When I decided to start putting a new company together I took a (brief) moment to review the past organizations that I had been a part of as well as the ones that I had the very unique pleasure and opportunity to build from the ground up — I wanted to be remember how I felt then and how I felt now and compare / contrast the feelings.
No company is perfect — we all know that and yet every company and every founder believes that this one can be fundamentally different (startup founders are generally delusional on a lot of levels…); this one will be the company where we get everything right (hah…)!
If I have any advantage over first-time founders it’s just simply that I can be a bit more strategically-delusional about things now than when I started my first company — perhaps I can be a bit more picky and choosey, but who’s to honestly know?
But I have picked up a few good lessons-learned and one powerful thing that I have learned is that the company culture starts with me, the founder, and starts the first moment that I begin.
The moment that you start down the long march that is a startup you begin building the culture every single step of the way in both intentional and unintentional ways.
You see, all of those things, the explicit and accidental, are real and very tangible signposts for others to follow and the very brightest and best will not be easily fooled (and you plan on attracting, hiring, and retaining the very best, right?) as they pass those signposts during their new employee onboarding experience.
For instance, when I decided to start putting the company together, I spent the first 72 hours hustling like a mad man to get the company infrastructure in place, from the basic tooling to core productivity applications to a website and analytics to base marketing outposts and more.
I had the benefit and experience of doing this a few times so I instinctively knew what was needed and how to build a significant amount of velocity and momentum right out of the starting gate.
And, naturally, this was important to me because without momentum a startup dies. Period. I know this intimately because as I look behind me I see a stretch of dead companies that I’m neither proud of nor ashamed of — they simply didn’t have enough velocity to survive.
(And thankfully I’ve also been blessed with the opportunity to start a hyper-growth company and then experience a sale to a Fortune 300. That’s been pretty neat as well.)
But how is this related to culture development you say? It is absolutely everything. As I had mentioned, I was building large and identifiable signposts for the company and for my future team as to how I want to build, operate, and grow the next best thing since sliced bread.
To be more explicit, I was setting up a culture where moving quickly (and with intent) was highly valued and highly prized. I was laying the cultural heartbeat that philosophically believed that rapid experimentation and fearless execution were infinitely more important that long-winded deliberation and a perfect plan.
I was essentially creating the value statements that would implicitly govern the organization from Day Numero Uno. And since I was Employee #1 it makes complete sense — I was setting the pace, the tone, the rhythm and heartbeat of the new business.
To the new-ish founder this might come as a surprise but for those that have “been there” and “done that” we know empirically that the organizational culture starts the moment we say that profound word “Yes” to a new enterprise and the cement begins to harden after the first few steps.
I was also setting up the foundation for the types of people that I wanted to work with — people that were pre-built to be relentlessly resourceful in their work and how they saw the world.
And by modeling this behavior from the get-go I was showing people where I wanted to head (but not necessarily telling them how to get there).
The foundation was being set for something amazing and I have already begun to attract people who live out this value (like my co-founder Billy Boozer who exemplifies this character trait perfectly) that resonate with me deeply. As a device, it’s a level-setting system of thinking that helps you qualify who’s right for the work at hand and who’s not.
I mean, isn’t this what values are intended to do in the first place?
An important corollary idea to this is one that I call the “Value Statement Fallacy” which is essentially when the explicit value statements that the company say they stand by are given nothing more than lip-service in the organization day-to-day.
This is why I think employees and staff become disenchanted with an organization when they quickly realize that there is a huge (and widening) chasm between the written value statements of an organization and the ones that are actually practiced.
We’ve all been there, right? It’s that moment when you realize that all of those super-sexy and nice-yet-somewhat out-of-touch (possibly esoteric…?) values that you were pitched by the recruiter as tangible benefits for joining said company were nothing more than vaporware. And through gritted-teeth you begin to talk with the other team members behind closed doors about the obvious disparity and sadly no one has any solutions.
You see, by aligning your everyday actions with your stated values you are honoring your staff and your team — you’re telling them that the organization has integrity; you’re telling your team that you can be trusted with what you say and with what you do and that those things are one-in-the-same.
And, as a natural outcause, they will begin to engender the values as if they are their own which will enable them to do their very best work. A real sense of ownership will be birthed that can’t be manufactured or fabricated.
So, obviously, as a founder, I never want to be on the opposite side of any of this. I want to run an organization that has integrity and one that can be candid and open about the challenges of alignment with action, thought, and deed. And, I am ultimately responsible for being self-aware enough to capture these things and get them down on paper.
Consequently, the very next thing that I did after the 72-hour business-starting sprint/marathon was to sit down and write out my value statements for the organization. I wanted to codify them when they were fresh in my head and I wanted them to be authentic and wholly based on reality (and the last 3 days of work).
Besides, I AM THE CULTURE of the organization (at this point in time — we plan on growing at a nice clip) and so anything that I was doing, both explicit and implicit, were things that I naturally valued and brought clearly to the organizational DNA.
So I wrote out what eventually became the first of four value statements:
Relentlessly Resourceful — We are building a solution that everyone knows they need but that no one has ever dared to build in a world that is resistant to change.
To survive we must be willing to experiment quickly and intentionally, be fearless with our execution, and be willing to create new and misunderstood solutions in an environment of ambiguity. We will accomplish this as a team and we will thrive.
I have to give some kudos to Paul Graham who originally set this framework of thinking via his piece titled Relentlessly Resourceful — it has been a seminal piece of entrepreneurial thinking and I can’t help sharing it with others.
Now I have the luxury and pleasure and honor of starting from absolute scratch. I know that most readers will not be in a position where they can set (or easily reset) the original building blocks of culture because they aren’t one of the co-founders.
But I don’t believe that all hope is lost! I believe that many great companies have hired many great people who are as equally passionate about healthy organizational culture as their founders were and are.
And I believe that culture is a dynamic and fluid thing with the ability to change as each person on the team, regardless of size, can and will naturally adjust and speak into the culture of the greater organization. It may start small but that’s okay — most “big” things once had small beginnings.
Sometimes it just takes that one new employee to really “shake” things up for the better or that one new tool that can fundamentally change the way an organization operates, communicates, and does business.
I think we all know what that’s like with the recent juggernauts like Slack, Dropbox, and GitHub that have shifted the entire organization to collaborate in better and more effective ways. Great tooling with the right people behind them and championing them can make a literal world of difference.
But it does take resolve, a ton of heart, and a dash of being “relentlessly resourceful” to change the direction of a larger ship that’s already left the port. And if you’re cultural change-agent then you already knew that.
And I wish you the very best of luck and I know that you can do it — I believe in you and your company also believes in you — that’s why they hired you in the first place, right?
And, let me know how I can help.
We are continuing to build a new type of employee onboarding tool and will have a working prototype done by the end of this week (Friday, January 29th) — we couldn’t be more excited!
If you’re interested in helping to test out what we’ve built so far that would be amazing, just send us an email (info @ trytomo . com) with some of the following information:
- Company Name, URL
- The number of employees in your company (or your relative team)
- A few words about why you’d like to Alpha Test our tool
Can’t wait to hear from you!