The Chicago office of Cameo, the start-up that lets fans pay for shout-out videos from celebs, was lit up with energy in early 2020. The company had all the “millennial start-up trappings” from kombucha and cold brew on tap to free lunch, plus the fact that random famous people would occasionally stop by. Young designers and engineers hustled hard to grow the platform but they’d also take breaks to hang out with co-workers during the day.
Basically, the company culture very much embodied the essence of cool flashy start-up. It was exciting, fun, collaborative, and their ultimate job was simply to make people really happy with personalized videos from actors, bachelor contestants, influencers, athletes, or, you know, Carole Baskin.
Riding a high-growth wave, Cameo leadership was about to sign a lease for larger offices on March 10 when headlines about a deadly virus started circulating. They held off to see what would happen.
“It was extremely fortuitous that we didn’t sign those papers,” Melanie Steinbach, Cameo’s head of people, told me over Zoom. “I think a lot of companies that have made the decision to return to an office have done so because they have one, and if they didn’t, I don’t know if they’d make the same choice. Luckily we were freed from the shackles of that in decision making.”
Cameo had operated largely out of two headquarters, in Chicago and Los Angeles, where each of the co-founders lived, but a lot of employees were distributed elsewhere. Even though they were used to being spread out, going online completely came with paint points all other companies were facing during the pandemic.
Three months into the new WFH set up, CEO Steven Galanis made the decision to stay remote forever. Steinbach had been working with Cameo for awhile and was hired full-time in November 2020 knowing they were never going back to the office and that her job would be to make remote work.
“This wasn’t a culture that had worked remotely before — we made the decision to shift based on outside forces, not internal readiness for it,” she said. “We didn’t have the infrastructure set up.”
The challenges that came with an overnight overhaul in work structure happened throughout Silicon Valley, often breeding burnout and tension. People often felt tired, disconnected, and frustrated by a lack of clear communication.
So Steinbach started on what felt immediately necessary: training managers on how to manage people they may have never met, setting up better internal communications, and creating better systems for onboarding remote workers. Aside from that, she wanted people to not lose their excitement about being part of such a quirky and fun company. Once mocked by the tech industry for being a random service most people wouldn’t use, it’s now gained unicorn status and proved everyone wrong. Over the past 9 months Steinbach and her team worked to make sure Cameo didn’t lose the personality it had before.
I sat down (virtually) to ask Steinbach specifics of how they’ve pulled of the feat of maintaining company culture throughout the madness. Here’s what I learned.
Roll out the red carpet for newbies
Like a lot of start-ups, when new people started in the office at Cameo, they would have a few fun things waiting for them on their desk that they mentioned liking during the interview process, plus some swag. Now, that’s taken up a notch: everyone gets a full office set-up and swag in advance of starting, plus a personalized cameo from a celeb and team members sent throughout their first day to welcome them to the Fameo.
The idea comes from one of the company’s core values — roll out the red carpet. That means for fan-customers, celebs, and employees. “It’s about extreme welcoming and making everyone feel like a celebrity here.”
A full-production all-hands
There’s nothing a tech company loves more than their all-hands meeting — that time of week when everyone comes together. It was always a cultural touchstone at Cameo, but when they took it remote in March 2020, it lost its luster. “It had gotten stale, and monotonous,” Steinbeich said. “We were going to kill it in December.”
In a last-ditch effort, they tried to make it cool again, going all out in production value. They created a jingle and intro video to open the “show,” showcasing people from throughout the company in comedy bits, skits, fun new hire intros and weird ways to keep people engaged (once, if executives guessed a number you were thinking of, you’d have to dunk yourself with water.) “We put our personality into it, and when we did that, we saw magic happen.” In addition to the fun stuff, they also make room for anonymous questions so anyone can speak up — especially important in a remote environment where it can be isolating.
Now, they see a 95% attendance rate and in their employee surveys, people say it’s what wows them more than anything.
When the Silicon Valley office went away, so did a lot of the perks. Cameo gave everyone Grubhub credit in lieu of free catered lunch, plus covering wifi, cell phone, a remote office set up (ring light included). But now they’re rethinking benefits entirely. “I like to cook, for example, so maybe I’d rather have that Grubhub money for something else,” Steinbech said.
No one is working the exact same way anymore, and they’re thinking about their employees in three buckets: those who actually work from home every day, those that a ‘have laptop, will travel’ mindset, and those who prefer a co-working space because their home situation isn’t ideal (ie roommates, small, kids at home etc). So this fall they’re launching a revamped benefits program with Fringe, a start-up that is essentially a “benefit mall” where Cameo will give employees a set amount of money they can choose on whatever they want, whether that’s a co-working space, food, massages, fitness, house cleaning, parent services, etc.
In-person interaction — sometimes, with Paula Abdul or Kenny G
This past summer, Cameo came together IRL for an all-company in-person retreat (before the Delta variant of COVID-19 took off.) The 300+ employees descended on a hotel in Chicago for a few days of the “Cameopalooza,” which had a retro reunion theme. Kenny G opened with a show, Paula Abdul judged a talent show American Idol-style, and the final party featured Vanilla Ice, while Mark McGrath and Lance Bass happened to also be around. There was a field day with sports, a BBQ, and part of the Hamilton cast even performed.
“The amount of love in the room was amazing - people had been working together on a screen for a year and a half,” she said.
It also proved that making time for meaningful in-person connections will continue to be a big part of what they’ll do, when it’s safe.
“We will be somewhat hybrid, using some of the money we save on not having an office to reinvest into amazing experiences for the team where they can come together,” she said.