.
Disruptor/Designer, Roberto Maridueña shared, “Everyone is themselves at Comfort Research. People don’t hide. People are honest and it’s ok to make mistakes. Everyone likes to have fun – a lot of play happens here.”
What does fun at Comfort Research look like? Little things, like creating their own job titles, having “family” lunches together, volunteering together, sharing personal goals on the “Do Before You Die Wall”, and celebrating every birthday and anniversary, to larger things like creating the largest bean bag chair in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Record.
Having fun at work is a key component of building a culture of awesome and the impacts are life changing. “I feel like in the three years I’ve been here, I’ve taken 10 years off my life,” said Culture Concierge, Becky Ploeg. I’m in better shape physically, emotionally, and mentally and I owe it to the group of people here – they make me better.”
Want to experience Comfort Research for yourself? I encourage you to check out their Culture Tours and visit!