The Right Reasons to Be Transparent

6/13/13Follow @gino

How often do you think about transparency? As a founder and CEO of a fast-growing startup it’s on my mind often. There’s a constant stream of information coming my way, from the company’s financial health, to business partnerships, customer data and hiring plans. At any given point I can withhold information, but I do my best to be an open book with every person in the company.

As employees we’ve all felt in the dark at some point about the goings on in our workplaces. I’m sure that at times it’s because the management team sucked, but the fact is, transparency is hard to execute well.

When my co-founder, John Bragg, and I started online property rental platform Cozy, and Seabright Studios before that, we made a conscious effort to build a company culture around transparency. At a base level it just feels good to everyone. To us, the founders, it feels great to share.

In my experience internal transparency also creates loyalty and trust across the team, which for creative work, is the foundation of doing awesome things. Additionally, when the leaders of a company are transparent internally it fosters communication across the entire team, and empowers employees to feel comfortable asking hard questions, or even bringing up new ideas on how to run things better. This is especially important at early stage companies because it sets the tone for everything to follow, and that DNA can help a company maintain transparency as it grows.

Here are three examples of how we maintain transparency at Cozy:

1. All of our key performance indicators (KPIs) and stats are available to everyone at any time. It’s important for people to know how we’re doing. This includes rent payment volume, number of landlords/properties, and related data.

2. Before every board meeting I share our board deck with the entire team (except for sensitive personal salary/options slides). From the feedback we receive, folks truly appreciate this. For people at the company who have never been in a board meeting it’s a great learning experience. It also gives crystal clear perspective of what’s going on at a higher level, which is hard to get when your job doesn’t have insight into everything that is going on.

3. Everyone at the company receives all inbound customer support e-mails. It gives everyone at the company insight into our common issues (and uncommon issues) with customers. This creates endlessly clever solutions to problems and fosters innovation that can’t happen otherwise.

External transparency breeds loyalty as well, but from a different group of people. This is especially the case with customer service, marketing, and product design. If you screw up, apologize first, own it, and do everything in your power to make it right in as little time as possible. As a customer it feels great to receive that level of service. In marketing and product design, transparent language can make something exciting to discover and a delight to use. It’s that simple.

Some shining examples of other companies doing this type of thing:

Airbnb ran into an issue where a guest utterly trashed an Airbnb host home. They could have tried to cover things up, but instead owned it, apologized, and made everything right.

Another of my favorite examples is the real-time Happiness Report from 37Signals. It keeps the pressure high to perform, and gives the world insight into how they’re doing as well.

Outside the tech world one of my favorite companies is Patagonia. They go to great lengths to be sure the world knows where they source their materials, where they’re made, and how they’re working to reduce impact on the physical world.

At Cozy transparency permeates everything we do, whether it’s customer service, our pricing model, or interactions in our products. It’s just the right thing to do.

Gino Zahnd is the CEO and cofounder of Cozy. He's been designing products for nearly 20 years, and has been a part of core teams at Flickr, Splunk and Kosmix (now @Walmartlabs). Follow @gino

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