Connecting the online and offline worlds is all in a day’s work for Lob. Through its print, mail and address verification APIs, used by companies to automate direct mail campaigns, the San Francisco-based startup with a robust remote work model empowers its customers to simplify print-and-mail processes.
Improving the accuracy, visibility and flexibility of offline-marketing strategies, the company’s platform lets tech companies, e-commerce and direct-to-consumer companies leverage direct mail like they would email. Engaging customers at home with personalized physical marketing, Lob’s platform has found particular success helping its customers bypass a crowded digital marketplace.
Throughout the pandemic, as Lob more than doubled in size, the company embraced remote working environments. In doing so, this mission of connecting online and offline worlds took on an added resonance: how could Lob’s tight-knit employee base, affectionately known as “Lobsters,” scale their company’s culture from a distance?
According to Laone Oagile, Lob’s employee development program manager, it’s all about transparency. From performance review processes focused on active feedback and year-round “pulse checks” to a “Lob for Good” social impact program, the company has sought to establish an inclusive, empowering culture for employees — one meant to align with and celebrate diverse identities, career goals and collective desire to make a difference.
“People are invested in curating an experience where people feel welcome,” Oagile said. In this respect, Lob for Good has been a game-changer; since employees launched it as a product platform for organizations fighting racial injustice, the company has broadened the initiative out into Lob.org, a dedicated social impact arm that also prioritizes sustainability and civic action.
As a social impact specialist at Lob, Calah Vargas says it’s not uncommon for such initiatives to be employee-led then company-backed, instead of the other way around. “Even before there was a Lob.org, there was this passion everywhere; we’re a physical product, but we all want to be as sustainable as possible,” she said.
“I would really describe Lob as a progressive place,” added Ross Martin, software engineering manager. “A lot of companies have great culture but lack the structures to back it up, or vice versa, but at Lob you get both. It feels vibrant and dynamic but also supported.”
Calah, as social impact specialist, you’re vital to Lob’s efforts to take action in various areas. Tell me about social impact initiatives you’ve worked on at the company.
Vargas: We’ve had a partnership with Eden Reforestation Projects for a handful of years. Eden will plant two trees for every one that we use in production of our mail pieces, through our donations. That set the precedent for a lot of this other work that has happened.
What I’m really excited about is that we are planning to offer a carbon neutral direct mail product this year. Reforestation, recyclable paper and investments in carbon offsets are all part of reducing emissions. With all the factors that make Lob Lob, I’m trying to figure out exactly what that would look like for us to say we have a carbon-neutral product and be able to, of course, prove it.
Last year, we also had what we called a “Direct Mail for Change” event. We used the platforms for two Lob for Good customers — Congress.Cards and Resistbot — and encouraged all our employees to write one letter, email or other communication to an elected official, for a cause that they cared about. When we finished the event, we had over 100 letters sent. For civic action, direct mail can be a powerful tool; we thought this aligned with our customers’ missions while getting our employees engaged and involved.
Speaking broadly, what can you each tell me about the company culture at Lob?
Vargas: It’s a testament to the culture how many social impact initiatives are employee-led. I know that drew me in, and it’s something I see every day, from employees reaching out to a specific Lob.org team and saying, “I care about this, so how can we take action in this space?” to others volunteering in Lob for Good, our employee volunteer program for Lob.org initiatives.
Oagile: Initially, when we were about 70 people, I was keen to be at a company that was growing and in a position to be disruptive in the tech space. That spirit really lives within our culture. We’re reactive to the climate. We’re not afraid to experiment in terms of our work and be bold in terms of what we do.
Martin: A typical startup is just a SaaS product, so all of the problems and bottlenecks you’re facing are purely digital. We have all of those problems, and then we also have all of the problems that come with having a physical product. For our engineers, we need an incredibly diverse set of people with different backgrounds, experiences, expertise and industries to come in and help us solve different problems. Whether you are going really deep on C++ image manipulation, front-end perfection with CSS or logistical machine-learning algorithms to help with our routing, our employees take ownership of difficult issues they are interested in. You get people coming up with ideas no one else would have thought about.
On the engineering side, we have several different engineer-led working groups. Some of them are very technical and software-focused. There’s always time in people’s schedules; we have a 20 percent program where people can work on any projects that they want that can help the business. That could be anything: from improving the interviewing process to make it more equitable to addressing technical debt. We even have an engineering culture working group to focus specifically on culture and values we want to instill across the engineering side.
