Experiences That Drove Our Startup Culture From Day One
There are millions of blogs on culture; this is not a general post on the broader topic. This post is about my personal experiences that shape my perspective on the culture we’re working to build at Super, embodied in three words: intelligent, respectful, and curious.
1) TRILOGY’S MANTRA: “OTB” (ONLY THE BEST)
I started my career at Trilogy. If you were on campus at a top university during the Internet bubble, you probably know Trilogy. Founded by a Stanford dropout, the business recruited an amazing set of people. FounderDating recently ranked Trilogy the second most entrepreneurial community, above Google, Facebook, and Paypal. There have been over $4 billion of exits from companies started by Trilogy alumni. The Trilogy alumni are an incredibly tight knit group, still enjoying lifelong friendships and alumni reunions over a decade later.
Back in college, before Trilogy flew me down to Austin to interview, I told my parents I was not interested in the job. After the visit, I told them that I did not fully understand what the company did, but that the people were so amazing and so excited that I had to be a part of it.
Part of the excitement was generated by the founder / CEO’s reality distortion field. But a more important part of the excitement was being around so many talented, intelligent people.
It is my hope that Super is judged not only on its accomplishments, but also on the accomplishments of its alumni many years from now. That is the true test of the culture and team we build.
2) RESPECT AND AN OWNERSHIP CULTURE
I started my last business with a venture capital firm in Boston. We searched for a CEO that could help a startup battle Google and other similarly large incumbents.
Our first CEO had a lot of experience with our first business model, but we eventually needed to pivot. I credit him with pivoting the business model to the one that eventually led us to a successful exit.
Yet, we did not agree on culture. His early professional experience led him to believe in a military-like management style with little transparency. He was frequently harsh. He believed that building a startup culture was like leading soldiers in a foxhole: the more they fought together in difficult circumstances, the closer they would become.
Many people believe in this management style, believing it’s the only way of getting the best out of people. Many executives are wildly successful with this approach. Yet, the implications of this leadership style had a different effect on our organization.
It took a new CEO, George Bell, coming in for me to reconnect with what I had always believed to be true. Rather than seeing an organization pushed to its best, the people were fearful, focused narrowly only on their own expected deliverables and afraid to suggest anything different.
George worked immediately on building an “ownership culture.” If everyone walks in the door feeling like they are a respected owner in the business, then they will speak out for change when it’s needed. They will speak out when they see problems, regardless of whether or not those problems are within their responsibility. They will suggest solutions, even if those solutions are different than what has been prescribed by management. It is only in this way that an organization can feel free to debate ideas and move forward the best approach.
But people can’t take ownership for something they don’t understand. You can’t build an ownership culture without transparency. So George put in place “business improvement goals,” an elaborate term for metrics that drive forward revenue. We reviewed these metrics and associated goals quarterly. This level of transparency had never been seen by the organization before.
I love when people at Super identify those things that are broken that I hadn’t thought about. I love when they have ideas that I never would have imagined. I tell the team that everyone is the CEO of their area of the business…and they are great CEOs.
3) CURIOSITY AND EMPATHY
At my last company, I spent a lot of time doing international business development both in Europe and Asia. Anyone who’s done this kind of work internationally knows (if they’ve been successful) that you need to understand what’s different about a new market before you can introduce something from another market. Different geographies operate with different cultures, business practices, and ecosystems. Europe in particular forces you to learn this lesson quickly, because Europe is not one market but many fragmented markets.
I take the same mindset to anything new that I do in my career: any new industry, any new distribution channel, any new customer segment. This requires curiosity and empathy: asking questions frequently and listening carefully.
Our business at Super requires a deep understanding of the customer experience. Home services is probably one of the largest sectors of the economy with such high levels of distrust. Home service technology companies quickly learn that you can never control 100% of the situations, you always get blamed for what goes wrong, and you seldom get credit when things go right. Curiosity drives investments in operational excellence, and empathy helps make sure customers can feel good even when things go wrong.
As our business matures and we have more time and resources, we will codify our values and culture further. But for now, I think we are off to a great start.