I was introduced to Comfort Research before I ever met Matt Jung. The first time was when I moved to Holland more than 20 years ago and heard about these poof chairs being made by some Hope College students. The next time was through their support of a charity event that I was part of. I experienced their commitment to community.
The most recent connection was when I learned that a human resource leader whom I had a lot of respect for joined their team. I believe that great companies attract great people, so I knew they had something special going on at Comfort Research. More recently, Matt stood out to me because of his tireless efforts to talk about culture and leadership through his frequent blog and LinkedIn posts. Describing Matt with the normal business titles would not do his passion justice, which is why you will hear words like “culture-catalyst” and “disrupter” used to describe his role. I will let Matt tell you the rest of the story.
Thank you, Matt, for your willingness to share your wisdom.
My name is Matt Jung, and I am an entrepreneur, business owner, leader, culture-catalyst, disrupter, and industry-leading producer of the Big Joe Brand, the coolest consumer products in the universe. Founded in 1996 with my college roommate Chip George, our company — Comfort Research — is a lifestyle, product design, engineering, and manufacturing company based in the heart of West Michigan. We have evolved from selling foam beanbags (the patented Ahhsome Fuf Chairs) out of our college dorms to selling disruptive products through the likes of Wal-Mart, Meijer, Amazon, and Costco.
I am a big believer that culture and strategy go hand and hand, and we live that mantra at Big Joe. We have worked tirelessly to recognize, reward, and repeat those that are living Big Joe values. Our Core Business Values include:
- Finding a Better Way – this is not a ‘suggestion box’ company!
- Expect the Best – of yourself, of your peers, our vendors, and our customers.
- Do the Right Thing – not just at work, but also in life.
We believe that simple messages and thoughtful products create strategic alignment. In order to achieve these things you must rethink everything. And that is what we do on a daily basis. Through the principles above, we do our best to lead the company and the 200+ amazing Ambassadors that make up our team. All of our hard work is paying off, as Forbes added us to the Forbes’ definitive list of the nation’s best small companies for 2018. Forbes highlights Comfort Research as a philanthropic company that donates 10 percent of our profits to local charities.
Q: Tell us a little about the beginning. When did you start your business? Why did you decide to start it? What vision or goals did you have for your business in the beginning?
I started the business in 1996 with my good friend and current business partner Chip George. We were attending Hope College when we came up with this concept for a huge foam-filled beanbag we called the “FUF Chair.”
We thought this beanbag thing was pretty cool, and everyone around us had a similar reaction. All of our classmates wanted one, and we’d have tons of kids crashing in our room and hanging out. It really opened our eyes, and we knew then we were on to something. We were obviously far from a serious business at the time, but the FUF Chair was a pretty good start.
I came from a family filled with an entrepreneurial history. I was always writing down business ideas from a young age. Some were decent, but most of them were pretty bad. With the creation of the FUF Chair, Chip and I saw an opportunity to start something big while we still had nothing to lose… and it didn’t hurt that we thought it was awesome and the most comfortable chair we had ever lounged in.
Together, we had always wanted to have a thriving business that was willing to do things just a little differently. And we wanted it to be big… like one billion dollars big. We thought, since we “obviously” had this cool product, it would be very easy to grow a huge business. Who wouldn’t want a FUF Chair? But, like most college kids, we had a lot to learn. It was much harder than we ever could have imagined, and we eventually adopted the “Rule of Three”: Everything took 3X as long, was 3X harder to do, and took 3X the amount of money than we thought it would. In spite of all this, we just really wanted to make cool things and lounge.
Now, more than 22 years after the first iteration of our chairs, we‘ve gotten pretty good at pushing the boundaries of what is possible, all the while building the Big Joe brand. In doing so, we focused on:
- creating a great workplace where Ambassadors can thrive by building an infectious culture of passionate and empowered people
- minimizing waste to lessen manufacturing’s impact on the world by being lean and green
- investing 10% of company profits back into local and global communities
- engineering awesomeness from the product core to the factory floor
- sneaking in bonus design elements that surprise and delight
- designing affordable greatness
We have a unique approach toward strategic planning. Instead of vision statements and mission statements, we have a Why/How/What statement:
Why do we exist? Comfort for All.
