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My friend Chris Moody, the COO of Gnip, has another guest post up today titled Startup Culture: Values vs. Vibe. He’s written about this in the past on his blog, but we both thought it was worth reposting. Enjoy – and comment freely, especially if you disagree or have constructive feedback.
I hear some form of the following question frequently from founders that are starting to have early success:
“How do we hire a bunch of new people and grow the company quickly without losing the culture we’ve worked so hard to establish?”
I’ve been fascinated by different company cultures for as long as I can remember and I love asking entrepreneurs to describe the culture of their companies. Over time I’ve come to realize that when you break down culture descriptions you’ll often find a mix of two components: values and vibe. Although each component can have a significant impact on the overall feel of a company, the way you establish and manage the two should be different.
I think of values as the guiding principles or a code-of-conduct upon which a company was founded and which it operates on a daily basis. If you establish the right set of values early, these principles won’t change with time. Values establish your company’s view of the world and determine how you treat others including employees, customers, partners, and investors. Most importantly, values serve as the foundation on which tough company decisions are made. Values are 100% controlled by the company and should be unaffected by competitors, market conditions, and industry trends.
The people you hire will come with their own set of values. Every person you hire should have personal values that completely align with the values of your company. 95% isn’t good enough. In fact, if a team member violates a company value, the violation should result in removal of the individual from the company. Here are some other things to consider around establishing and maintaining company values:
- Document and talk about your company values with your team all the time. Consider publishing your values, and talking about them with customers, partners, etc. to add an extra level of scrutiny to your commitment.
- I believe a set of five or less documented values is ideal because you want all your employees to have them top-of-mind when making decisions. If you have too many values, people simply won’t remember them.
- Determine a set of tough “trade-off” questions that you can ask during the interview process that will help you determine if a candidate’s values align.
- Good values require tough decisions to be made in order for the values to be upheld. If you establish values that are never challenged, these values aren’t serving any real purpose.
This last point is particularly important. Watered down or generic values might be easy to uphold, but they also won’t establish a strong culture. Companies with unique cultures tend to have values that are unconventional and sometimes controversial. A famous example of a unique value is Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” (I believe the actual company published version is “you can make money without doing evil”). I’m guessing “don’t be evil” is discussed at Google hundreds of times of day when decisions are being made, and I bet it is surprisingly hard to stay true to this value even though the premise seems fairly simple. The fact that Google allowed this value to become public knowledge has resulted in a huge audience of observers that are constantly scrutinizing Google’s actions to see if they are staying true to their values.
Vibe represents the emotional side of the company. Like all emotions, vibe can be fairly volatile and is highly influenced by outside factors. For example, think about the vibe of a company on the night that the first product is launched vs. the vibe of the same company when Apple announces they are launching a competing product or service. When it comes to vibe, management can certainly set a tone and lead by example, but the reality is the vibe of a company will naturally change with time as the company grows and the products/employees mature. The biggest influence on vibe is typically success. Most companies that are doing well tend to have an overall positive vibe.
In the last few months, I’ve talked to two different startups that described one of their values as “Work hard. Play hard.” Is this really a value? Perhaps this statement actually describes the vibe at a certain moment in the life of the company. If an employee is no longer willing or able to play hard but is still producing at a high level, is this person no longer valued by the company? Working and playing hard together might be an important part of the company in the early days, but will it be a necessary component for all 300+ employees when the company has been around for 10 years?
As a leader, there are aspects of vibe that you will naturally want to try to control. However, you have to ask yourself a few questions:
- Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?
- Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?
- Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?
- Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?
If you answered, “yes” to all of the above, congratulations: you’ve just identified a new potential value. However, it can be fairly liberating to realize that the foosball table in the middle of the office is nice, but it isn’t crucial to the long-term success of the company.
I know this won’t be a popular statement, but I don’t think maintaining culture (as defined by many entrepreneurs I’ve encountered) is important. Instead, I think it critical to focus on establishing strong values early and hiring people that have aligning values. Maybe it is all just semantics on how you define culture, but I believe you shouldn’t sweat the vibe part. You’ll have an overall positive feel if you are successful and that is the only type of vibe that really matters.
It’s a daily occurrence that a college student emails me asking how they can get involved in the Boulder startup community or any startup ecosystem. This gets me both excited and sad – excited that another young soul is ready to put their energy into the fray and sad that opportunities for them to do so are not readily available or visible to them.
I like to describe the program as a 10-week immersion program into this startup community. Just as being complete immersed in a culture is the best way to learn that culture’s a language, being immersed in a startup community is, well, the best way to be a part of that startup community. The program does this through placing a cohort of students at various startups as an internship region, giving these students exposure to the top entrepreneurs and mentors, and providing a set of crash courses on entrepreneurship that allows the students to truly understand the discourse. A sample of companies participating are Gnip, TeamSnap, SendGrid, and Revolv. You can find the full list here.
Startup Summer is in its third year. For the first time, there will be two programs – one in Boulder and one in Denver. All the internships are paid. Application close on February 28, 2014 - go get the last few positions while you can.
Oh, and if you’re a company in Boulder or Denver that wants to participate, ping me at email@example.com and we’ll see if we can fit you in this year. If not this year, then the next.
Before we started the strategy meeting, Matthew Bellows led us in a brief ritual where we “bowed in” to the meeting. At the end of the meeting, we all “bowed out.” I loved it – it set the tone of respect for each other at the start of the meeting and signaled the end of the meeting when we bowed out.
A few weeks ago, we had a Yesware board meeting. Matthew once again had us bow in to the meeting. This time there was a little bit of nervous laughter around the board table as it was the first time the full board had been exposed to this ritual. It wasn’t a negative tittering, just the sounds of a group encountering something unusual, interesting, and requiring some emotional intimacy while trying to process it in the moment.
