" the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society "
I originally wrote this piece from the point of view of startups but a lot of it applies to other social cultures as well. It has been a year since we started Binks and so far I have not had the time to think actively about the culture that I want to build in my company. In an early-stage startup like ours, focusing on anything other than the customers’ needs feels criminal. The outbreak of Covid-19 has made it even more difficult to build a culture. Inculcating the feeling of community within the team over limited interactions via video calls seems close to impossible. The only consistent practice that could potentially qualify as culturally important is our daily 11 am all-hands meet. As a founder of an early-stage startup, I often wonder, “Should I even focus on building a culture right now?”. Would it not be much better if it gets built as a byproduct of building the business? And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that great cultures are built not because somebody wanted to build one but because it was a pre-requisite for the business to be successful.
In the startup gatherings of 21st-century Culture is one of the most written and talked about topics. A lot of us believe that it is defined by a combination of org structure, perks, and titles. However, it is difficult to confine an abstract topic like culture into a set of rules and boundaries. Culture, very much like the company it belongs to, is a living and breathing thing that keeps evolving and yet does not appear as a tangible substance.
Founders (myself included) often tend to think of creating a culture as an active task that they need to accomplish. However, in my opinion, the only active task they should be focusing on is building a business that could live on even without them. It becomes important therefore to find harmony between the efforts to build the startup and that to build a culture within the startup. When the startup is in its infancy the easiest way to inculcate a culture is by hiring a team that shares the same values and has the same level of drive as the founders. As such, it becomes even more essential for the founder to think hard and list down a set of values that they are proud of and another set that they wish they did not have. While building the initial team they should actively look for values in the former set and be cautious of the ones in the latter. Desperate first-time founders like me make terrible mistakes in choosing their early team and live through the nightmare only to realize this when it’s too late. Diverse thoughts and values are a privilege that early-stage startups cannot afford in most cases. Generally speaking, in the early stages, having a diverse set of opinions and values does more harm to the startup than good.
If there is anything worse than not identifying a set of values that one feels proud of, it is to mimic one without understanding its origin. Irrespective of the intention, a force-fitted culture often turns out to be ineffective. A culture that is based on borrowed beliefs is easily identified as hollow by bystanders and participants alike. I remember a founder explaining to me a few years ago about how the free lunch perk that they have is of cultural value. It was originally designed such that employees have easy access to healthy meals without having to spend time searching for one online. However, the employees had a different opinion. While for the finance team it was an expense that needed to be minimized, for the rest it was just a free lunch. The fact that the founders did not care to correct these misinterpretations made me question their own belief in the values. A culture not well explained is open for interpretation and loses its value as the team grows. The gap between intention and impact if at all present should be as minimum as possible.
Great culture propagates without planning. It is like a product-market fit. One does not plan for it. It happens when you take a lot of right and well-intended decisions. Although when dissected, a great culture generally seems to have these 3 simple and cyclical progressions that occur in an uncoerced manner.
A group of people believe in some ideology and take a leap of faith. The ideology generally comes from an inspiring individual who delivers it with astounding formidability. In the early days of Amazon, every one at its headquarters had a makeshift desk made of doors mounted atop wooden legs, braced with triangular metal pieces. Though extreme, Bezos was making a statement – they will spend money only on things that impact customers. He wasn’t thinking of creating a frugal culture. He did what he thought was the right thing to do for his business. Potential employees who would visit Amazon’s office for an interview would see the desk and if they ended up joining Amazon, it meant that they believed in the mission of being ridiculously customer-centric. Bezos was taking a leap of faith by showcasing that desk as part of Amazon’s core beliefs and employees were making a similar leap by joining Amazon and accepting the culture as their own. Great cultures are built when people see their leader following it and not just enforcing it on others via a document or speech. People would have never taken Bezos seriously if he had a swanky desk for himself. Similarly, a leader cannot inculcate a culture of ownership by blaming others for everything that goes wrong or by being a micro-manager. Culture, just like cooking is best learned by watching someone practice it in all of its grandeur.
It is also the leader’s job to explain to everyone why a particular ideology is important. If it cannot be explained, it is not worth doing. Most likely it was a borrowed ideology that sounded contrarian or fancy at that moment but the real meaning is still not completely understood (like those motivational tweets I like and retweet every other day). In cases where leaders do not believe in what they say themselves, the ideology is forgotten. What remains is a set of misinterpreted traditions masquerading as cultural values. As such it is best to dig deep and understand why that value is important for somebody and whether it applies to me or my team.
Practicing a belief has to be rewarding for everyone. This especially applies when the belief is about limitations and not about abundance. Rewards act as feedback that helps strengthen the culture and inspires people. Without a reward, the belief eventually phases out. Being customer-centric was extremely rewarding for Amazon in the long run. Similarly, the 20% project culture of Google was immensely fruitful and led to the creation of products like Gmail, AdSense, and Google News. A belief system that is new or contrarian at first typically takes a long time to deliver results. As such it becomes increasingly important to identify and discuss the directional advantages the group is enjoying because of it.
The reason I mentioned the 11 am all-hands only as a contender for being of cultural importance to me and not a cultural value is that I haven’t yet been able to articulate the reward. Although I can feel and see the benefits we reap out of it, so far I have not been able to articulate it enough to share with the others. Unless I do that, it will never become part of our culture in a true sense.
The leader alone cannot create an org-wide culture. As the company grows it becomes increasingly important for the early adopters of the belief to take pride in it, spread it among others, and continue the cycle of gospel -> reward -> advance. A vibrant culture needs evangelists and torchbearers. A good way for a leader to judge if they have been successful in building a great culture is to find if there are others who take pride in talking about it as much as they do. Generally, these are people from the early team of the startup. Although, a written document acting as a source of truth explaining the origin and intentions is important, but, as always, actions speak louder than words.
Every company big or small ends up having a culture, intentionally or otherwise. Most of the companies that are talked about have a checklist of values that did not evolve organically and are rather dictated by the company’s leadership. But some cultures stand apart from others. Companies like Stripe and Airbnb have what I believe to be exceptionally great cultures. It’s hard to point out specifics about why exactly is it exceptional, yet one feels the existence of it in the energy and state of mind of the people who work there. These are the cultures that are tough to comprehend in a rulebook and exist because someone had an immense amount of belief in it and made it a point to show it in their relentless yet infectious actions.