There are many questions that consistently fill the halls of meetups, startup happy hours, and networking events. One question is ‘How is (insert name of your start-up here)?“. The typical answer is “Gooood” or if you’re feeling particularly spicy it’s “Great”. Typically there’s never any interesting discourse that follows that question and most of the time the person asking doesn’t really want to know the dirty detail of the health of your startup. So the general reaction is to pull out an expected response and keep the conversation from going too awkward. It bugs me so much to answer this question with meaningless positive platitudes. Just once, I want to talk for 30 minutes straight about all the challenges, all the pain, all the small victories, and all the sleepless nights. I want them to have to get rescued by one of their friends who sees their blank stare from across the room. I want to give them something to gossip about over their craft beer at the open bar.
Another question you’ll hear often is “What is your company culture like?”. The responses from the chorus are generally about the open environments, the horizontal structures, the flexible time off, the ping pong, the beer on tap, the snacks, the movie nights, the fact that every one is smart. I die a little inside every time I hear the perks of workplace or the “stuff” in a startup used to describe the culture. Culture is about much more than the stuff around you. When I was in Iraq on the Syrian border with a Company of Marines, the living conditions were horrible, everyone stunk, the food was awful, we were getting shot at, we were all thousands of miles from our loved ones, and the culture was amazing.
Culture is more about a common bond. The common bond can be an audacious mission or it can be something more gritty like sacrifice. Most likely it’s both. I think a great culture is built around mission focus and sacrifice. You want to know that the people fighting beside you are determined to complete the mission. You want to know that each person has a certain task towards the mission and you have to trust that they will come through at the end of the day. One of the things that builds that trust is camaraderie. Camaraderie is built be common sacrifice. You’re in “the shit” together. Everyone has given up their time, or more money, or relationships, or an easier nine to five existence to get the mission done. It’s that common sacrifice that creates a bond that is impenetrable. The bond starts to erode when people aren’t sacrificing their share, or they don’t come through on their mission task, or they don’t believe in the mission at hand. When these things start to slip away, thus goes the culture.
Unlike a warzone, we can control the “stuff” around you, the perks, the office, etc. We can and will make the environment around you nice. Not because it defines our culture, but because it clears the way for grander sacrifice and mission focus. We’ll balance the “suck” with creature comforts to keep your gas tanks full. We don’t have to sleep in the mud or dodge bullets so we should all be fresh, ready, and laser focused to take on the long fight ahead of us.
They want us on that wall. They need us on that wall.