Once again I loved it. It got me thinking about two things: (1) the importance of respect as a core value and (2) traditions that scale across the company.
Let’s start with respect. I’ve written about this many times on this blog. In 2004 I wrote a post titled TDC (Thinly Disguised Contempt). I learned about TDC from Alan Trefler, the CEO of Pega, who I don’t spend much time with but view as a long time friend and someone I’ve learned a lot from over the years. Early on at Feld Technologies, I learned how incredibly toxic TDC was and how critically important respect was. Respect for the people I work with, and the elimination of TDC from my mental state and behavior, is a core value of mine. Sure – I fail at it sometimes, but I keep practicing.
I have immense respect for Matthew as an entrepreneur and CEO. I’ve learned a lot from the few years I’ve worked with him. His calmness, even in moments of stress is powerful. The monastic culture he’s created at Yesware is inspiring. His execution as a leader, and the performance and cohesiveness of his team, is delightful to be part of.
Bowing in and bowing out made me gleeful. It was another wonderful example of something I could use in lots of other places and another thing I learned from Matthew. As I mulled it over, I realized the specific act wasn’t the key thing, but the power of a tradition that scales across the company. Bowing in and bowing out before and after each meeting. The gong that gets rung at Gnip every time a new sale is made or partner deal is signed. Or Paid PAID vacation at FullContact.
The combination of respect for every individual in the company combined with scalable traditions are incredibly powerful.
On Wednesday my partners and I had our monthly offsite. One of our rituals is a “check in” where we go around the table and each of us talks for as long as we want about how we are doing. Sometimes it’s a short discussion, other times it’s a long discussion. Since we do it monthly, nothing can build up. It’s similar to the monthly life dinner that I do with Amy - introspective, emotionally aware, and open. Some of these sessions have been incredibly powerful – on this one I had tears in my eyes at one moment as I was expressing appreciation for something my partners had done for me. And all of us had a powerful moment of calibration for everything we are feeling right now.
On Thursday I spent the morning with the Bullet Time Ventures team. This is the fund that David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars, founded. My partners and I are investors and huge supporters. The team was having an offsite and they asked me to participate in some of the discussion. I gave them a lot of suggestions and answered a lot of question, but one moment near the end stuck out in my mind when I was asked how my partners and I have managed to develop and sustain the deep personal and professional relationship we have, even with all the stress and conflict inherent in our business. I said that one of our deeply held beliefs is that we “never wear our armor to a meeting.” We call this being intellectually honest and emotional pure with each other. And it’s another example of linking respect with a scalable tradition – we never want to wear our armor in any of our interactions with each other.
Matthew – thank you for the gift of bow in and bow out. Both the specific action, and the reflection on the meaning of it.
I turned 48 on December 1st. I took a week off the grid (from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving until the Wednesday after my birthday) – part of my quarterly off the grid routine with Amy. We had a very mellow birthday this year, spent it with a few friends who came to visit us in San Diego at the tennis place we love to hide at, and basically just slept late, played tennis, read a lot, got massages, ate nice food, and had adult activities.
I returned to an onslaught of email (no surprise) which included a long list of happy birthday wishes. I had 129 happy birthday wall posts and about 50 LinkedIn happy birthday messages.
As I read through them, I was intrigued and confused.
- The Facebook wall posts were nice – almost all said either “happy birthday” or “happy birthday + some nice words.” I received one gift via Facebook (a charitable donation – thanks Tisch, you’ve got class!) Ok – that felt pretty good.
- The emails were mixed. Many of them were like the Facebook wall posts. A few of them were online cards. But about 10% of them asked me for something, using the happy birthday message as an excuse to “reconnect.”
- About 50% of the LinkedIn messages were requests for something. The subject line was “Happy Birthday” but the message then asked for something.
I decided not to respond to any of them. There were a few emails with specific stuff that I wanted to say, but the vast majority I just read and archived.
I found myself noticeably bummed out after going through the LinkedIn ones. I woke up thinking about it again today, especially against the backdrop of reading Dave Eggers awesome book The Circle (more on that coming soon.)
I’m an enormous believer in the idea of “give before you get.” It’s at the core of my Boulder Thesis in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City and how I try to live my personal and business live. Fortunately, many of the people I am close to also believe in this and incorporate it into the way they live.
When processing my birthday wishes, especially the LinkedIn ones, there was very little “give before you get.” That’s fine – I don’t expect that from anyone – it’s not part of my view of an interaction model that I have to impose it on others. But I was really surprised by the number of people that used my birthday as a way to “get something” without “giving something” other than a few words in a social media message.
This confused me. The more I thought about it, the more I was confused, especially by the difference between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. When I tried to organize my thinking, the only thing I could come up with was that email was “variable”, Facebook was “generic”, and LinkedIn was “selfish.” I didn’t love these characterizations, but this prompted me to write this post in an effort to understand it better.
I’m going to ponder the “culture of different communication channels” more, but I’m especially curious if anyone out there has a clear point of view on the different cultures between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Feel free to toss Twitter in the mix if you want.
David Cohen (Techstars Founder) and I are doing a Google Hangout On Air that is open to anyone on 11/13/13 (what a prime day for something like this). It’s part of a Google Enterprise series on Colorado pioneers driving the local economy and culture. We’ll be talking about Techstars, Colorado, tech, and anything else that comes up.
This came out of a series of interviews with Google recently where we explained why Foundry Group takes venture capital to the cloud with Google Apps and how Techstars assists tomorrow’s entrepreneurs with help from Google Apps.
Come join us! Register here if you want to hangout.