How to Scale 6,783% Without Sacrificing Culture (or Your Sanity)
By Kathryn Minshew, Founder and CEO of The Muse
Growth. It’s something that all businesses pursue, and it’s something that we’ve been doing quite a lot of at The Muse.
I’m so honored and humbled to share that we were ranked number 16 on Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 list for 2016, with revenue growth of 6,783% over the last three years.
Of course, these numbers are something we’re incredibly proud of. But, beyond that, I’m even more proud of the team we’ve built and the culture we’ve maintained as a company. We’ve rallied a group of passionate, driven, and brilliant people around our mission (currently 130 and counting!), with remarkably high retention, and that wasn’t a happy accident.
I often get asked about how we maintain our culture while growing so rapidly, and my first response is usually to explain that it’s something we’re always actively working on. But today I thought I’d get a little more specific and share a few of the strategies we’ve put into place to ensure that we’re not just growing a business — but growing one that we’re proud of, inside and out.
1. We prioritize culture — early and often
Our culture isn’t something that we decided to think about once we had years invested and hundreds of people on the team. We knew we needed a solid handle on who we were and what we valued early on, so that we could make growth decisions with those things in mind.
Back when we only had about 25 employees, we all sat down to talk about our existing culture — and where we wanted to be as we grew — and to outline the core values that we thought every new hire should possess. This goes far beyond “Would I have a beer with this person?” (In fact, I hate that question, as it tends to unintentionally squash diversity.) It gets into the core ethics and motivators of our team and the behaviors we want to celebrate as we scale. We don’t publish them (on purpose), but in addition to our famous No Assholes rule, there are five other core values, and we put them on paper with examples of what we mean and interview questions to help us ascertain each element.
To this day, we hire with those in mind. In fact, during our interview process, we make sure to screen for each of our values by assigning each teammate who speaks with a candidate one specific core value to then score the applicant on.
Those values also come into play during our performance reviews, and especially for employees who are being considered for promotions. Our decision process always begins with a candid conversation about how that person aligns with our philosophies. Are they living the core values we want to project?
2. We commit to transparency
Transparency is a word you’ll hear a lot in conversations about culture. But, to us, it’s not just another buzzword: it’s a commitment to the type of organization we want to be. It’s something that we live and breathe in order to foster the sort of work environment we believe is powerful and motivating.
For example, think about the process of building a house. If you had a team working on constructing a beautiful two-story — but failed to regularly update everyone on the final vision for the home, or share detailed information on how everything is progressing and where the pieces fit together — employees won’t be able to fully grasp how their own work contributes to the whole. Or worse, they may complete their portion of the home in a way that doesn’t serve the overarching vision or mission. Not to mention, it’s a lot more interesting to caulk windows when you see how critical it is to the final success of the project — and doubly so when you hear directly from the homeowners whose lives are being affected by the product you’re creating.
This is why transparency is so important, especially when you’re scaling quickly. You need to be open and forthcoming about why things are done a certain way, why specific decisions are made, and where the company is headed. To do this, we hold twice-monthly all-hands meetings where we answer anonymous questions employees have submitted beforehand, and we use the OKRs goal framework to allow visibility into what every team is working on. In addition, once a year we share a detailed overview of our annual company budget, broken down by spending on various categories, and discuss why decisions have been made the way they have, so everyone knows what we’re spending on and how we’re prioritizing. We’ve even had team members change their budget requests or strategies based on their newfound understanding of how everything fits together.
Carving out time for initiatives like this isn’t always easy, but doing so arms your team with the information and context they need to be empowered to make decisions that benefit the company’s overall goals — rather than just their own individual piece of the puzzle.
3. We’re constantly learning (and accepting the “error” part of trial and error)
Culture isn’t a “set it and forget it” concept. You can’t just jot down your core values, put up your mission statement on the wall, and assume everything else will sort itself out in accordance with those guidelines.
No, company culture is something you need to constantly take the pulse of, even when (in fact, especially when) you’re growing so fast you hardly have time to breathe. I think of it like driving to a critical meeting in the pouring rain — think of your posture, your alertness. Sitting in the driver’s seat, leaning forward and wide awake, you need to be constantly scanning the environment, staying alert for changes, and hovering your foot between the brake and gas in case of emergencies or opportunities that need a quick reaction.
As such, my co-founder Alex and I always make time to ask ourselves what’s working well, what’s breaking, where we need to speed up, where we need to slow down, and where we really need to invest more time. We’ll do this once a week on a small scale, and then every two months in excruciating detail.
Looking backward and forward is key here; for example, if a hire doesn’t work out for culture-related reasons, we refer back to those interview notes to see where something might’ve gone wrong and what we can do better next time. If a team scales too fast and shows signs of strain, we work to fix the problem, but we also ask what we could do differently, or notice sooner, in the future.
And, perhaps most importantly, we always try to keep our sights set on what’s good for the business long-term, and not necessarily what will enable us to exceed our goals at the end of the quarter. This has included turning down clients that weren’t right for the business and holding off on a key hire for a painfully long time because we couldn’t find the right person. Ultimately, building and maintaining culture is a marathon, not a sprint.
I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve been far from perfect while scaling The Muse. Hindsight truly is 20/20, and there are so many things I’d do differently if given the chance. Mistakes come with the territory, but addressing and acting on them quickly is critical.
It’s all part of the process, and your ultimate success is more linked to constantly learning, adapting, and improving than to getting it right the first time. When I think about the best moments of the ride, it’s not that 6,783% growth figure — but the incredible team we’ve built along the way.
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