Getting Employees to Think Like Owners with Sam Eitzen at The Snap Bar

Those that have an ownership stake tend to think differently about the work and decisions they have to make. Do you believe that getting employees that think like owners without any real financial ownership is possible? Well, I have seen it happen over and over. In fact, it is one of the most significant driving forces in fast-growth companies. Today’s guest is Sam Eitzen, CEO at The Snap Bar. Inc Magazine ranked The Snap Bar #217 on the 2019 Inc 5000 list. Sam shares his leadership insights that catapulted his company to fast growth. We look at what happens with employees think like owners. Discover how you can engage your employees to think like owners.

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Target Audience: Sam Eitzen is the CEO & Co-Founder at Snapbar. The SnapBar is a favorite among Seattle and Portland photo booths and offers one of the best and most unique photo booth rental experiences in the Pacific Northwest. Our wonderful staff, excellent customer service, and unique, fun services have defined our company since 2012.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Sam Eitzen
We just have very open and honest conversations with our early team. And we still do about what our goals were, what our vision was for the company, why? My brother and I were not, at the, at that time looking to give away equity in the company that our life savings had been dumped into this, etc, etc, just being very transparent with them. And the feedback that came, that came back to us was, was great people felt they could trust us, they felt that we would tell them the truth when things are going well when things are not going well. And over time, that trust and you know, for the longest time we didn’t have ownership is value. I didn’t even use that word really to describe what we were trying to create. And as I read more and learn more, we started to label it. It’s one of the values that our company and yet so I’d say trust is a big one.

Intro [0:51]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I help leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett [1:08]
Do you think about getting your employees to make decisions to own the results to own the process? Do you want them to show up empowered, you want them to trust you more? Well, that starts with you. When you think about being the leader that your team deserves, you want them to feel that sense of ownership about the work. There’s a lot of pieces to that. I’ve been talking about that for ages on the podcast. But today we talk with Sam Eitzen. He is the co-founder of The Snap Bar, which grew in over 947% over a three year period that put them at 478 on the Inc list, really impressive growth of the last three years, how they get there, they got their employees to think like owners, they encourage them to have this sense of ownership, ownership as a part of their values. Today, we talked about some of the details behind how they got there, and why it was necessary. One of the things that you should know as a leader is that when you get people to feel like owners without the financial tools that are available, you will have a loyal team, and you will be considered a great leader. Here’s the interview with Sam.

Gene Hammett [2:17]
Sam, how are you?

Sam Eitzen [2:19]
Good, Gene, thanks for having me.

Gene Hammett [2:21]
I’m excited to have you on the podcast. It really is a new time here that we’re going to have to lead differently. But before we jump into that, let’s talk about your company. Tell us about The Snap Bar.

Sam Eitzen [2:34]
Yeah, well, The Snap Bar is an event services provider. Not an amazing time to be an event services provider. But that’s what we’ve done for the past seven years. It’s been good. We essentially rent photo booths and selfie stands to live or in-person events around the country, from conferences to marketing activations, etc.

Gene Hammett [2:54]
Love the idea. I’ve been to events where they had these little places to send take photos and put them on your social profiles. So that’s what it is.

Sam Eitzen [3:03]
Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, it started a while ago as the primary social media driver, let’s get branded content to social media, that’s still a big part of it. When we first started, we were basically serving weddings only. But over time, that shifted, and now about 85% of our business is corporate, and still branded content to social media is a big important piece, but also like legal data collection. So having people in this experience, sign up for news about a launch, etc. Oftentimes, these experiences, or this photo, really activations are branded around a particular theme or marketing message. So it’s shifted in seven years, but it’s a lot of fun.

Gene Hammett [3:48]
Well, we’re gonna dive into this. I want to get this out of the way first because I know that growing our companies fast is not everyone’s idea. But you made the Inc 500. Did I look at your number, you may think 500 just by a few. Just a few. We were lucky. Yeah. But it’s very impressive. Because what that is, for those of you that don’t know, it’s a three-year run rate of revenue. You had revenue over a couple of million dollars in sales. But you grew at over 947% in three years.

Sam Eitzen [4:22]
Yeah. It was a crazy ride and we’re bootstrapped too. So it was even a little Wilder to fund that growth ourselves.

Gene Hammett [4:30]
I know you met with my team, Sarah, Who asked you a question about you know, one of the core factors of your growth and you said, ownership. And I know a lot of people think ownership means well, you have ownership and maybe you have some other co-founders. Tell us what you mean by ownership.

