Early days: “Who used my toothbrush?!”
When Olark joined YCombinator in the fall of 2009, our original co-founders moved in together in Mountain View, California. We were four co-founders, one spouse, and two cats, sharing a soulless three-bedroom townhouse. The dining room served as our fourth “bedroom” and the “door” (a curtain) was certainly not respected by either of the cats.
Today, of course, we attach some sentimental value to that old townhouse. But as you might imagine, it wasn’t especially easy at the time. We had a variety of expectations and communication styles. Our clashes included everything from product strategy to housekeeping standards.
Having a central purpose — building a company we wanted to work at — gave us the foundation we needed to survive the crucible and birth this early version of our team culture. So we talked, we argued, and we gradually established norms and processes that helped us navigate everything from new product features, to financial discussions, to dish duty. We moved to a bigger house with natural light and greenery. We sampled different project management tools. We shopped together at Costco, loading up on produce and falafel balls — we even bought a giant case of ramen that may or may not have followed us through at least a few moves. And we established a communal social life that gathered all different groups of friends together.
As a tight-knit group of founders, we’d collaborated — or been forced to collaborate, in large part by physical proximity — to create the culture we wanted. And we had expected that collaboration around culture to continue organically as the company grew. But as we grew, we became a more diverse team, made up of people who didn’t always see eye to eye. Some of us were driven by creating order, while others thrived on chaos; some had years of corporate experience, while for others, Olark was a first “real” job.
As a tight-knit group of founders, we’d collaborated — or been forced to collaborate, in large part by physical proximity — to create the culture we wanted. And we had expected that collaboration around culture to continue organically as the company grew.
This diversity was powerful, but it came with ambiguity around cultural expectations and what it meant to be an Olarker. With each addition to the team, we had cheerfully absorbed new working patterns and communication styles, telling ourselves that our culture was only getting better — but around the 10-employee mark, we started seeing tensions that couldn’t be resolved through simple compromise. For the first time, we felt ourselves drifting away from some of the values we really cared about.
Growing pains: Team retreat, or Modern Family?
In 2012, we held our first in-person company retreat. We felt that bringing the whole team together would fix a lot of things — that we’d quickly move past those underlying tensions, build deeper relationships, and plot a path forward.
Boy, were we in for a wakeup call.
Colleagues who we’d convinced ourselves were “getting along fine” griped, fought, and walked out of meetings. People talked over and past each other and clung tightly to their own perspectives and desires. To our shock, we realized we were back where we’d started as roommates — edgy, upset, and more than a little confused — but now we had 12 people not only “living” in the same small company, but also literally trapped together in a big house for a week.
Hitting reset: Everyone gets an oar in the culture boat
Since we clearly weren’t going to get any work done, much less enjoy socializing, until we’d addressed the elephants in the room, we scrapped our plans for the retreat and shifted the focus to cultural alignment. We had no desire to dictate culture to our employees (and we didn’t have much confidence in that approach, anyway). We’d hired smart, compassionate, creative people, and we wanted them to play an equal role. We just had to make sure they understood that expectation, knew how to contribute, and were recognized and rewarded for their efforts.
We had no desire to dictate culture to our employees (and we didn’t have much confidence in that approach, anyway). We’d hired smart, compassionate, creative people, and we wanted them to play an equal role.
First, we gathered the team and took advantage of the face-to-face time to create the first version of our company values. Everyone contributed to what became an incredibly fun brainstorm, scribbling ideas across hundreds of post-it notes and dozens of whiteboards. We distilled all the input, talked through lingering concerns, and checked with every single Olarker to make sure they felt confident signing off on the final draft.
A few weeks later, we used a similar collaborative process to draft our first mission statement. We started kicking off our weekly all-hands meetings by thanking teammates who’d exemplified our newly-articulated values, and over time, we also updated our hiring process to ensure that we spoke in depth with each candidate about our cultural foundations.
And, well — the team took it from there. Articulating our mission and values set a precedent of co-creation and co-ownership that has bolstered so many culture initiatives over the years.
I still think about culture constantly, and give little nudges now and then, but Olarkers have stepped up to apply our values to everything they do, from making tough product and business decisions to establishing a huge variety of cultural traditions that I could never have dreamed up on my own.
