People don’t usually join a startup to do community service. They join to be part of something new and exciting; to build something bigger than themselves with a close-knit team of like-minded people. It’s the place where they dream of the lucrative IPO–or at the very least, of the free food, fully-stocked in-house bars, and other perks that often come along the way. That being said startups are not where most people go to revitalize their city’s skid row district or better the lives of low-income residents through sustainable community gardens.
But when Zendesk became the first tech company to take advantage of what’s known as the Central Market/Tenderloin Payroll Tax Exclusion, better known as the “Twitter tax break,” the focus of our startup quickly changed.
This tax break “exempts businesses located within the defined exclusion area from additional payroll tax as they add jobs during any six years in an eight-year period,” as stated by the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. So we get to save some money. In our first year, it wasn’t a huge amount, but as we grow, the total is adding up.
Given this tax break, the city required us to draft and execute what’s known as a Community Benefits Agreement. This is essentially an obligation we have to the city and the neighborhood about how we will use our savings in the community. This document is looked after by the City Administrator, while a citizen’s advisory committee keeps tabs on the progress.
The thing is, we didn’t see this as an obligation. We saw this as an opportunity.
Sure, it was a little weird the first time we went to City Hall for a hearing. It was humbling to have an 11-person appointed body tell you what worked and what didn’t work on the Agreement we drafted. But ultimately, we knew this was an incredible opportunity for us to start building philanthropy into our company’s DNA;. It was a powerful way for us to keep a deep sense of community at the core of our culture and our brand.
For instance, without our Community Benefits Agreement, it would be hard to say whether our CEO, Mikkel Svane, would don a hairnet and sling ham at the local soup kitchen. Not just once either – but on a regular basis. It’s hard to know if our engineers would have built a mobile portal for a local non-profit to connect its clients with the most critical of services (emergency shelters, rehab centers, where they might take a shower). Meanwhile, we find members of our support, marketing, sales, and developer teams on neighborhood walking tours together and at the local black box theater taking in a show (long-term community relationships is what the CAC felt was most important, which essentially asks us to spend time in the neighborhood and enjoy what it offers.)
Suddenly, we were give this chance to engage our employees in ways we would have never considered. We felt tight-knit, even as we went from taking up half a floor to three floors (and as I type this, we are already outgrowing that.)
That goes for the new hires, as well. Our CBA has been incorporated into our new hire training. Once a month, new hires do a shift with veteran hires at a nearby soup kitchen. Offsites have come to include volunteer service (and the obligatory boozing happens after). But in this way, silos have become nearly impossible. It might sound idealistic; a little too good to be true. But isn’t idealism what got us all amped on startups in the first place? Now more than ever, our employees are really all in this together. And everyone in our company is emboldened by this sense that we can make our brand much bigger than we ever thought possible.