Sam Eitzen [4:49]
Yeah, for sure. So well, in true ownership at our company. The actual ownership of the business is split between my brother and me. He’s my co-founder and it’s 5050 so I’m not talking about that kind of ownership. But it is important. When we decided to really start growing our business, which was actually three years into when it was founded, we left we had done it for three years part-time, and then worked our regular career jobs during those first three years, both quit at the same time and went full time, and started building out a team, we realized how much we disliked micromanaging and just honestly, management in general, in the early days, we were bad at it. We didn’t know, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And we had never been managers that our other jobs, we’d worked for startups.

Sam Eitzen [5:37]
So it was just hustling, hustle, hustle. And we were good at that. But managing people was a lot more difficult. And we didn’t know. So we started by saying we need to find people that are self-starters, or kind of can run themselves. And that I think was pretty immature thinking in the early days, over time, it morphed into, okay, what we really wanted to do was give people the ability to make their own decisions, and think for themselves to help grow our company, because we could not effectively be involved in every decision that’s made every meeting or every team that was that we were hiring for during those growing years.

Gene Hammett [6:13]
And that’s a really good point there. Because ownership is not just financial, a lot of people think it’s about stock shares. And those things do improve the loyalty of someone and their, their ability to think for themselves and put themselves out in the line. But you’re doing this with you know, a whole bunch of employees like 30 Plus, yeah, that doesn’t have any percentage of ownership?

Sam Eitzen [6:38]
No, yeah.

Gene Hammett [6:39]
When you think about it. There’s more to it than just empowering them. I know, that’s the way I kind of think of the two things you just mentioned, is as I have to make decisions, and to really have their own opinions about things, what other things elements go into this idea of ownership.

Sam Eitzen [6:58]
I think trust is the biggest one. So when you give equity away in your company, which, you know, the only reason we didn’t in those early days was that we were bootstrapped, and we didn’t have much to give away. It wasn’t worth anything, it didn’t even seem like an attractive proposition at the time, we weren’t VC backed or anything like that. So equity in this thing would have meant nothing. So from the get-go, we needed to hire people who are going to do a great job for what we paid them. And then but really like the to unlock it was like how do they go above and beyond? How do we make them owners without actually giving away equity because we weren’t in a position to do so.

Sam Eitzen [7:35]
So trust was the biggest thing for us, we would just have very open and honest conversations with our early team. And we still do about what our goals were, what our vision was for the company, why my brother and I were not at them at that time looking to give away equity in the company that our life savings had been dumped into this, etc, etc, just being very transparent with them. And the feedback that came, that came back to us was great people felt that they could trust us, they felt that we would tell them the truth when things are going well when things were not going well. And over time. That trust, you know, for the longest time, we didn’t have ownership as value. And I didn’t even use that word really to describe what we were trying to create. And as I read more and learn more, we decided to label it, it’s one of the values that our company. And yeah, so I’d say trust is a big one.

Commercial [8:28]
Hold on for a second, if you want more trust, one thing that you can do, is trusting your employees more, if you want them to trust you, right, you want them to really trust the organization and the strategies in the processes, then you’ve got to demonstrate that trust, you’ve got to give it first. This is a place where you lead by example, if you want to micromanage your people, you’re you’re literally telling them that you don’t trust them. Think about that for a second. And if you want to increase the level of trust inside your organization, you’ve got to lead by example by trusting them first, back to the interview.

Gene Hammett [9:05]
Well, I have also looked at this too, and trust is one of those core elements inside my research. And the transparency element to it is something I think a lot of people are afraid of. They’re afraid to trust people with that data or the knowledge financially. Do you open up everything transparently? Or where do you draw the line?

Sam Eitzen [9:25]
On everything but essentially access to the bank account, although even team members of ours have we like have credit cards and things like that. So we don’t talk about how much we’ve saved up over the years or what our cash reserves are in like rainy day funds, but everything else at the company, every dime we earn everything that we spend is basically publicly available. Most people don’t really care. They know that they have access to it if they needed to. But yeah, it’s pretty open.

Gene Hammett [9:57]
When you think about this trust goes both ways. We know that we want our employees to trust us, but you have to trust them How have you had to work on your own psychology or mindset around trusting them so that they are trusted to fail, and move and pick up the pieces and move forward?

