Updating Sharetribe’s values

During our all-hands retreat this past summer, we decided to revise Sharetribe’s company values. What we ended up with was the third version of our values. You can read more about the previous iteration here.

Why an update was needed

Does it make sense to spend time on something like defining our values when there are surely more urgent matters for an early-stage startup such as us? As we already had a set of values, shouldn’t we just stick to them?

There were several reasons why we felt an update was needed. First of all, our company had grown to 15 team members and half of them were not around when we defined our previous set of values. I believe that the best (and perhaps only) way to build alignment around a set of company values is to engage everyone in the process of designing them, which means the values should be periodically revised as the team changes.

Even more importantly, many people on our team felt that since our organization had developed and learned new things, the original descriptions no longer captured the essentials of what we’re about and what we believe in.

The timing was right, too. As our company is constantly growing, this retreat felt like one of the last remaining opportunities to get the entire team in the same physical location, which is the ideal setting for this type of work.

Why the new set of values is an improvement

I’m personally really happy with the outcome of the work we did. There are two main reasons for this.

First, the list was greatly improved by reducing number of items on it. We believe in many important things. However, if we try to come up with a fully exhaustive list, it would become extremely long and the importance of each item would be diluted. People wouldn’t be able to remember all of the values and a large part of the team wouldn’t be able to truly relate to many of them. For some companies, having a long list can work well, but in our team there was clearly a strong urge to focus on only a handful of the most important things — the ones that, when combined, best describe the unique essence of our culture. They should be the values that truly guide us when we make decisions.

Second, some of the earlier values and their descriptions felt a bit naive or even inaccurate from today’s perspective. We also noticed that while some values were remembered by everyone, hardly anyone remembered others. In all such cases, the original description had failed to capture an important, unique aspect about our culture. I believe that with this new set, this is no longer the case.

Introducing the new values

I’m proud to present: Sharetribe’s five new core values (which have also been updated on our website):

Integrity

We are a dependable partner for our customers and a community of trust for the members of our team. We hold ourselves to high standards. We default to transparency and treat everyone fairly.

To us, integrity captures the idea of “doing the right thing” and being worthy of others’ trust by always being honest, treating everyone fairly, and being transparent in our actions. This idea has always been represented in our values in one way or another, but after careful consideration, we felt that “integrity” is the best word to capture all its different dimensions.

Candor

We recognize that to get things done and work effectively as a team, we need to clearly communicate what we think and feel and give others direct, honest feedback. We expect the very best work from each other, every day. Radical candor is the backbone of our working culture.

Candor — the act of being candid — is a completely new addition to our list of values. While working on our values, we discovered that everyone on our team felt that if someone thinks something is not right, expressing this issue candidly is extremely important.

Our previous omission of candor caused very concrete issues in our culture. I once had a conversation with a relatively new member of our team about why they had decided not to challenge another team member directly about an issue that was bothering them. The response was that they felt our culture was “non-confrontational”. While I had never thought about our culture in that way, at that moment I realized that others might feel the same way as well. We rarely talked about the importance of being candid.

In her best-selling book, Radical Candor, author Kim Scott (former manager at Google and Apple) describes the concept as a combination of “caring personally” and “challenging directly”. Based on her management work, Scott found these two aspects to be the most important ones in creating a healthy working relationship with other people. You need to be able to challenge others with extreme honesty without resorting to obnoxious aggression.

Kindness

We believe that challenges in human communication can be resolved by being considerate, making an effort to understand the perspective of the other party, and always looking for ways to help others.

Kindness was one of the two values that remained largely the same from our previous iteration. When asked about the values our team members remembered the best and found most important, this one kept coming up in the answers. It was an interesting discovery since kindness is not a word you often find in the context of corporate values.

In our opinion, candor alone is not enough to build a healthy workplace culture or a great relationship with customers. Your communication style matters a great deal, especially if you need to confront others directly. Even if you care deeply about them and simply want to be candid, things can go horribly wrong if you don’t take their point of view into consideration and adapt your communication style based on their unique personality and needs. In his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, author Marshall B. Rosenberg convincingly explains why understanding this simple idea is key in making any relationship work.

While working on our values, we considered words like empathy, sympathy, and compassion, and found the definitions of all these terms somewhat ambiguous. Eventually, we felt that kindness was the term that resonated best with the concept we were trying to capture with this value.

Purpose before profit

Our company exists, first and foremost, because of our cause: the positive change we want to see in the world. For us, running a profitable business is not a goal in itself, but a means towards achieving our purpose. We will never increase our profits in a way that jeopardizes our pursuit of this purpose.

In both of the earlier iterations, we had “(positive) impact” as a value. However, during our latest iteration, we came to the conclusion that “impact” is really about *what* we do, not *how* we do it. Thus, the positive societal impact we aim to have is best reflected in our purpose, not our value.

At the same time, we recognized that there’s something rather unique about our approach towards our purpose. While most companies have a mission statement, in practice, many of them are mostly focused on creating value for their shareholders.

In an ideal setting, purpose and profit are not in conflict. It’s reasonable to claim that focusing on positive impact makes it easier to attract the best talent, get good publicity, win the trust of customers, and so on. In practice, however, it often seems that as organizations grow and take on more and more external stakeholders, a tension is born between achieving its purpose and maximizing profit.

In such a situation, we need to think about what we value the most. It seemed clear to everyone that our culture clearly defines the outcome: we would choose to focus on our purpose, even if it means creating less value for our shareholders.

Balance

While we are passionate about the change we want to see in the world, we don’t pursue it at all costs. We believe that a good life is a balanced one. At the same time, we recognise that achieving our ambitious goals takes a lot of hard work from everyone in our team. Every day counts — we need to be effective and choose our battles wisely.

Balance is the only value that has remained pretty much as is through all our iterations — and for a good reason. At the time of this writing, our company has existed for almost six years. If we had not focused on balance, we might well be out of business due to burnout or exhaustion. My co-founder Antti and I decided early on that we would not do things the traditional startup way, dedicating our entire lives to the company and constantly working 60–80 hour weeks without vacations. Such an approach was simply not what we wanted from life, so we knew we needed to do things differently. With our balanced approach, it has been easier to remain motivated and passionate towards our mission throughout the ups and downs of startup life.

While working on this iteration of our values, we did notice that we needed to add something to the description of this value. Working long hours at the expense of your loved ones or your health is one way to be off-balance. Not finding enough time to work on our most important challenges is another one. While the term “work-life balance” is not my favorite (work is an intrinsic part of life and a source of joy in itself), in this particular case it can help illustrate the issue: you can be off-balance either on the “work” side or the “life” side. We wanted to communicate both these aspects with the new description.

How these new values are being used

All these five values — integrity, candor, kindness, purpose over profit, and balance — are actionable. They can be concretely used to guide our actions and support our decision-making. They truly describe how we do things at our company.

They are also opinionated. They communicate what we are about and what we are not. Many other companies, teams, and individuals might not find them important or might even disagree with them. For someone who is considering joining our team, going over these five core values helps them understand whether this company is the right place for them.

The same goes for our customers. When I purchase a product or service, I prefer providers whose values I share. I believe the same to be true for many of our customers. By stating our values clearly, they know what they can expect from us. They can also hold us accountable should we at some point act against our values.