What a CFO taught me about company culture

Mitchell Harper
Oct 19, 2015 · 6 min read

If you get the people part of your company right, then you’re pretty much unstoppable. Here’s one way to do it.

Like most founders, when Eddie and I started Bigcommerce in 2009 we had no idea what company culture was — we simply tried our best to hire a small team of engineers and got to work.

As Bigcommerce started to get legs (10,000 paying customers in the first year with no VC money — all bootstrapped) our goals and ambitions started to get bigger. Instead of aiming for 20,000 customers we started to wonder if we could build a company worth $100M and then $1B.

We knew there were a lot of “ingredients” we’d need for our “recipe” to build a large, lasting technology company. There was the usual stuff every founder knows they intuitively need — cash in the bank, a bigger office, more people and a leadership team.

At the time, I know I didn’t think too much about our company culture. My view was that if we lead by example and tried to hire the best people we could find (and afford), we’d be OK.

And to a certain size that was true.

We would do long days in the office — sometimes working from 8am to 4am. Because most people at the company had no partner and no kids, they did the same. We were honest, friendly and went out of our way to make sure our small team had fun while building great software.

Soon after we raised our series A of $15M in 2011 from General Catalyst, we had our Sydney office and a small team in Austin, Texas. We also hired our first real executive — Robert Alvarez, our CFO.

Rob is still kicking goals and taking names at Bigcommerce and is now our CFO and COO. Much like Jack Dorsey considers Dick Costolo a co-founder at Twitter, I consider Rob (or “RA” as we all call him) a co-founder at Bigcommerce. Bringing him on board was one of our key “founding moments”.

When we started to grow deliberately (raising VC, building out an executive team, delegating the things we each didn’t like or weren’t good at) as opposed to having the slowly-but-surely bootstrapped mentality we had until that point, I started doing a lot of research and reading about how to build a great company culture.

Most of what I read talked about building a start culture that revolved around free beer Fridays, ping pong tables, an XBox, a funky office, expensive chairs, nice Apple laptops, etc. So we did all of that.

But as we started to grow, none of it made a difference — and probably impacted our culture negatively.

I think the real turning point for me and when I started to really “get” company culture was when I started to hear that Rob had been given the nickname of “The Priest” — because everyone would confide in him, ask him for advice and meet with him regularly.

We were dozens (maybe hundreds) of employees by 2013 and I found out Rob was having 1-on-1s with everyone in the Austin office and a lot of the Sydney team. Not as a way for them to vent or complain, but just to chat with them and ask about their family, their life, how they were feeling at the time, etc. Similar to how Jason runs meetings at Medium.

That’s a lot of 1-on-1s every month. 20 on the low end and 40 on the high end. And he did it because he understood what’s involved in building a strong company culture that becomes the foundation on which to scale everything.

After going through the usual ups and downs of a fast-growing startup between 2011 and 2014 (during that time we’d raised $125M, gone from less than $1B in GMV to well over $5B and grown the company from about 20 people to over 400 spread across 3 offices), I remember Ed telling me that he was fascinated with how Rob built out his own team with such incredible people.

They were all amazingly smart, humble and genuinely cared about the company, our clients and the people they work with. And he’s never lost or had to fire anyone.

It was at that point Rob explained his “bucket 1, bucket 2″ interview process.

In short, bucket 1 is what you need the person to “do” in their role. For an engineer, it’s creating code. For a sales rep it’s closing deals. For a marketer it’s creating campaigns, etc. 99% of companies hire by simply asking all bucket 1 questions:

  • So tell me about the marketing campaigns you created for Google
  • And what was your role in scaling the technology for Salesforce?
  • Did you meet your sales quota that quarter?

Bucket 2 on the other hand is all about who the person is, how they see the world, what they believe in and what they care about. What does their family mean to them? What built their character over the years? What makes them strive to be better every day? How was their upbringing? What values do they instill in their kids?

After learning about his bucket 1, bucket 2 hiring approach I was more surprised to learn that during interviews, he spends 95% of his time having conversations around bucket 2 questions.

He doesn’t care about their resume and doesn’t prioritize whether someone has “done it before”. He looks for people that align with how he sees the world and what he values in people.

More than that, Rob shares the incredible story of his upbringing and how he turned adversity into enormous personal and professional success. It’s a very personal story, so I won’t share it here. But he “opens the kimono” (as he likes to call it) and shows who he truly is as a human being.

When someone interviews with Rob they walk out of the interview with a mixture of feelings and emotions: they are amazed, humbled, excited, tearful and proud.

It’s incredible.

Today, all of the hiring managers and HR team at Bigcommerce have been trained to understand Rob’s bucket 1, bucket 2 interview process — and they use it not because they have to, but because they want to.

Every company has core values, but as you grow your company it’s impossible for the founders to interview everyone — and believe me, we tried. We interviewed every single candidate for the first 100 people we hired. Probably over 1,000 people in total.

For whatever reason though, sometimes hiring managers miss the mark. They might feel they need to fill a role fast and so they compromise by hiring for skills (bucket 1) not cultural fit (bucket 2). This doesn’t mean they’re bad people — it just means that they might’ve been overwhelmed or under-resourced at the time.

By training anyone and everyone who comes in contact with candidates to use the bucket 1, bucket 2 approach (I agree, we need to give it a better name), the Bigcommerce culture has been transformed, and it keeps getting better every day.

Like most things that can transform a company, this is a simple principle. But having the patience to dismiss a candidate (or fire someone) because they’re 10 out of 10 for bucket 1 and 2 out of 10 for bucket 2 takes patience and determination.

To build a sustainable company, you just have to do it.

As Bigcommerce marches towards the 500 people mark, it’s a calming thought to know that Rob’s vision for culture is now ingrained in the DNA of Bigcommerce. While I’m no longer active in the company I co-founded, I see the incredible people being hired and it humbles me every day.

So does this bucket 1, bucket 2 stuff really make a difference? Well, the mojo reports (Bigcommerce’s version of employee NPS) are trending up across the company, everyone is extremely motivated and most importantly aligned around our original vision of democratizing commerce for millions of fast-growing businesses.

In summary, culture isn’t free beer, a nice office or a ping pong table. It’s the composition of the human beings you hire, what they value in life and how they see the world.

Make sure those things are right and you’ll be an unstoppable force.

Get my new book “SANE: How To Build Your Business Rapidly Without Going Insane” at http://www.dontgoinsane.com 📚

Mitchell Harper

Written by

Co-founder BigCommerce & Insane Growth. 8 companies, $200M in total sales. Startup growth advisor 👉👉👉 https://www.insanegrowth.com

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