Inside the Company Culture of Kansas City’s Red Nova Labs

October 1, 2014

12:01 pm

In Westwood, Kansas, down the street from Google Fiber’s building and over 20 other startups, you’ll find the headquarters of Red Nova Labs.

The company opened its doors in 2009 as a startup incubator but – in true startup fashion – tested and iterated and refined into what they are today, an agency that provides digital services for the self-storage industry. Bootstrapped, they’ve grown to 40 employees and created a unique culture along the way.

We interviewed Katelyn Wyss, PR specialist at Red Nova Labs, to learn more about their culture – from the Wall of Shame to their dog-friendly offices to “gnomes” that roam the grounds.

Tech Cocktail: What are your company’s cultural values?

Red Nova Labs: Our corporate mission depends heavily on our workplace culture. Department lines are blurred, office doors are rarely closed, and you’ll never find a cubicle in our office. With our open atmosphere, we allow every employee to help develop ideas and contribute to the company’s growth. By creating this collaborative network, we allow everyone at Red Nova Labs to make an impact on what we accomplish.

Red Nova Labs - open

We firmly believe teamwork and collaboration start with the hiring process, which is why we value adding members who fit our culture – even if they don’t necessarily have the immediate skills we need. Play well with our existing employees and have a strong work ethic – you are in! Red Nova Labs gives you the tools you need to develop into a successful Red Nova Labs team member. A willingness to learn, sense of humor, and positive attitude go farther than other work experiences.

Tech Cocktail: What perks do you have for employees at the office?

Red Nova Labs:

  • Full kitchen (downstairs) – Fridge, stove, double oven, ice machine, freezer, etc.

Red Nova Labs - Kitchen

  • Full bar (downstairs): Always beer and booze in stock for our many celebrations
  • Open floor plan for collaboration to be able to overhear issues and jump in if appropriate (maybe this is just being nosy)
  • Stocked kitchen upstairs: Unlimited amount of a variety of drinks (soda, Gatorade, water, tea, etc.) and snacks (granola bars, fruit, chips, candy, etc.)
  • Nerf Gun wars
  • Games: Ping pong, foosball, Pac Man, pinball

Red Nova Labs - ping pong

  • Free private parking lot
  • Vaults (we are safe from KS tornadoes, ha!)
  • Multiple work zones can help mix up the day (standing desk, comfy chairs, windows, quiet areas, etc.), which allows for ease of changing up seating arrangements as business needs change. The space isn’t owned by anyone. Groups adapt the space to their needs (code reviews on TV/ programmers hanging in the couches) 
  • Tons of cool knickknacks and books lying around – always has a story or memory attached to it
  • Lots of plants
  • TONS of windows – natural light 

Tech Cocktail: Where do employees eat breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner?

Red Nova Labs: To facilitate the breakneck pace at which we work, we keep ourselves well stocked with coffee, snacks, and soda. There’s always food sitting around, much of which is brought in by employees themselves. When the day’s work is done, or someone simply needs a break, there’s always the large and versatile kitchen and recreation area, home to such varying activities as our catered Friday lunches, World Cup soccer watch parties, our ping pong and foosball tables, and even the occasional company-wide meeting

Today as I am writing this, our Operations department brought in banana cake muffins, and an email just went out and all of us girls will be going to lunch.  These are not uncommon.

Tech Cocktail: Do you offer any interesting benefits?

Red Nova Labs:

Company events: RNL is all about the employees. This summer, we took a company trip to the Kansas City Royals MLB game in a suite, and next weekend we are having a tent at the American Royal Barbecue. We love to have company events, both relaxing and competitive. We have kickball and basketball leagues, and even can make pictionary a company event with words specific to Red Nova Labs, our industry, and our products.

Tech Cocktail: What unconventional things might someone see while walking through your office?

Red Nova Labs:

Wall of Shame: The organization is relatively flat and employees are encouraged to express opinions and drive. We think different – we WANT people to make mistakes. If people are not making mistakes, then they are not doing their job.  This shows by our Wall of Shame of all failed past products in our basement common area. This shows how we always encourage people to think outside of the box and know when to pivot. 

