Why (and how) to create values for your startup.

At an early stage startup, time is at a premium. There is always more work to be done, and it’s tempting to say the only thing that matters is building product. Building product matters, but so does explicitly naming your values.

Culture debt starts on day one.

We’re familiar with technical debt. We know that we have technical debt as soon as we write a line of code. We have culture debt as soon as we start a team, but we think about it a lot less.

Culture debt is the any short cut that your company takes:

  • If no one bothers to clean up their workspace on day one, the office will be messy forever.
  • If it’s acceptable to yell in the office because early stage startups are stressful, people will continue to yell through later stages.
  • If everyone says “good morning” when they walk into the office, new employees will too. (This could be good, but it could just distract everyone when you have a lot of people!)

At Lola, Paul English was fond of saying that culture was what you did — not what was written on a wall. He’s right. The significance of putting something on the wall isn’t that it’s on a wall: it’s that you’ve thought about it.

When you don’t think about it, you can end up in a situation where you have to pay down nearly 10 years of culture debt because something went wrong. Instead, you should proactively choose what you want your company to be like.

Accountability.

Being explicit about your values means that you can give feedback on them to employees as the company grows. There’s less room for ambiguity, and for arguments. If you value being collaborative, being a smart asshole who can’t work with others doesn’t cut it.

For Dark, having values (with examples of how to live them) meant that we could see if we were living up to our own expectations. We also give each other feedback based on our values, not just our technical work.

Hiring.

My friend Diana Kimball Berlin has talked about starting a project as “hanging a shingle” so people can see and respond to it.

As a tiny team, every hire has a huge impact on the culture. Having the values means that when someone is considering working at Dark, they can assess if they align with our values. We’re hanging a shingle to make ourselves visible to others who share our values. We care about hiring people who share these values — not just our friends.

This lens shifted how we talked about our values. Originally, one of our values was “we want to win,” but we felt this could attract candidates with a “get ahead at all costs” mentality, when we actually cared about focusing on the work that matters.


How do you create values?

Learn from your previous experiences.

Paul Biggar and I have had the joy of being part of several distinct cultures (like CircleCI, Kickstarter, and Lola).

At Kickstarter and Lola, I saw how founder’s values flowed through the company. At Kickstarter, I loved #ABL, Always Be Learning, and the relentless focus on the creator. At Lola, I loved the interdisciplinary team, particularly the Wombats, our in-house travel consultants. At CircleCI, Paul had implemented a radically flat team, and saw many of the challenges that came from that — that’s one reason our value is “decisive” and not “autonomous.”

While I was inspired by these particular values, I also noticed how quickly culture can get established in an ad-hoc way, especially in quickly growing teams. At Dark I want to be intentional, about how we work and what we build.

Include the full team.

Paul, Stefi, and Ian during our values exercise.

We wanted the full team to be involved in values. All of us had experience at previous startups that we were inspired by.

That said, we didn’t want people to anchor too much on any individual ideas. Like this article suggests, we had everyone write down their own ideas for values in first. We let everyone share their full set of ideas — be it words, examples, or how they’d like people to act. This gave us an overall feeling for the type of values they wanted to create.

After everyone shared we grouped ideas together. People would share ideas they thought were similar, and then we’d discuss the differences and nuances by theme.

We left the meeting with a shared understanding, in the form of a list of words we all liked. The words included things like: say yes, celebration, authenticity, accepting, self reflection, kindness, caring, compassion, successful company, and decentralized.

Initial Draft Creation.

After the initial meeting I took responsibility for making a draft of the values. Based on the discussion, I grouped similar words together and started to come up with headers. I came up with an early draft that had four values, each with one focal sentence, with a series of other ideas. I went back to the team with the set of drafted values. I was not defensive of the values I wrote. I’d done my best, but I tried to view them as a McDonald’s idea — a starting place to let the group refine them.

We made some revisions and released them as V1, with the intention to keep revisiting as we hired new employees.

Additional Revisions.

The second part of our revision process was getting external feedback. We’ve engaged Bianca L. St.Louis as a consultant who helps us focus on our culture and building an inclusive and equitable team. I love working with Bianca because she’s direct, to-the-point, and focuses on the things that really matter. Here’s more about Bianca’s work with startups.

  • We added example actions. Bianca pointed out that it’s important to be clear with what does/doesn’t conform to our values (and not assume that everyone else would interpret them the way we intended). We made a chart for employees of actions that represented the values well, and actions that did not uphold our values. Once we made the first version, Bianca pointed out that it required a lot of emotional labor. Some of that was intentional (so emotional labor would be shared across the team, because that often doesn’t happen) but we tried to be more clear.
  • We focused on our work, too. We wanted to be clear about how this impacts what we decide to build. Focusing on impact shows that we care about building features that impact users, and decisive means we’d rather build than wait to come up with a perfect answer.
  • We added our “vibe” back in. The values ended up feeling a bit corporate, so we tried to add examples that got at what it actually feels like to work here.

Impact

This is still a work in progress, but we’re happy with our current mission and values.

Here’s a few of the ways our values have impacted us:

  • Better understanding within our team. We all know what we look for, what we try to avoid, and how our previous workplace cultures have impacted us.
  • Candidates have mentioned our values when applying to jobs (“I loved your values”).
  • We have a better way to evaluate how we work. I’ve caught myself wanting to blurt out “why didn’t you ask me?!” and then stopped because the person was living up to our value of decisiveness.
  • We build our product based on our interpretation of impact. This was part of how we decided to hire a customer so we could build to real use cases!

The investment of time in creating values has already paid off for us, and I hope you’ll consider making them for your early (or not-so-early) startup.


Want to see how our values turned out? Here are Dark’s values.


Want to work on a team that works this way? We’re hiring. 
Something else? You can always reach me at: ellen@darklang.com.