Sam Eitzen [10:14]
100%, I’m an enneagram. Eight, I’m hard-headed, I’m kind of stubborn. I’ve just always been that kind of entrepreneurial, hard-nosed guy. And so it’s always been a struggle for me when someone doesn’t line up with how I view the world and how I do work. And I tend to overwork and push myself to the extreme. And I’m not saying those are good things. That’s just my bent. And I realized that about myself. And so again, when I was a little younger, and we were just new at running this company when people would be hanging out and chatting and not at their desk working. You just wonder, does this happen all the time? Because we’re not paying attention to everyone? Or if someone showed up late you wonder, man, I wonder what the reason is. And those are just those early kind of insecure moments, where you realize, you know what, if you actually want to grow a company, you have to completely abandon that type of thinking, just write it off, it doesn’t matter, this little action, I mean, just the fact that we were focusing on the small things was kind of a testament to the fact that we did not have a really great idea of where we how we wanted to grow this thing.

Sam Eitzen [11:21]
And again, this is it’s all been a process of the past seven years. But the more we read, and the more my brother and I discussed, we decided, yeah, we have to trust these people. There’s no other option. So we stopped tracking hours paying attention to what they were doing during the day, in one sense, like really just gave them that freedom. And it changed everything. For me. Also, my stress levels went way down, just because of trying to manage and figure out in my head, what other people were doing with their time. And all that was it was just a complete waste of time.

Gene Hammett [11:50]
I know, a lot of people have different perspectives on this. So I’m kind of curious where you come down? Do you worry about time at all with your employees? Are you worried about the results that they’re doing?

Sam Eitzen [12:00]
Yeah, I worry about like results and contribution to the company and the culture here, we don’t have a hard sales background. So when I say results, I don’t mean meeting your numbers every month. But if you are contributing, if you are getting things done, if you’re being shouted out and praised by other team members for the way that you’re helping them serving them going above and beyond, then Amazing, right? I don’t care whether you were showed up half an hour later left, half Not really I wouldn’t even know if you did it right. Like today, we have three different kinds of distinct office areas. So there’s less visual kind of, I don’t know, even know what to call it. But there’s we just don’t see each other as much as you absolutely were forced now to absolutely just trust that people are doing the right thing.

Commercial [12:46]
Wait for just a second, Sam just talked about contributing to culture, have you taken the time to think about the people that you’re hiring, and how they will contribute to the culture that you’re building, you, as a leader really have ownership of the culture that you’re shaping, the culture they’re shaping is based on the people that you’re adding to the mix. And it also depends on the practices or rituals that you have amongst the people, how they treat each other, how you treat them. How much you trust, you have all of these elements go into the culture of your job as a leader is to bring in the right people and create the right systems, the right practices that allow that culture to flourish. Back to the interview.

Gene Hammett [13:28]
When you think about you know, leaving today, I’m sure you’ve had to evolve over the years, what’s one defining moment you can think about where your leadership had to really shift to become the leader, you are of a fast-growing company?

Sam Eitzen [13:41]
Yeah, maybe about a year, year and a half ago, our leadership team read one of Bernie Brown’s books dare to lead as a group. And we went through the workbook. And it was about vulnerability. And that was a big, defining kind of improving moment for me. Because again, my bent is the hard-headed kind of hustler guy that could just try to the things that he could take everything on and never want to admit weakness and never wants to admit failure. And yeah, those it’s always it’s still something I struggle with because there’s no I’m by far, nowhere near perfect. But that was a big realization for me was just be honest about your mistakes. Just be honest about the struggle, how difficult it is the fear. I even started doing that more publicly on LinkedIn.

Sam Eitzen [14:33]
And my posts got way more traction way more. I had people direct messaging me, thanking me for being open about the stress or the burden or the pressure that I was feeling. And so I’ve really leaned into it because I saw some really positive reactions from that. And it’s helped I think the team opened up with me more and realize that they can, that they can also be vulnerable and be open about what’s going well what’s not going well when they’re into a good week or just a bad week.

Gene Hammett [15:03]
It’s hard, but it is a heart of courage, right? Putting, having the courage to really share what’s really going on in your mind, without the fear that your employees are going to judge you as being weak?