Moments that shaped our culture: Gnomes, karmies, and more…
A few years after that first retreat, one of our backend engineers — a brilliant and somewhat imposing guy who wrote server code all day — came to us with an idea. He wanted to start a secret society of Olarkers who would send little snail mail gifts to their colleagues for birthdays, work anniversaries, family events, and “just because”.
The initiative, which we dubbed the “Olark Gnomes”, launched with our enthusiastic blessing. One of the trickiest elements of remote culture is celebration — there are no donuts in the breakroom or birthday cakes at team sync. The Gnomes gave us a means of celebrating and surprising one another remotely. And although that particular engineer has since moved on to new adventures, his legacy lives on in the dozens of little anonymous packages that Olarkers receive each year.
One of the trickiest elements of remote culture is celebration — there are no donuts in the breakroom or birthday cakes at team sync. The Gnomes gave us a means of celebrating and surprising one another remotely.
The Gnomes are just one example of the ways that our employees have stepped up to shape Olark’s culture. Here’s another — in a similar fashion, one of our early engineers took it upon himself to build a Slackbot extension that gives “karma”. If you were to join an Olark Slack channel, you’d see a lot of this:
- @betts++ @rhi++ so much #help
- @matt++ #make ing my slides look :100:
- @mandy++ reminding me to #chill
What’s up with the “++”? It’s a little Slackbot magic built by another of our early engineers. For every “++” after your name, our Slackbot (affectionately nicknamed Olarkami) issues you a karma point and posts your total karma tally. We give karma all the time — to recognize teammates who are living our values, to compliment a funny gif or photo, or whenever we feel like someone deserves a shoutout. Because so much of our communication takes place in Slack, giving and receiving karma is a daily habit for all of us — which makes it an amazing culture-building tool.
We have Karmie Awards, too — at our annual retreat, we host a goofy awards ceremony to highlight the little things our teammates have done to contribute to our culture. We’ve given awards for Cutest Pet Photo, Worst Dad Joke, Best Custom Emoji, Funniest Out-of-Context Quote, etc., rotating the awards committee each year so that everyone has a chance to recognize something that helped them or made them smile.
On the less-whimsical side, employees have also taken the lead on proactively creating our parental leave policy (before any Olarker had children!), programming retreat activities, kicking off open conversations around topics like mental health in the workplace, and much, much more. Today, almost all of our employees say our culture is one of their favorite things about Olark. With everyone working on our culture, we’ve been able to build a culture that works for everyone.
That first retreat was rocky, no question, but we’re grateful for the fact that it forced us to take a hard look at culture early on, and creating our Core Values that week established a precedent for co-creation and co-ownership that’s still with us a decade later. Our culture makes work easier and more fun — but even more important, our values and mission help us make hard business and product decisions, and earn buy-in from our team and customers when those decisions are controversial. As a small business in a fast-moving industry, we feel incredibly lucky to have that solid foundation.
That first retreat was rocky, no question, but we’re grateful for the fact that it forced us to take a hard look at culture early on, and creating our Core Values that week established a precedent for co-creation and co-ownership that still a decade later.
What we learned (hindsight is 20/20!)
So — if we could rewind the clock 10 years, what would we tell our younger selves about stewarding culture in a small business? A few things:
- Dig underneath conflict — Approach tensions with an open and curious mind; this argument may be exactly what you need to identify some of the things you and your teammates value most deeply.
- Get it in writing. When the core pieces of your culture are explicitly written out, it’s not only an incredibly helpful resource for your team when things feel like they’re “drifting”, but also gives future job candidates an explicit thing to opt into.
- Get everyone involved. Culture impacts your entire team. Everyone (including every new hire!) has both a right and responsibility to shape it in a way that works for them and shares something meaningful with their teammates.
- Culture is hard — but it’s worth the work. A great culture will help you work better and faster together, hire more amazing people, and generally have more fun building your business.
If you’re facing a cultural challenge right now, or have advice for other small business owners and founders who might be looking to invest time and energy in their company cultures, we’d love to hear your perspective! Leave a comment on this post, or reach out on Twitter (@jaminben and @mjpizz) or LinkedIn (Ben and Matt), to join the conversation.