Foundations of a Winning Company Culture

Things We've Learned as Our Remote Company Grew From Two Guys to a Team of Eight in 6 Months.

When Mike and I founded Must Win we were ready to deal with most of the challenges we faced. We were even pretty well prepared for sales responsibilities (for a couple of engineers!) Our first true challenges were creating a brand and our company culture — two things which are closely tied to one another.

“We believe that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin. The brand may lag the culture at first, but eventually it will catch up.”
- Tony Hsieh (Your Culture is Your Brand)

When we launched this was all pretty simple. Our website sold Mike and I and our experience as product developers. Because we've worked together before we didn't need to think about how to communicate or get things done. However, as the team grew it became increasingly important to evangelize our culture and train people to understand our process.

Creating a company culture means so much more than the perks and benefits you provide employees. Your culture is the collective attitude that grows inside your company. Your culture is the way your team treats and talks to each other (and scarier still, the way they treat your customers) when no one is looking.

Step 1: Define Your Ethos

If you don't know who you are and what you stand for you can't possibly hope to influence the collective attitude of others.

“We believe that it’s really important to come up with core values that you can commit to. And by commit, we mean that you're willing to hire and fire based on them. If you're willing to do that, then you're well on your way to building a company culture that is in line with the brand you want to build.”
- Tony Hsieh

Here are some questions you should ask yourself to help define the attitude you expect from yourself and your team. I've shared our answers as an example below.

Your answers to these questions are a jumping off point that should help you define your company’s values. They should influence your business decisions, hiring choices, management philosophy, company message, etc.

What is your company passionate about?
Our passion is creating great software! Mike and I were creating software long before either of us was in High School; it’s what we love doing. We love conceptualizing, designing, and developing new products. It’s a rush!

What is it you value as an organization?
We value Speed, Simplicity, Fairness, Independence, Flexibility, Openness, Intellectual Curiosity, and Humor. We like to think of ourselves as tech/process-agnostic in that we view all the available technologies & processes as flawed. We try to choose the best/simplest/fastest ones for the problem and hack them to fit our needs.

What type of atmosphere are you trying to create?
A winning atmosphere is one where the team trusts each other and relies on one another to get the job done. This is a place where there are no dumb questions, where there is no idea of “not my job,” and where the status quo is ripe to be challenged any day.

What kind of people should be working on your team?
People who would be doing this even if it weren't wildly lucrative. People who have been a major part of winning startups and have a great attitude. People who communicate well, like to laugh, make mischief, who don't hold grudges, are passionate about their work, are always learning, and are great problem solvers.

What can your customers count on?
Our customers can expect us to think like product owners and help them build a better product than they could have without us. They can expect us to deliver on time and above expectation. They should expect that when things don't go right that we'll make every effort to make it so.

Step 2: Share Your Company’s “Way”

Now that you have all this information it’s easy to get a good profile of who you want to be as a company and what kind of environment you want to create for your team. Now it’s time to figure out how to communicate that to the world.

The St. Louis Cardinals have a long history of evangelizing what they call “The Cardinal Way” to their players in the minors and majors. In recent years they turned it into a book. Since then they've begun spitting out quality young talent at an alarming rate while producing winning teams, resulting in “The Cardinal Way” getting a lot of airtime.

“It puts everybody on the same page. They're all speaking the same language now. Most of those characteristics are all pretty consistent with what the Cardinals stand for.”
- Mike Matheny, St. Louis Cardinals Manager on “The Cardinal Way”

Likewise, you should write “Your Company’s Way,” share it with your team, and invite them to make it better.

We created an internal document called “The Must Win Way” which describes to our team who we are as a company, what is expected of us, explains important company process, and contains benefit and other corporate info. This is now something everyone gets on day one along with all their benefit forms, laptop, and logins.

Step 3: Evangelize, Experiment, Improve

Next it’s time to evangelize “your way” to your team. This doesn't mean giving a Bill Lumberg-esque speech about some trite crap no one cares about. What this does mean is taking the time to explain what you value, why this particular ethos or process is vital to your team, and offer practical applications of how this applies to their daily lives.

“Many companies have core values, but they don't really commit to them. They usually sound more like something you'd read in a press release. Maybe you learn about them on day 1 of orientation, but after that it’s just a meaningless plaque on the wall of the lobby.”
- Tony Hsieh

When you have all company or all team meetings (and you should every couple weeks) it’s important to spend some amount of time to focus on one thing you feel like is slipping, identify the problem, and offer simple improvements.

For example, it’s one thing to take my answers above and give a flowery speech about “Speed” that simply wastes everyone’s time. It’s another to talk about Speed, why it is important to our company (because our clients have important business deadlines, etc), offer ways to make our work process faster (by anticipating blockers, etc), and then ask for three good questions or comments before moving on to other business. Involve your team, they're likely closer to the problem and have better ideas on how to fix it.

Obviously, it’s important to set an example in your own actions, as well. This includes the messages your product, business, and company decisions send. Yelling, “Charge!” from the rear still works significantly worse than running ahead screaming it. Don’t forget — someone is always watching.

This isn't to say you should pretend to be infallible either. No one expects you to be. Owning up to your own need for improvement happens to be a great way to speak about team failures publicly. By letting everyone laugh at you, they are less likely to become defensive and more likely to listen to your message. I try to use examples of my failures whenever possible (which is often.)

I hope this helps you get a handle on your company’s culture. Let me know if you have any tips for me from your own experience, I'm all ears. Tweet me, @cousinwil.

Join our mailing list for an update when my next post goes live. It’ll have some more ideas specifically for remote teams.

Wil Everts is a founding partner of The Must Win All Star Web & Mobile Consultancy.

Wil is a product-savant who loves conceptualizing features, designing user experiences, directing creatives, and engineering user interfaces. He has a cat named June, loves the St. Louis Cardinals, and was the First Blogger Transmitted into Space.

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