How to put your start-up Culture “on paper”

Our journey in building our Culture Code

As a co-founder of Easyship, the platform that simplifies international shipping, I wanted to share my learnings about laying the foundations of a startup culture.

Easyship has been around since the end of 2014,(here my previous post on how we started) and we just put the final touches on our culture code almost three years into our journey.

Why only now?

To understand our reasoning behind this, it is important to know where we came from. Our startup journey comprises of 3 different phases:

  • survival ;
  • building the basics ;
  • growth.

Phase #1: Survival (Less than 10 people, incubator)

In the first 6 months, our company consisted of 3 founders and 6–8 interns from top-tier universities. We were doing anything we could just to get through each single day.

This was an exciting period for Easyship, as every day was an achievement. Each of these was huge: landing our first client, scoring our first partnership, and sending out our first 100 shipments.

A this stage, hustle and survival were the core of our culture. We did not feel the need to elaborate on culture.

Phase #2: Building the basics (Less than 20 people, opened our first office)

After we got recognition from the startup community in the region by winning the Tech in Asia Award, we started to receive funding from global investors. This breath of fresh air allowed us to set the building blocks of what Easyship is today.

During this period we:

  • Leveraged on all the learnings from the product side, and designed Easyship 2.0 from scratch
  • Built our proprietary back-end system: “SUPERship”
  • Moved out from the incubator and moved into our first office
  • Hired our first employees ; who we call “sherpas”. Shoutout to our first sherpa, Marie Lachenal, who is still with us today!
  • Created basic processes within the company
  • Implemented agile management structure: teams work together and achieve shared goals
  • Implemented weekly roadmaps: setting our goals for the week
  • Ran stand-up mid-week meetings for the entire office shares what they’re working on
  • Threw friday drinks: enjoying a beer together to celebrate the end of the work week

During this period, not only we were growing, but we were also building the foundation of our company, both in terms of business and culture. The most defining aspect of our culture was the human capital: who we were hiring, who was let go and why, who was promoted and why, which behaviors were valued, and which were not tolerated.

Phase #3: Growth (30 people, multiple countries)

When we started to see real product market fit, we took on international expansion. First, we expanded to Singapore, and then in early 2017 we opened an office in the United States.

During this time, the company went through massive changes: we grew tenfold in revenue, we hired 10 additional sherpas, and our headcount now includes 30 people from 12 nationalities, working from 4 different locations.

This is when the need to establish a culture code became very important, as we were starting to see signs of what could potentially become issues:

  • Processes not being enforced in all countries
  • Different office dynamics
  • Miscommunication
  • Office cliques

So, how did we go about creating our culture?

Mission statements are typically set by the founders as it relates directly to the vision they had when they created the company.

Our purpose from inception, to our minimum viable product, to where we are now, is to simplify the international logistics for SMBs and allow them to sell globally. When crafting our mission statement, we wanted to be specific in what we are doing, and less on the “where and how” as we know we will evolve in the future.

However, for our values and principles we wanted to use a more collaborative approach where our sherpas had their own input. This is because they are actively contributing to the Easyship culture and living it on a daily basis.

We got inspiration from a few Best in Class culture codes from Tettra to help give context.

eg: Netflix slides on Passion & Honesty

Then, to give some structure and framework, we listed the following values that we (the founders) thought would characterize Easyship:

  • Fun
  • Hustle
  • Diversity
  • Results
  • Taking Initiatives
  • Ownership
  • Humble
  • Remarkable/ Excellence
  • Resilience
Sherpa’s survey

After presenting these values to the company, we sent out a survey where we asked everyone to:

  • Vote for their top 5 values and explain why they chose that value
  • Add one value of their own that wasn’t listed but should be, and why
  • Write 3 catchy do’s and don’ts that defined Easyship behaviors for them

This was actually one of the most interesting and nerve-wracking moments I’ve experienced as a founder. I felt as if we were waiting to find out if we passed one of our final exams. I couldn’t help but think, “Is our vision of Easyship skewed? Have we lost track of who we are as a company?” We were really curious to see the results, and thankfully we were not disappointed!

Here are the values that were added:

Post-result slides

We believe that the message sent by our sherpas was that the values we listed were all extremely business driven and lacked the human component, which they felt Easyship also encompassed.

Note that gender equality is in red, as there is still a gender imbalance; however, we are above the startup industry average as women make up more than 30% of our workforce (versus the average 24% for startups with no female founders.) Women also make about 36% of our leadership positions, and while this is a lot better than the 11% average in Silicon Valley tech companies, we still strive to improve this figure.

When it comes to the top 5 values, the results were the following:

We were very surprised about the numbers we saw for “Hustle” and “Humility”. After taking the time to think about it, we came to the following conclusions:

Hustle

When we started Easyship, remnants of our Rocket Internet days still remained. We were always proud to be hustlers, do-ers, and a “whatever it takes” type of company. We were quite surprised when this value didn’t make it to the Top 5, but after doing a deep dive through the results, we noticed something pretty interesting.

The sherpas that were around during phase 1 and 2 always placed “Hustle” as one of their top values, while the newer sherpas thought otherwise. This made a lot sense because during the “survival” period, every one had 10 different jobs on their plate. Then we grew, became more focused and organized, and matured as a company. This toned down the hustling aspect and replaced it by other values such as Results or Taking Initiative.

Humility

Seeing this value come in at rock bottom was a blow to us founders. While we are happy to help power sellers make their logistics even more efficient, we always have a soft spot for helping small business owners go global from the very beginning. We believe we are humble in this respect. However, when we communicate this vision, we noticed that our tone comes off as ambitious and at times, a bit assertive. How do we stay humble, but at the same time show that we are confident in what we have to offer? This is a challenge that we continue to face.

So, after three years of growth, hammering out our mission statement, and collaborating with our sherpas, we present to you Easyship’s culture code.

We are satisfied with our efforts, and look forward to taking this rocket ship even higher!