Culture-building, The Montoux Way

We call our culture “The Montoux Way”. What’s yours?

Culture is the most important thing we’re building

That’s one of my refrains at Montoux, a fast-growing, B2B SaaS start-up. At Montoux, we believe with total conviction that you don’t build truly great products or companies without an equally great culture.

But how do you build culture? The place I like to start is with values. Here, I’m sharing a simple process that we’ve followed to identify, codify and express the values of our company.

Before I start, a word to the skeptics out there. I used to doubt the value of spending time on company culture. I prided myself on being a productive contributor who got shit done instead of dilly-dallying with cultural fluff. Thankfully, that attitude, along with a raft of similarly ill-informed opinions forged during my early 20s, has long since died.

Last year, I chatted with the CEO of another successful SaaS start-up. He summarised his own experience in a way that resonated with mine:

Especially early on as a developer, I would way rather fix another bug or ship another feature than participate in some activity for company culture. Now, after 8 years as a CEO, I realise culture is EVERYTHING.

So, if you’re a leader who is hesitating to spend time on your company’s culture, take it from a couple of former skeptics … it’s worth it.

When I joined Montoux, I joined a company with a healthy, positive culture and founders who were naturally attuned to creating a sustainable working environment for the team. But I thought we could do even more. I also anticipated that the team of 15 would double before the year was out and that could put the culture under stress. I therefore set out to bottle the fantastic, organic Montoux brew in order that we could keep it, enhance it, and share it with newcomers.

As a newcomer to Montoux myself, I was cautious about missing the mark and getting off on the wrong foot. Luckily, I knew a recipe that is hard to screw up. The recipe has six easy steps and one secret ingredient.

The secret ingredient is to let your team speak for itself.

If you’re prepared to use the secret ingredient throughout the process, you have very little chance of landing on values that are misaligned with your team or your company’s ambitions. Here are the six steps:

On Slack and at our daily standup, I invited anyone who took a special interest in culture to join me in a fun and important project to look at our company’s values. I immediately got four volunteers, which felt just about right for a company of our size. You don’t need a large project team, especially if you’re a small company, three people will do.

If you don’t get the response you’re after, I encourage you to shoulder-tap people who seem culturally-attuned. Often, a nudge is all they need. It also pays to look at the diversity of your culture crew. As well as ethnic and gender diversity, consider:

  • People from different parts of the business
  • Spanning different geographic offices
  • Relative newcomers as well as long-standing members of the company (if you are old enough to have those!)
  • Varying levels of seniority and experience.

Significantly, I asked another person from our senior management team to join the project. Culture is everybody’s responsibility, but if you don’t have leadership that is 100% bought in, culture is on shaky ground. My partner was Gert, our CTO, co-founder, and Montoux cultural icon (a kind-hearted Dutchman with a fondness for sailing, heavy metal and a canine companion called Aiko).

Aiko, our office dog and cultural maven

Next, we designed workshops aimed at engaging every person at Montoux in crafting our values. Each workshop had 4–5 attendees and ran for an hour. Running five workshops took two hours of preparation and five hours to execute, with the help of a scribe from the culture crew for each session.

In each workshop, we asked the attendees to discuss the following four questions:

Why do you choose to work at Montoux?

What is Montoux-y?

What is in the shadow?

What do we need to keep, amplify, or throw away so that our culture will evolve to meet our aspirations?

These simple questions hold they key to the kingdom and can work for any company. Let’s walk through them:

Why do you choose to work at [Company]?

Find out what’s really motivating people to be at your company. There’s likely to be both diversity and commonality and, often, overall harmony.

For instance, at Montoux, people overwhelmingly cared about having challenging work, making an impact and learning. Some of us were passionate about fixing the life insurance industry and others could be passionate about fixing anything, provided it was fixed beautifully and meaningfully. You don’t have to be the same to find common ground.

What does it mean to be [Company]-y?

This question is great for eliciting the language that people use to describe how the organisation is and aspires to be. We found there was great humanity and identity in the words people spoke. These are fantastic gems when it comes to expressing your values in a way that resonates with your team rather than in corporate speak.

What’s in The Shadow?

I LOVE this question. It borrows from Carl Jung’s ideas about human psychology and recognises that even the best cultures have a dark side. The mere act of asking the question tells your team you don’t just care about unicorns and rainbows, you care about all of the things — including the hard things.

Asking ‘What’s in the Shadow?” provides and opportunity to talk about the less desirable and often unconscious aspects of the company’s personality (what’s the consequence of prioritising X? what do we look like when we’re not at our best?). The aim is not to blame, complain or even solve everything that’s in The Shadow. The purpose is to surface the vulnerabilities of the culture that you have. Sometimes we can eliminate or minimise the downside and other times we have to accept it as a trade-off for what we value most highly. One thing’s for sure, talking about The Shadow helps your culture to be genuine and strong. It’s also an opportunity to talk about Star Wars.

