In 2012, Cliff Johnson signed up to run his first marathon—three years after co-founding the vacation rental company Vacasa. His wife thought he was crazy. This is, after all, a critical time in the life a startup, when every decision is urgent and there is no such line between work and non-work hours.
Still, Johnson decided to spend valuable time outside, logging miles while escaping emails. “On a run, my attention is undivided,” Johnson says. He used it as valuable time to get away from the job.
Naturally though, work would find a way to seep in to Johnson’s runs. He’d carry his phone with him in the early days of the company in case anything urgent needed to be taken care of from the trail. Rather than fight the interference of business with his active lifestyle, he embraced it. And he—along with Vacasa’s other co-founder and CEO, Eric Breon—has molded running into a core part of Vacasa’s active work culture.
It appears to be a good move. Now with more than 1,700 employees around the world, Vacasa has experienced 70 percent year-over-year growth since its founding in 2009. The company helps owners of vacation homes around the country and world rent to tourists, spanning travel hotspots like Bend, Oregon, Vail, Colorado, and Costa Rica. In its maturation from startup to flourishing business, Vacasa has become a very specific case study in how an active lifestyle at the top breeds success throughout.
As research in the past decade shows, if you want to work for a successful startup, find bosses who run.
In 2014, a paper in the Social Science Research Network attempted to prove this with statistics. The authors found that CEO’s who completed marathons, on average, ran companies with five percent higher value than those who did not.
“Due to its buffering effect on stress and its positive effect on cognitive functions, executive control processes and job performance, fitness should play an important role for CEOs as their jobs are characterized by high, frequently changing demands, far-reaching decisions accompanied by media scrutiny, and high stress,” the study’s authors wrote, according to an article in Runner’s World.
Of course, running is not the only reason for Vacasa’s dramatic growth. But Breon says staying active has made him a better boss, which in turn ripples though the rest of the company.
“I’ve incorporated running into my business life for two reasons: I think it makes me more productive and I need sunshine or exercise to be happy. I live in Portland, Oregon, so that makes exercise kind of a requirement,” Breon says.
As Breon and Johnson began making critical business decisions in Vacasa’s early days, they would run five to seven miles together to talk through strategy. They both say a few of the company’s key pivots were decided on the run.
“You feel like you are in a good space to have difficult conversations,” Johnson says, citing the focus and privacy a run offers.
As they’ve expanded to cities around the world, they have started opening runs up to their employees, citing it as a great opportunity for less formal interactions outside of an office setting.
“It brings the team together,” Breon says. “It’s hard to bond in a purely professional meeting setup.” When either one travels to meet employees that work in cities around the globe, they invite them to go for runs.
In addition, this past summer, Breon and Johnson invited 10 other employees to complete in the Hood to Coast—a roughly 200-mile relay style race from Oregon’s Mount Hood to the Pacific ocean. At its corporate headquarters in Portland, the company has also installed treadmill desks and encourages holding walking meetings.
“I think there’s a strong commitment toward personal growth here,” Johnson says, on encouraging an active lifestyle. “Me and Eric being active shows a commitment for us to invest in the personal growth in our employees.”
Which means the company has, naturally, hired employees interested in staying active themselves—whether it’s through running or other personal challenges.
“In general, we attract people that don’t love a corporate cubicle environment,” Johnson says. That, he says, is a major part of why Vacasa has found success in maturing out of its startup roots.