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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Startup Culture: Values vs. Vibe

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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.

Values

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

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.

The Monastic Startup

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Last week at our Yesware board meeting, we talked about the idea of “the monastic startup.” This was a phrase that Matthew Bellows, Yesware’s CEO, came up with, and it characterizes the culture they are creating at Yesware. It embodies two concepts:

The monastic startup is a place where engineers do the best work of their lives. This place involves work with long stretches of uninterrupted time.

This idea sung to me. As I sit here in front of my 30″ monitor, working away in the peacefulness of my office in Boulder, surrounded by 10 of my favorite people (the gang I work with), listening to Lady Gaga, and connected to thousands of others via the computer in front of me, I realize that I long for more “monastic startup” time.

When I think about the culture of many of the companies we are an investor in, the definition of the monastic startup rings true. Oblong immediately comes to mind for me. Kwin Kramer, Oblong’s CEO, wrote an awesome guest post on TechCrunch over the weekend titled The Next, Next Thing. Oblong is one of the most monastic startups I’ve every encountered (using the definition above) – even Kwin and his partner John Underkoffler still spend long stretches of time writing code as they do the best work of their lives.

In my networked world (vs. hierarchical world) a monastic approach works amazingly well. I’ve started experimenting with more non-in person tools to increase the quality of communication across my network, while preserving a level of “monasticness.” The Yesware guys use HipChat for persistent chat. I’m looking for others – suggestions? I’m especially interested in things that work well across organization and communities.

If the phrase “monastic startup” rings true to you, what are the other characteristics that you’d expect to have in this environment? And what tools would you use?

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