Every culture has a dark side as well as a light side. Don’t be afraid to look at both.

What do we need to keep, amplify, or throw away so that our culture will evolve to meet our aspirations?

Cultures aren’t stagnant, they’re evolving. In successful start-ups, everyone who was there at the beginning has nostalgia for the early days. Sometimes we need to let go to move forward. Other times, we should hold on fiercely. At Montoux, we want to keep the spirit of the surfers and mountaineers that started our company because we know it will serve us all. But we have to let go of the ease of being a small company and embrace the joys of being a larger, multinational team. Asking this question is not only a great source ideas, it helps people to recognise that change is inevitable.

When you’re done with your workshops, you will have a bunch of data. Without much trouble at all, every comment you recorded can be tagged and sorted in a spreadsheet.

When the Montoux culture crew went through this exercise, the themes that we would shape into our 4 values almost jumped off the spreadsheet. We made all of the data that we collected available to the entire company. This meant that everyone knew they had been heard and that the values we adopted weren’t plucked from thin air or sent from on high — they came from listening our team.

Raw data is great, but usually needs work before it’s ready to be communicated to the world. What we did was to:

  • Wordsmith the themes we spotted. I found it was good to do this with one other person rather than with a committee. We also named our values ‘The Montoux Way’, picking up on language that I had hear our founders using to make decisions. Literally, ‘that’s the Montoux way’ or ‘that’s not the Montoux way’.
  • Workshop those themes some more with our senior leadership team. I challenged that team to more precisely identify what we would need to emphasise to meet our future aspirations. (Questions like, what comes first at this stage of our business, customer or product?). Then, I asked them whether they could commit, 110%, to lead in accordance with the values we had identified. If the wider team had surfaced values that the leaders weren’t prepared to own, they would need to veto them and explain why. Moreover, if the leaders weren’t prepared to walk the talk every day, the values would be severely undermined.
  • Designed those themes into something beautiful. We didn’t have a designer at the time, so we got some outside help from a talented and affordable freelancer to visualise the values we had identified. Symbols are important and the ones that we created now adorn our office walls. In the process, we managed to convince the freelancer to join Montoux as its first designer. BONUS!
  • Finally, we prepared a slide deck that summarised each of our values. Each explained what the values mean (in the words of our own team), the upside and the shadow.

Now you’re done all of that great work to identify your values, are you going to just write them on a piece of paper and pop them in a drawer? No, you are not. You are going to launch them in a style befitting of one of the most important products your company will ever produce, because that’s what they are.

A certain amount of ceremony is important and symbolic. What you do should fit with your own company culture and the values you’ve identified. If a massive party or a parade is right for your company, then that’s what you should do. At Montoux, we’re pretty low-key folks and so we designed a fun and down-to earth launch for The Montoux Way:

Here’s what we did

  • Found a great, off-site venue and spent half a day together
  • Asked (and prepared — they need preparation) four of our leaders to to launch each of our values with the team. To do this effectively, they need to speak from the heart and acknowledge The Shadow as well as the much greater upside.
Gert, Montoux co-Founder, unveils our fourth value: Enjoy the Ride
  • Gave everyone had the opportunity to speak and share stories that resonated with the values. Some truly moving tales were told.
  • Unveiled some art that would symbolise our values in both our New Zealand and NYC offices. We also turned these symbols into Slack icons which we use to express the values all the time.
  • Took the opportunity to have fun and get to know each other better. At Montoux, we love games, so we played “The { }And” by The Skin Deep. There was eye-gazing and everything, even with the Coworkers Edition!
Montouxvians getting down to the good stuff with The { } And
  • We also celebrated with our favourite symbol of success, Gelato!
New York Montouxvians with our favourite celebratory treat — Gelato!

Of course, identifying your values is just the first step. You have to keep using them every day to create the culture you want.

At Montoux, we’ve immediately felt the benefit of expressing our values. It’s shaped the way we think about ideas, the way we celebrate and the way we run our recruitment process. Having the values articulated means that any Montouxvian can grab them anytime and weave them into the work we’re doing.

Sound easy? Sound fun? It is. And what’s more, it has a massive ROI. If you give it a try, I’d love to hear the results.

Huge thanks!

Thanks to culture-builder extraordinaire Simon D’Arcy, for helping me to formulate the recipe and encouraging me to write this blog. Also to Caneel Joyce for her wisdom. For amazing culture-building resources, check out and for the best of the best advisors to support your journey, look up Simon or Caneel!