How are we doing that? Delivering Unexpected Awesomeness.
What are we doing? Revolutionizing Affordable Branded Consumer Products.
Q: When did the culture of your business become a focus for you? What were some of the first things you remember doing to start focusing on culture?
We were pretty lucky to be blessed with so many helping hands, guides, and mentors along our journey. It seemed like whenever we needed help, someone (anyone) was willing to pitch in and help us take the next step. After three years of running our business, we were fortunate to partner up with George and Jason Julius. George had had tremendous experiences at his previous company, where culture played an important part of its growth story. We had always talked about culture together, but we weren’t actively engaged in sculpting an awesome one. As we grew our business, we decided to change that. Very early on, we decided that we wouldn’t just make great products, but we would work hard to craft a great place to work. We were hiring these awesome people to lead different parts of our business. So our roles changed from being hands-on co-founders to having to figure out how to lead without doing the everyday stuff. I realized that if we wanted the business to be a billion-dollar enterprise, then I had to transform as well. So I shifted my daily routine to leading through strategic planning and alignment, focusing on I&D (Innovation and Internal/External Disruption), and, of course, building an environment that amazing people would want to be a part of. That is when things really shifted for us.
It was through George’s guidance that we really got serious about focusing on culture. But even then, there wasn’t exactly a handbook on culture that you could read and quickly follow. It was more of a pie-in-the-sky idea. But, I decided that I would find a solution, and eventually started a “culture system,” because good systems are often the foundation of great business. If you can implement a system to run a business, you can surely do it in a way that creates a kick-ass culture.
I started by creating the FAB award. This award recognized someone in our business who implemented our core value of Finding a Better Way. The idea behind the FAB award was, we wanted our Ambassadors living the culture each day to be part of suggesting and introducing the idea of Finding a Better Way to do EVERYTHING. We didn’t want to be a suggestion-box company where someone offered their written feedback and then just walked away relying on management to implement their “great idea.” NO chance!
We wanted our team to be part of making it work or finding out that it didn’t work, but learning from the experience. We really don’t care either way, so long as our team is an active participant in the process. We started by creating a form where Ambassadors make a suggestion on Finding a Better Way to do something. We’d put the idea in front of a panel on a quarterly basis. We’d then award $2,500 to the participant with the idea receiving the most votes. But, that wasn’t enough. We then added an annual “FAB Idea” award, and shelled out $10,000 to the best company-wide idea. We announce the winner at a monthly all-company meeting, and share the idea with every employee so our entire team could see a real-life example of how just one team member was working to improve and shape our culture by actually living it.
We present the $2,500 or $10,000 payment in the form of an oversized check, take pictures, and then post the picture and a description of the idea on the “Wall of FAB” for everyone to continue to see the person who represents our core value of Finding a Better Way. Over time, we rolled that out to our other core values and added more awards, like celebrating the core concept of Expect the Best with the Awesome Award, a peer-to-peer award where one Ambassador brings up another in front of the entire company and shares why this person Expects the Best and is generally awesome. They receive a one-week paid vacation, and their picture — along with why they are awesome — on the Wall of Awesome.
We do the same with our core value of Do the Right Thing. The DiRT Award goes to someone who is doing the right thing at work and in life. Ambassadors nominate participants who are really walking the walk. The winner gets $1,500. To dive even deeper, we now have a rhythm where, each month, we feature one of our core values and use real life examples of people living it. With only three fundamental but crucial core values, we feature each core value once per quarter. We are consistent in this practice, and our people have an opportunity to be recognized on a monthly basis for living the culture and our values. You just cannot escape all the fun.
Q: Can you identify some key successes and a failure or two in your journey of establishing a great culture in your business?
Using our Core Value Awards as an example, we have implemented a system focused on Recognize, Reward, and Repeat. This is our biggest key to success in driving the culture for which we strive. It almost becomes second nature, and part of a routine. There are numerous other things we do to reinforce our culture, including specific messaging on Ambassadors’ uniforms in the plant, messaging on walls and handouts, hiring for culture and other thoughtful practices that can really plant the seeds of a positive environment.
