The Startup
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The Startup

5 Lessons from Building our Company Culture

Design your culture like you design your product.

Culture is the most important foundation for scaling and building a successful company. It’s been crucial for enabling Skillshare to grow from a small startup to a cohesive team of 50+ and is at the core of the platform we’ve built for millions of members.

If you set the right culture, it’ll determine who gets hired, how people behave and how decisions are made. Culture is the undercurrent of the company. It’s everyone’s job and responsibility to create a great culture, but it’s the leader’s job to guide it.

There’s a fine balance between guiding culture and letting it develop organically. Here are five actionable lessons I learned from building and scaling our company culture.

1. Define Who You Hire and How They’ll Work Together

One of the first things we did at Skillshare was create our value system. This value system determines who gets hired and how they work together.

In the early days, culture fit revolved around the beer test — can you grab a beer with this person? That didn’t work, so we changed it to the airplane test — can you grab a beer and sit next to this person on an airplane ride from New York to San Francisco?

The problem with a test like this is that you’re subconsciously making decisions based on whether you want to be friends with a person. This doesn’t create a diverse range of viewpoints crucial for great work, and can lead to a sea of sameness. We never defined our value system so we had no basis for comparison.

Because the best cultures derive from actions people take, it’s imperative to define expectations around optimal behaviors, which set a foundation for a value system. At Skillshare, our value system is broken down into two parts:

  • Core Values — Determines who gets hired, promoted, or let go. These are behaviors and traits we value in individuals.
  • Principles — How we aspire to work together as a collective team. Imagine these as phrases that we can call upon in meetings.

Our core values are:

  • Self-Starters
  • Humility
  • Adaptability
  • Resourcefulness
  • Passion for Excellence

We have an interview process dedicated to these core values, we’ve parted ways with people because of them, and have promoted people based on our core values and principles. This has allowed us to build and keep a diverse team of self-starters.

For example, we have interview questions and clear expectations for each core value. Lack of humility is the number one reason why candidates don’t make it through the full interview process. A candidate who ranks high on humility hold themselves accountable first and foremost in any situation, rather than blaming others.

We’ve passed on candidates who were overly negative or quick to blame others — even if they were a superstar. Not worth the cultural debt it accrues over time.

If the core values are meant to define behaviors on an individual level, principles are centered on the team. These are phrases that we say in meetings.

Facebook has a known principle titled “move fast and break things”. This allows everyone at Facebook to know that it’s OK to make decisions, ship product out the door, and take risks.

One of our principles is set around “learning fast”. I was recently in a meeting where one of the team members used it on me to optimize for learning, instead of mulling around on the decision. It was a great reminder that the decision was reversible. It’s always better to learn faster.

At Skillshare, we’ve found the best way to work together is to use these principles. They remind us of important truths during the crucial, tough moments — the times when we need them most, and the times when they’re easiest to forget.

2. Charge the Trust Battery

If culture is the foundation for any great company, trust is the foundation for what builds great teams.

Not too long ago, I read an article from Tobi Lütke of Shopify on how he powers his team with a trust battery:

“It’s charged at 50 percent when people are first hired. And then every time you work with someone at the company, the trust battery between the two of you is either charged or discharged, based on things like whether you deliver on what you promise.”

The trust battery monitors the current level of trust between people and teams. If the trust battery is fully charged, it allows decisions to be made quickly. It facilitates rigorous debates and it’s what drives commitment, accountability, and results.

When the trust battery is low, everything becomes more difficult. Trust is not a fixed state. It’s constantly evolving. It can erode and it can be rebuilt.

For example, I’ve seen new hires come in “swinging for the fences,” in the hopes of trying to earn trust up front. They make big decisions from the start. Very little time went into listening first, before making key decisions.

To help, I’ve set clear expectations during the first week of every new hire. One of the points I try to hammer home is centered on building trust. The best way to do that is to focus on accumulating a lot of small wins that build up momentum. This builds trust and fully charges the trust battery.

Listen first, decide, and then communicate. The order here is key.

According to Lütke, there are only two kinds of days — “one when your team gets better and ones when your team gets worse.” The day when your team gets better are the days when the trust battery is fully charged.

3. Encourage Rigorous Debates

Disagreement in the decision-making process is good. It allows teams to explore all possible solutions and differing points of view. It also enables us to apply a first-principles thinking to our challenges. Disagreements help clarify the issues and produce a more robust solution.

In the early days at Skillshare, we were at a crossroads with a very big decision. Should we keep the business offline or should we move the business online? We had a whole offsite dedicated to this decision and not surprisingly, the team was split right down the middle.

We encouraged everyone to express their opinions and challenge all of our assumptions. There was a lot of tension throughout the process but the end result of that tension created an open, transparent, and trusting team.

Without going through the rigorous debate, we might not have made that decision to go online as deliberately. This deep level of debate only works when everyone leaves their egos outside of the room. That’s why humility is so important to our culture.

Decision-making isn’t about getting feedback from everyone to reach 100% consensus. It’s about giving everyone a chance to participate. We might not all agree with the final decision, but we should feel like our perspectives were considered.

For big decisions, we slow down to move faster later. It often takes longer to reach a decision. The process can be slow and painful as there will be lots of pushback. But the end result is that we make better decisions, and we execute with speed and efficiency.

4. Assign Missions, not Tasks

To decentralize decision-making, we assign missions to empower team members. This creates more leverage by allowing us to send highly capable individuals on missions defined by an outcome, instead of dictating tactics.

Smart people will be motivated by the open-endedness. We only hire people whose judgement we can trust to the extend that we can set them loose on a project and know they’ll execute.

Here’s an example: Instead of telling a Marketing Manager to spend the $10K on retargeting, I tell her that we need to accelerate customer acquisition but I’m not sure how. And trust that she will find the most effective, and efficient, route with the budget.

This also leads to ownership. If you tell her to do retargeting and it doesn’t work, they can say “you told me to do it.” If you define a goal and they decide the strategy and tactics, they’ll own whatever they decide and be empowered to take risks.

5. Hire Culture Multipliers

While most companies hire for culture fit, we go above and beyond for those that are culture multipliers — team members that bring out the best in everyone. We hire them, promote them, and give them more latitude and responsibility.

Multipliers have a growth mindset — they look at every challenge as an opportunity and learning experience. They not only drive impact for the company, they live the core values day-to-day, and make everyone else around them better.

If you hire culture multipliers — it will set the tone that affects everyone throughout the company. My advice is to do whatever it takes to hire and nurture multipliers, because that’s the most powerful factor in building a great company.

Culture sounds like a lot of up-front work. And it is. But it’s absolutely essentially to the long-term value and success of your company. The more work you do to set your culture and guide it, the better you can scale your team and yourself as a founder. (More on that latter topic another day.)

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