Sam Eitzen [15:17]
Yeah, yeah, I find that being self-deprecating in an honest and good way, not in a non jokey way is actually really, really effective that my team knows that I am far from perfect, and that there’s a ton that I don’t know still, and that I’m not very good at managing people, gives them a lot of grace with me because they know about my areas of weakness. And I also think, though, that it builds that ownership in the trust because now they realize that I’m just as lacking in so many various areas as they are. And we are kind of in it together, figuring it out, as we grow a company together,

Gene Hammett [15:52]
I want to dive deeper into this idea of ownership because that’s what we’re the whole theme of this is how to create employee ownership, regardless of your position in the company. What rituals or practices Do you have, as it relates to values or meetings, or anything that you could share with us that you do on a regular basis that reinforces the sense of ownership?

Sam Eitzen [16:13]
Yeah, it started maybe a really good time to begin. Some of this was two and a half years ago, my brother and I had nine values, they were ill-defined, some of them were really not values at all. And our team made us aware of it, because, none of them had memorized the nine, and my brother and I had a hard time actually saying what they were. And so the very first time we ever went on a company retreat, we decided to rethink the values of our company with the entire full-time team that we had, not as a leadership team, even but opening it up to every single person that worked for us whether they were in the warehouse, or you know, just new to two months old at the company kind of thing. And that was incredible, I don’t know about powerful is the right word. But it was really cool to see everybody contribute to what they felt or what they saw our company really valued. So we narrowed it down to five, some translated over, then at that same retreat, we defined them.

Sam Eitzen [17:19]
So we wrote out sentences that we all agreed on, in meetings that really kind of spelled out what we meant by creativity or beauty. Because we just have five one-word values. And it was great. It was a really good result, I think people felt incredibly included and trusted to come I mean, coming up with the values of a company that’s not yours. It’s kind of a weird thing, right? Like we weren’t trying to invite people into this process. So the next year, at another at the next company retreat, we decided to make the kind of actionable. In that. Like there’s a specific word like we operationalize them, I think that’s the word with. So we had people write out very specifically how various little pieces of their workday today, kind of feedback into these values that we have. And at this retreat, we just we wrote hundreds and hundreds of post-it notes about little specific things that we do that are that show a case how I display ownership, how I display care, how I display like beauty, or how I’m like valuing beauty, which is another one of our values, and we condensed all those, and then operationalize them so that now we have a sheet that anyone can look at whenever they get hired at the snack bar, that basically kind of spells out this is how in your work, you take ownership. This is how in your work, you are creative.

Sam Eitzen [18:42]
And this year, at our company retreat, we took it a step further and started talking about our why, like, why do we exist as a company. And that that Funny enough is only being developed and really kind of flushed out seven years into our existence. Because when we started it was kind of an accidental thing. We stepped into a photo booth business didn’t really know anything about it. And only over time have we become more clear about where we want to contribute to and in the world and in the world of work.

Gene Hammett [19:15]
Sam, I really appreciate you going through this with me. One last question for you is how do you continue to evolve as the leader your team deserves?

Sam Eitzen [19:23]
I read a lot. I have mentors. I asked them for honest feedback about where I’m at. I’ve also tried to create and the team here at the snap bar has been incredible is a culture where people can tell me what I’m not good at or where they’d like to see me improve. So one of my questions every single week for the people that I have a one-on-one report with is How can I like what can I be doing to be better for you? How can I help you or how can I improve to better serve you and a lot of weeks there’s nothing there or maybe they’ll say I think you doing a great job. But some weeks, they’ll give very specific feedback about something I did that was that that was not great or that they want to see different next time. And those have been incredibly helpful just as a kind of like, I don’t know metrics to follow for myself as to make sure I’m improving for them.

Gene Hammett [20:15]
Perfect. Well, Sam, I appreciate you being here on the show, talking about the snack bar, and the growth you’ve had, and your journey of leadership.

Sam Eitzen [20:23]
Thank you, Gene.

Gene Hammett [20:24]
Fantastic interview love talking to people about getting in raising the sense of ownership across the company. This really is a big part of leadership. I’ve seen leaders that really embrace this see phenomenal change across the loyalty of the company. And you will too if you have any questions about what ownership is what the formula behind it, you can go to a form a quiz that I’ve put together called the leadership quiz. smells just like you sign it, and you can actually rate yourself on all of the factors inside this research. Have over 500 conversations with people like Sam and we put that into the leadership quiz so that you can rate yourself if you have any questions about your own leadership. Make sure you reach out to me, [email protected], as always, lead with courage. We’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.




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