Red Nova Labs - wall of shame

Dogs: We have had an official “take your dog to work day,” but it seems most of the time, dogs just seem to be around the office. 

Red Nova Labs - dog

Tech Cocktail: Do you have any lunchtime or after-hours events for employees?

Red Nova Labs:

Catered Friday lunches: We have had catered lunch once a week for this last year. It is a fun time – we will do company updates and get to know the new members of our team. On days we don’t have catered lunches, we have had cookouts and shrimp boils. 🙂 

Happy hours: These happen a lot – launches, milestones, or just because.

RNL-sponsored sporting teams: Kickball and basketball leagues (we are terrible in both, but we have VERY supportive RNL fans).

Tech Cocktail: How do you celebrate birthdays or holidays?

Red Nova Labs:

Employee birthdays: We are a small group here. Everyone knows each other really well, so we try and make birthdays personally tailored to each person. For one who loves sloths (right?), we decorated her desk with everything “sloth,” for another we made a cake with a giant picture of his face, for another we put together all of our favorite hangover cures, since we knew he was going back for a college football game and coming back to work the next day. For our President, Dan Miller, we did a surprise birthday and all moved our cars out of the driveway and had a shrimp boil. We try and make them as personal as we can, but we never can pass up an opportunity to celebrate…..and eat. 

Christmas: This past holiday party, Red Nova Labs transformed into a Las Vegas casino. Out-of-town employees were flown in, and friends and families were invited to take part in the excitement of a traditional Red Nova Labs-style party. People from every department snuck into a secret room to pay homage to our executive team. They recorded physical descriptions, favorite memories, Las Vegas stories, and even a song by the company’s own employee band. These clips were compiled into a hilarious (and yet somehow heartfelt) video collection of everything that makes working at Red Nova Labs great.

Red Nova Labs - band

Red Nova Labs - casino

Intern going away: We love our interns at Red Nova Labs. We had two summer interns, and they dove right in did amazing with any task we threw their way. On their last day, we surprised everyone and brought in a Game Track and had a foosball tournament for a THANK YOU sendoff. 

Sporting events: We all watched the US men’s team in the Soccer World Cup, the Kansas City Royals MLB Team when we are making a playoff push, etc. Everyone brought their laptop down and worked while watching. 

Halloween: Costume party, brewery tour, pumpkin carving contest.

Tech Cocktail: Any other interesting aspects of your culture?

Red Nova Labs: Here at Red Nova Labs, we live in excitement of being visited by our pleasant “gnomes” every day.  They spend all their time planning nice surprises for our staff. We’ve all been touched by the gnomes’ nice gestures in one way or another and they greatly boost employee morale.  They have redecorated desks to reflect an employee’s favorite animal, sent flowers to a coworker who just lost a pet, and replaced a broken coffee mug, and made signs and a cheering poster to root on our RNL basketball team, just to name a few of their recent activities. 

Winter is no joke in Kansas. One afternoon last winter, we watched ice fall on all our cars through our wall of windows. I’m sure no one was excited to leave and have to scrape off a thick layer of ice. We walked out the doors and saw that the gnomes had already cleared off our cars! It was the best feeling in the world.

When we were trying to build up our Facebook following, the gnomes stepped in and promised a gift to our 500th like. What did they put in the mail? 500 pennies (plus movie tickets) to one lucky RNL follower. So they aren’t just doing good deeds for RNL employees. Get on their good side and you might find something nice in your mailbox.

Last summer, the gnomes began planning catered lunches for us all. Since then they’ve brought us food from incredible restaurants and not only do they bring us food every week, but they also clean up afterward. Everything gets boxed up and put in our fridges. Counters are wiped down. And the trash is taken out. They really pamper us. We really hope the gnomes stay around forever and keep up these exciting escapades. We all love coming into work because we’re passionate about what we do, but the gnomes are like the sprinkles on top of the RNL ice cream sundae. We never know when they’re going to strike, but we do know that we love them.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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