I’ve always been a bit jealous of developers because of their superpowers: they can write code. That code is powerful because it essentially forms the “rules of the game” for how a program will behave in the future. Code determines how things run, unsupervised.
I think of SoapBox’s culture and values as the code that our company runs on: a set of parameters that determine and shape behaviour well into the future. Let me stress that this code is not, and should not, be limited to startups. Every organization needs to continuously communicate its values in order to institutionalize them and make them a meaningful part of the work experience.
This is the story of how we uncovered our values at SoapBox.
Step 1: Start a Company (a.k.a. — Put in the work)
If you’re already leading or working for an established company, skip ahead to Step 2.
Our company is a little more than 5 years old. We bootstrapped for the first 3 years and so our growth was modest during that time.
The early years of a startup are a magical, gruelling time. First of all, you need to work a lot. Expect to work 80 to 100 hrs/week, especially in the first 2 years if you are going to have a chance to give your business enough momentum to get to initial scale.
You are also doing this for little or no money. Conviction in your idea is your fuel at this stage, not external validation, and certainly not money.
But the lack of external validation can be a real blessing in disguise. It forces you to find joy and purpose in the mission you are on — in the body of work you are just starting to create — and not in the success- because you don’t have any success yet. It teaches you to enjoy the process, not just wait to get to the destination.
You learn a lot about yourself and the people you are working with during these early years. If you make it to initial scale, it will be in large part because you all have a lot in common with your team: you probably share a lot of the same values, you just don’t know what to call them yet.
In my experience, you will discover them piece by piece — one phrase at a time.
Step 2: Define your Values (a.k.a. — Write down all your inside jokes)
During the first 3 years we didn’t have formal company values. We worked long, hard hours and spent more time with each other than we did with our families. When you spend that much time with anyone — and have as many shared experiences as we did — you start to develop communication “shortcuts”. In our case, these shortcuts took the form of different sayings- things that would start as a comment on something that happened, an observation, or an inside joke.
Some of these sayings stuck around. We found ourselves saying them again and again over time. The sayings that stuck around perfectly summed up our feelings or viewpoint on something. They became shorthand for how we felt about something.
So after 3 years, we had grown the team to all of 10 people. It was January, the start of our 4th year. We had just come back from the holidays and we had planned a full day meeting to kick off the year, and also a new chapter in our company history. It seemed like the perfect time to all get in a room and brainstorm on the topic of values, culture, and company identity.
We used one of our own internal products to first brainstorm all of the little tidbits of our culture — phrases, sayings, etc. — and try to put into words all of the things that we both thought we were and also what we aspired to be. We created a list of about 40 different phrases or ideas.
Step 3: Vote on which phrases were the most you.
Once we had a list of 40 or so different phrases, we then proceeded to the next phase — voting. Our goal was to stack rank all of the phrases from ones we felt strongest about — to ones we didn’t. We then started to “Pin” the essential ones to the top.
( screenshot of initial values brainstorm Agendah — January 2014)
Step 4: Digest. Refactor. Then refactor some more.
Steps 2 and 3 happened in the same 2 hr group session. Step 4 took several months, and consisted of taking all of these raw inputs (more than 40) and trying to distill them down to their core messages — to find the spirit of the words. I took this on individually.
Once I was happy that these phrases had been translated into words that more accurately captured the spirit of the idea it became easier to find common themes.
At this stage of the process it was really important to take the time to reflect on the meaning of the words on the page. In doing so, it became clear that not all ideas were on the same level.
Some ideas were smaller, for lack of a better word, whereas others were bigger. Or maybe subservient is a better word. Take this example: one of the values that people identified as important was “Honesty”. While this seemed worth noting — and certainly was something everyone easily agreed on — it didn’t seem “inspiring” or “big” enough. Of course we should be honest. That’s not really a value. Honesty is table stakes. Instead, we really liked the notion of “Trust” as a higher order value. Our rationale is that to build trust, you must be honest. But just being honest isn’t necessarily enough to build trust. (“Build Trust” is 1 of our 4 core values).
Here are the 4 major themes that emerged and would become our values:
- Be a Great Human
- Build Trust
- Let the Best Idea Win
- Win Win Don’t Lose
( excerpts from internal values deck — circa May 2014 )
From Deck to Handbook: Concept
So now it is mid-2014 and we have a slide deck with our values mapped out, and the copy at the 99% stage. But we weren’t done yet. Here’s why…
Early in our company history — Brennan told me about a gaming company called Valve — and this really cool employee handbook that they had created and then later, open-sourced. I read the book and was totally blown away. I was immediately impressed by the care that had gone into every detail.
As a 3 person company (at the time) I also thought it was amazing that a company could justify building something so beautiful — yet so seemingly unnecessary to daily operations. Now, 5 years later, I realize how this was not the case at all — that this document does in fact have a very operational purpose (more on this below).
Growing our company to a place where we could afford to create an employee handbook became a goal of mine. Let’s face it — when you are 3, 5, or even 10 people, you don’t really need an employee handbook. You all eat lunch together at the same table. You probably all work at the same table (most likely, the same table for both!). At that size, it’s much faster to ask questions as they come up. Also, being in that kind of proximity means you overhear almost everything that everyone else says and hears. Though you don’t realize it at the time: you will never be this aligned, ever again. At least not as effortlessly.
So for me, part of the appeal of wanting to create an employee handbook related to wanting to create a company worthy of and needing it’s own handbook: a bigger company. We started working on it when we were about 15 people and began chipping away.
Once you have your values distilled, refactored, and organized — the next thing you need is an incredible designer to work with to start to bring that content to life. I have been very fortunate to work with just that designer — Olivia — who was extremely patient as she accepted my feedback, direction changes, and backseat driving, especially over the last 10% (which took 12 months).
Ideally, your values shouldn’t change over time, which is why it was really important that we lived in our handbook for a while — to really road test it and make sure that the content held up. To do this, we used it a lot in our recruiting and hiring conversations, referred to it in 1:1 meetings, and made an effort to weave into our All-Hands meetings once per month.
In the end, here is where we landed (click the image below):
To make sure your values don’t just collect dust, or hang on the wall, you have to find ways to work them into how your company operates day to day.
Here are some of the ways we use our values at SoapBox:
- Recruiting — during interviews, we often pull up the employee handbook and use it as a checklist. The values in the handbook become the pattern that we are trying to match against. What I find amazing is the sheer variety of ways people can display a value. For instance, our value “Win Win Don’t Lose” can evoke stories from sports, university, working in the non-profit sector, or even battling an illness. Very different backgrounds and experience. Same quality.
- Onboarding — this is an obvious one, but still worth mentioning. As part of everyone’s first day we take a full hour to cover our values, and dive into some of the colourful stories behind them. This is also a great way to give people a dose of company history at the same time.
- Decision Making — as your company grows, you will undoubtedly be faced with many tough decisions. The kind of decisions that you can argue both sides. It is in these situations that your values really add….ahem…value.
- Scaling Culture — as a founder, one of my ultimate goals is to develop people so that they care as much as I do — and about the same things. When employees internalize the company’s values, they start to make decisions less like employees, and more like owners. Company culture is heavily influenced by the founders and early team.
Culture, more than anything else, will determine the long-term success of your company. Utilizing your company values is the single most effective way to bring your culture to life. In our experience, discovering and defining your values is about finding the balance between your history and your future; between who you are, and who you want to be.
It’s a special thing to get to work with a group of people all committed to the same clear values; it feels different.
It feels like we always hoped it would.