Creating Culture in an Elevator

By Greg Besner, Founder and CEO of CultureIQ

This essay, first published in Entrepreneur, was written in 2014, the year CultureIQ was launched. Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who  inspired the creation of CultureIQ, passed away on Nov. 27, 2020, at the age of 46.

He Lifted Culture Up: A 2003 meeting with former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in an elevator planted the seeds for CultureIQ. Photo: Nan Palmero

On my college graduation day my parents ceremoniously handed down to me our only family heirloom, a shiny gold watch. The watch had originally been given to my grandfather for his 25 years of employment with a large insurance company. My parents hoped that this symbolic gift handed to me as I entered the workforce would inspire me to pursue my own 25 years of dedicated service. Fast forward a few decades, and while my parents are very proud of my accomplishments, I followed a very different path than that of my grandfather, leading to my founding of CultureIQ.

Like so many people in today’s generation, my career goal wasn’t to simply persevere for 25 years, but instead to feel inspired and engaged each day. I did begin my career on a more traditional path— working in Fortune 500 companies, earning my MBA from The Wharton School, and eventually becoming the divisional President of a large public company. But for the past 15 years, I’ve found passion in my career as an entrepreneur building companies, and more recently as a professor teaching entrepreneurship and organizational culture at NYU Stern School of Business.

So why did our grandparents’ generation of workers have such different career aspirations from today’s generation? I believe the answer is a generational shift in demographics. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations are part of a cohort of approximately 78 million post-World War II “baby boomers” born between 1946 and 1964. The families of the baby boomers lived through The Great Depression and World-War II. In the wake of bread lines and world wars, finding a career with long-term stability and fair income was a high priority. But today, the youngest baby boomers are turning 50, and the oldest baby boomers are retiring.

In contrast, approximately 80 million “millennials” are entering the workforce in record numbers. The millennial generation (born approximately 1980-1995) is the largest cohort in US history. The millennials have grown up during a time of economic growth, technological advancement, and prosperity. As a result, research shows that millennials are generally optimistic about career opportunities, and they place great significance on the qualitative elements of their career, such as a positive company culture. In contrast to our parents’ generation that proudly earned a gold watch after 25 years of service, the millennials are more likely to switch jobs within the next 12 months.

Last year Gallup published a research report titled “The State of the American Workplace,” which identified that 70% of American workers are disengaged at work. Business leaders recognize these important trends and many are now focused on strengthening their company culture to better engage and inspire employees. Google, SAS, Zappos, and many other high-profile companies are leading their respective industries, in part due to their attention to company culture.

So how did I get so focused on creating culture in the workplace? I would love to say that I always knew that culture would be an important part of my leadership style while building several high-growth companies, but my interest actually started about 12 years ago with a chance meeting in an elevator.

In 2003 I was the founder and CEO of a venture-backed Software as a Service (“SaaS”) technology company, Restricted Stock Systems, based in Princeton, NJ, which we sold in 2007. I was in San Francisco visiting a friend, Erik Moore, the founder of, when the elevator door opened and in walked a young man wearing a T-shirt. Erik introduced me to Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos), and we briefly exchanged pleasantries. At the time, Zappos had fewer than 100 employees, and most people including myself had never heard of the company or Tony Hsieh. Today of course, Tony is a business and culture celebrity, and author of New York Times Best Seller Delivering Happiness. (Sidebar: Erik met Tony in 1999 in the same elevator, and he became one of the original seed investors in Zappos).

A few months later I happen to be seated next to Tony at Erik’s wedding. I had recently started my second business, a fashion accessories company, and we had licensed the rights to design, produce, and distribute UGG® Australia handbags. Tony and I talked about the fact that Zappos was expanding into the handbag category, and in January of 2004 I met the rest of the Zappos leadership team and for the next few years my company was the largest supplier of handbags to Zappos.

My visits and involvement with Zappos became more and more frequent over the years and I developed close friendships with many people there. Also during those early years I joined the Zappos team as one of its handful of investors. As a result, I participated in the its culture over the last 10 years. I witnessed its unique and evolving culture help Zappos grow from a startup with sales of $1.6 million in 2000, to surpassing sales of $1 billion in 2008. Zappos was acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009, yet their focus on culture has never been stronger.

These experiences led me to launch CultureIQ a little more than a year ago taking inspiration from my involvement at Zappos, my role building four prior companies, and my teaching at NYU Stern Business School. Over the years, hundreds of business owners have asked me for advice on this topic. Today I’m thrilled to be introducing CultureIQ’s culture management software, which will help those companies, and hopefully thousands more, measure, understand, and strengthen their organizational culture.

On October 8th, similar to 12 years ago, I’ll be in an elevator en route to Tony Hsieh’s apartment. But this time I’ll be there to host the official launch party for CultureIQ while we overlook the new Zappos headquarters. Great culture can be inspired anywhere, even in an elevator.