With Lob expanding while remote, how have you worked to scale that culture, and what new initiatives have been a part of that?
Oagile: Prior to the pandemic, we didn’t really have a strategy of events; we just threw events ad hoc. Now, we have an experience specialist who’s built out a robust, inclusive event strategy that’s going to touch on virtual employees and in-office employees throughout the year. I’m creating development programs that enable or empower people who are not coming into the office, to be able to learn and gain new skills via different vendors, such as LinkedIn Learning.
Martin: One of the things I’ve seen in my career as startups grow is that sometimes you lose the feeling of intimacy. At Lob, it’s the best of both worlds. On the one hand, you feel like you and your concerns are not going to get lost and fall through the cracks. Everything is planned out and thoughtfully considered. On the other hand, we have these avenues for very direct connection. We have a Slack channel to ask frank questions to our leadership team, all the way up to our CEO and our executives. I’ve seen very honest discussions happen on that channel. It’s a level of transparency and access that I’ve never seen before — especially over Slack, where anyone can ask something at any time.
Laone, connecting a distributed workplace comes with its fair share of challenges. How important have platforms like Slack been to Lob’s operations?
Oagile: Slack is that direct replacement for that organic interaction you would have in the office, when you could stop by someone’s desk. But we’re cognizant of how not to spam people; that’s important, especially because we’re largely remote. Before the pandemic, we were largely San Francisco-based and all coming into the office. Now, around 60 percent of our population is distributed. Working within different time zones takes intentionality. People are honest; we give real-time feedback, every day, all the time.
Ross, keeping the API updated, working on the more technical side as you do, what can you tell me about the engineering mindset at Lob and how that’s changed as the company has grown?
Martin: Everything starts from that previous discussion we were having, about culture and how we work together. I’m proud, on the engineering side, of how we are working remotely. My entire team was hired remotely; that’s nine engineers, and a lot of the engineering team is distributed. Our Slack culture, and our asynchronous work culture, is extremely polished. You can write code then have it reviewed before you even start your next day, depending on what time zone you’re in. People are constantly in Slack huddles or Zoom calls, pair programming, whether they’re debugging or working on a new feature.
You get different people in different teams working together. Our engineers aren’t just taking someone else’s ideas and turning it into code. I tell everyone that they should be business owners themselves. They really have this product mindset. When all of these connections are happening, you get people who are like, “Hey, I see how this is happening on the software side. It would be really easy for us to do X. That’s a really viable product, or at least we can spec it out.” Some of our current product offerings that are profitable came up because of conversations like that.
We’re also scaling our technology to be an IPO-ready company. Lob started as a transactional mail company; what this means is that some event happens in the world, outside of Lob, and one of our clients wants to send one mail piece based on that. Maybe someone signs up for a house-sharing platform, and you want to verify that they control the address, so you send one postcard to that address; it’s transactional. What we’re trying to do now is preserve and keep growing that side of the business but also make sure that we can serve the enterprise market with low- or no-code solutions. A marketing manager at an enterprise company who doesn’t know how to code but wants to send 5 million postcards through our platform would be able to do that with a few clicks. We’re re-architecting our platform to be able to solve for both use cases. It’s a difficult technical challenge, but we’re very close to launching a big product that actually accomplishes those goals.
One core strength of Lob, based on what we’ve discussed here, is the diversity of your workforce. How does the company position itself to attract candidates who perhaps do not have a professional background in direct mail marketing?
Oagile: I’m not going to lie; when I joined Lob, I didn’t fully know what an API was. At all. I’m sure I’m not the only one, when it comes to print and mail. We talk about print and mail, about disrupting the industry, but we acknowledge the fact that print and mail is us trying to make something that’s not necessarily the most exciting product viable across the globe. We have a lot of learning, feedback and training on the product. Our onboarding is stellar; you get warmed into the product in a way that’s not overwhelming. I’ve seen people from so many different backgrounds join the company.
Vargas: We’ve also joined Slack’s Next Chapter program to help change the stigma of formerly incarcerated individuals and to allow those individuals interested in tech to have a pathway to explore that. At Lob, the pathway to find what you’re passionate about and be empowered by the people around you is wonderful. It’s the only reason I’ve been able to be in this social impact role. I actually started my career in nonprofits and political campaigns, so for me to have come to Lob is a full-circle moment.