Inside Track: Reflecting company values
Comfort Research co-founder Matt Jung initially struggled to redefine his business’s beliefs.
Matt Jung said he believes in simplicity, not just for his company’s famously oversized beanbag chairs, but also for crafting a company culture that attracts and retains people who do the right thing, expect the best and find a better way, the company’s core values.
Entrepreneurism is in Jung’s DNA. His father and both of his grandfathers owned their own businesses which, from a young age, inspired Jung to take a similar path in life.
“I always thought that was the only way to go, to be in business … start your own thing and have fun doing it,” Jung said.
Jung, along with his business partner Chip George, conceived of their first product, the Fuf beanbag chair, 23 years ago out of pure necessity. While the two were roommates at Hope College, they decided to improve their old, inadequate beanbag chair by filling it with shredded foam mattress pads.
Jung and George knew they had a product people wanted. They would often get inquiries from fellow students wanting to know where they could get their own Fuf. But fulfilling orders for giant beanbag chairs would have been a logistical nightmare working out of a college dorm.
The two rented a chipper shredder to process the foam needed to fill their beanbags. The two also received help from the emerging New Holland Brewing Co. The owners allowed Jung and George to make bean bags on the company property while it was building out its brewery. George’s father also owned some vacant property where the two could shred foam and fill bags, but the process was contingent on having good weather.
Jung and George later were able to secure their first “factory,” a barn in Gobles they’d borrowed from a friend. The barn had a dirt floor, but their friend said they could have an entire section of it if they poured the concrete.
By 1998, Comfort Research began filling its first big order for Amway. The corporation had ordered 80 chairs, which Jung said would have taken quite a while to produce with their barn setup. One chair took about 17 minutes to fill, and the two also were bogged down by a large order from Meijer.
The partners had a strange moment of serendipity, though, when they came into the barn one morning and found someone had stolen all of their equipment. The team had in fact just ordered large scale equipment that would help them fulfill orders in a shorter amount of time, and the thief had unknowingly helped them clear out their old gear.
“It was kind of one of those things like, ‘woohoo!’” Jung said. “We had actually already purchased our large-scale equipment … it was coming, so we knew there was an end in sight.”
Comfort Research remained a “quiet success” in the Grand Rapids area until about 2013 when the company had a clear direction of where it wanted to be, Jung said. While it may be difficult to believe now, one of Comfort Research’s biggest struggles was trying to identify a good set of core values in the beginning.
“Once you identify your core values, how do you go about implementing them, so they’re just not something that’s written on the wall,” Jung added.
Jung recalled a time when he was giving one of his culture tours. At the time, the company had come up with 10 core values. Jung made it to Rule 7 but forgot the last three.
“If we as leaders can’t remember our core values, then how the heck can we have any expectation that anybody else within the organization can remember them?” Jung said. “And if you can’t remember them, how in the world can they be core? It’s a joke.”
If a company has five to 10 core values, there’s a guarantee not everybody in the company knows all of them, Jung said. Some companies can do it in four, he believes, but if there are more, usually two can be simplified into one.
Jung said Comfort Research is all about simplification, and its core values, now down to three, reflect that cultural DNA. He said it’s much more difficult to simplify a process than it is to complicate it.
Jung pointed to one of the company’s Mobilitë chairs, which are advertised to be useful both indoor and outdoor. “That thing only has three components. Do you know how hard it is to make an attractive, comfortable, price-value piece of furniture with only three pieces? It’s insanely hard!”
The three core values Comfort Research has can be attributed to one of the advisory board members, Jung said.
“One of our advisers said, ‘You guys just find a better way to do stuff,’ and the meeting went on,” Jung said. “We didn’t really talk about it that much more.”
But the simple notion stuck with Jung, and later that night, he realized he had his first core value.
“One of the things everybody knows about me within the company is if I ever were to ask the question, ‘Why did you do it that way?’ if someone were to answer, ‘Well, because we’ve always done it that way,’ that just eats me up inside because they’re not using their mind. They’re not using the skills God gave them,” Jung said.
Jung started to think about other things said and done around the company, things employees might already know but wouldn’t call it out for what it is immediately. One common theme in group discussions was “expecting the best,” so he wrote that down, as well.
Jung showed the two core values to George, who approved and added the last value: “do the right thing.”
“Boom! That was it!” Jung said. “It was literally in less than 24 hours we had identified our core values. Most people do the roundtable thing; talk to the team … I’m definitely suggesting do that, but at the end of the day, the owners need to make the final call … seek input but don’t just roundtable it. That’s how you end up with 10 core values.”
Jung praised Elzinga & Volkers, a construction group in Holland for its ability to get away with just one core value, which is CEO Mike Novakoski’s catchphrase, “become unmistakable.”
“That’s all they talk about … and that drives the hiring process, that drives the way they do quotes, that drives every single thing they do, and I think that is awesome,” Jung said. “If we could have done it with one, I would have.”
Comfort Research also is active in recognizing employees who most embody the core values. The DiRT Award — a pseudo-acronym for “do the right thing” — is given to those who do the right thing in life, not just in one’s job, Jung said.
The company also features the “Awesome Award,” which is a peer-to-peer award for those who “expect the best,” in their jobs, customer relations, daily operations, etc.
The people who make up Comfort Research have a lot of unconventional titles for their roles in the company, Jung said. In addition to being the co-owner and co-founder, he also is unofficially the “preacher man” of Comfort Research.
Originally, his title was “fabulator,” which was an homage to one of the company’s three core values, FAB — find a better way.
“More recently, I’ve kind of changed that,” Jung said. “We’ve built up this awesome team. We can’t be responsible for finding a better way. Our team needs to do that in their respective areas. That’s why we’ve hired them. They’ve got specialized talents that we just don’t have.”
In his current role as “preacher man,” Jung “preaches the good news” of Comfort Research’s brand, products and teams through various outlets, including personal blogs and social media.
Comfort Research has experienced 26% percent annual compounded growth over the last 20 years, Jung said, and with growth comes new challenges, new experiences and new opportunities. But the core values will remain the same.