Keep Your Employees Happy (and Your Company Small) and All Goodness Will Flow, Says Founder of Jackson Fish Market

7/11/08Follow @gthuang

I had a good chat on Monday with Hillel Cooperman, founder of Jackson Fish Market, a Seattle-based startup that builds interesting websites. I had come across Cooperman’s blog last week in which he argued in favor of “bottoms up” management as opposed to the traditional top-down approach in companies.

Given Cooperman’s experience—which includes almost 10 years at Microsoft on the Windows Vista and MSN Explorer teams—I wanted to hear how this approach might work depending on the size of a company. I also looked forward to his trademark frankness. ( “[Yahoo CEO] Jerry Yang’s ass must hurt” was his post after the latest news broke about Microsoft resurrecting its takeover bid.)

So I strolled down to Pioneer Square and met Cooperman in his company’s artsy digs; it’s in the same building as artist Edd Cox’s gallery. There are just three full-time employees (see photo), but an additional trio of summer interns might be why management style has been on his mind. Jackson Fish Market, named after Cooperman’s grandfather’s store in Detroit, has been up and running since late 2006. It is home to several diverse websites, including TheyreBeautiful.com and CarbonGrove.com—more on these sites another time.

Management was what I wanted to ask about. Cooperman’s point is that, as a manager, you want to lead your team to successes—and share in those successes—so you tend to want to control them and direct them towards those goals. This might work for a while, but Cooperman says it’s not sustainable. More effective, in his experience, is the idea that the company (or team) exists primarily to keep its employees happy. For example, he says Jackson Fish Market has turned down projects that would have been great for his team as shareholders, but not great in terms of doing the actual work.

“Employees are fundamentally the lifeblood of a company,” Cooperman says. “From them all goodness flows, and from them potentially all bad things flow… If they feel challenged and rewarded, and if you give them feedback and they feel like they can make mistakes, they’ll be happy. Happy employees don’t leave. You can’t poach them—go ahead and try.”

It all sounds great in theory. But the challenge, of course, is how to remain true to this approach as a company grows. As soon as you have more than 20 or 30 employees, says Cooperman, you have to figure out a way to provide constructive feedback. Performance reviews don’t work, he says—at best they’re checklists, and at worst they pit employees against one another.

In the end, it comes down to one thing. “The key is hiring the right people,” he says. “It’s your gene pool—whether it’s interacting with customers, creating a product, or writing an email, it comes through. It’s like choosing who to have a child with.” The “right” people means they do a stellar job for the most part, and if they make a mistake, they learn from it and take criticism well, he says.

So what concrete steps would Cooperman take if he were in charge of a big company? “I’d break it up,” he says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://danweinreb.org/blog Daniel Weinreb

    Everybody, forward this article to your CEO! I just did, although he already does all of this, despite the fact that we’re up to 550 employees at ITA Software.

    Tonight we have our annual summer party, on a boat in the harbor, with karaoke, prizes, dinner, and so on. Of course the best part is getting to hang out with all the other great employees and meet their families. It’s great every year.