We aren’t perfect, and have made plenty of mistakes along the way. But we learn from our challenges, and we’ve found that we also needed local awards so that people from each of our three locations are winning and no one ever feels left out. We also do a listening tour where we ask 12 participants to tell us what we should stop, start, and keep doing. One mistake we made during the first listening tours was to get defensive when someone was critical. We have learned over time that the most important thing was that we were listening to them, regardless of how we felt about their comments. We have now changed our response to meet criticism with a simple “thank you.” It is powerful when someone knows that you are listening, even if it is just for them to unload or complain about something that has been bothering them.
Q: How would I see your culture in action if I walked through your business today?
We work very hard to have signage and messaging throughout the plant reinforcing our culture, strategic plan (the actual plan is posted on one page throughout all of our facilities), and the walls celebrating our awesome Ambassadors living our culture. But the real, obvious proof of culture in action is just how each of our Ambassadors interacts with one another and care for their specific responsibility or job description within the business. Everyone takes pride in what they do, and it shows by how they do their job and interact with their colleagues. You’ll notice smiles, mutual respect, and a common alignment towards exceeding our goals. You don’t just see it; you really feel it.
Q: As a leader of a growing and dynamic business, how do you personally monitor the health of the culture?
We use NPS (Net Promoter Scores) to measure our culture and find out if we are moving in the right direction. We ask everyone to rate us on a scale of 1 to 10 with regard to how likely they are to recommend Comfort Research as a place to work for friends and family. We then track that score over time. If we are seeing lower than normal scoring, we start to dive deeper and work to find out how we can improve the environment to increase the score. We aren’t satisfied with an average culture. We want the best.
Simultaneously, we do a Start, Stop, Keep survey so we can gauge why things are moving in one direction or the other. As one could imagine, we have seen both. Over the long term, we have seen trends rise and fall, so we adjust accordingly, based on the feedback we receive from those surveys. This constant measurement affords us some pretty helpful insight into ebb and flow with regard to the challenges and obstacles any business could face. In the end, we just aren’t happy with anything below cultural excellence. Over time, we have learned that a happy and positive culture builds a great business model that can face the rigors of everyday business. We are built not just to survive, but to prosper.
Q: What final wisdom or advice would you share with a leader that wants to create healthier culture in their own business?
Keep your core values simple, and interject them into the foundation of your business. Have only three to five core values, and make them personal to you. If you believe them and live them every day in everything you do, your team will respond. No doubt, it will show if you are half-assed in your core values. Choose memorable principles that carry through your business. Don’t over-complicate them, because they will have the opposite impact on your development. Your organization doesn’t need to be a place for everyone, but it should be an amazing place to work for a select few who fit within your culture. Once you find those people, snatch them up and do all you can to keep them.
Systematize your culture. Create processes and rhythms around recognizing, rewarding, and repeating your core values. It has to be something that is part of the very heartbeat of your business, and not just fly-by-night ideas you talk about every now and again. Honor those who are living it publicly and openly. Don’t hide great ideas. Rather, make them part of your daily rituals. Be consistent and you will be able to drive and align your organization around your core values.
Most importantly, don’t settle for anything less than excellent culture. You can achieve it. Sure, it takes time. And energy. And a bunch of bullshit you might not particularly enjoy. But, as you work hard each and every day to align your business with your core values, you will start to see a monumental shift not just in the way you do business, but in the way people feel while doing business. Whether you’re manufacturing beanbags, running a restaurant, building a tech company or even coaching a sports team, it is your culture that acts as the glue that holds it all together. Don’t forget that when the times get tough. And when they get easy — which they will with a great culture — celebrate the people who helped forge the path.
Thanks, Matt, for sharing your journey from startup to successful company and how culture played such a huge role in making that happen.
If you want to learn more about Comfort Research, I recommend:
- Signing up for a culture tour
- Reading Matt’s blog (Mold Your Own) = this has the appropriate tagline of “inspired strategies and insights for anyone working to build an employee culture that endures”
- Considering Matt when you next need an engaging speaker = take a look at YouTube for a sample of the energy, excitement, and easily implementable steps that Matt brings when he speaks
The next time you are visiting one of the retailers he mentions, make sure you take a seat in one of their products. You are guaranteed to stay a while! Thanks, Matt, for sharing.