I used to think that company values were a “mom and apple pie” exercise that provided limited value to startups, but I’ve changed my mind in the half decade since we started Touchdown.
When we formed the company, my co-founders Rich and David suggested we write down our values — rather than protest, I decided to go along. In truth, I enjoyed the process of generating the values and it was fairly easy for the three of us to agree on what mattered. I was nevertheless skeptical that we would get ongoing business value from the exercise.
Along the way, I learned about how companies usually establish their values. A typical process involves a small handful of concepts that can be easily remembered by everyone in the company. Just as local phone numbers were set at seven digits because seven items is the unaided recall limit for the average person, most corporations have no more than five to seven values, with an expectation that rank and file employees might see the CEO walking down the hall and be able to recite the entire list on the spot.
Instead of stopping at this usual limit, we brainstormed a longer list with more than 20 concepts. We wanted to be as complete as possible in describing — to each other — what we felt would be important in growing our firm. Over time, we expanded the list even further. For the first few years, we rarely referenced our values, but then our company grew large enough to require offsite retreats with the entire team in attendance and things changed.
While preparing for our retreat, we discussed the “state of the firm,” including how we could stay on a path of continuous improvement, and we became concerned that our team wasn’t sufficiently responsive to our corporate partners. In retrospect, this was a little silly. We’ve hired amazing people at Touchdown and a universal characteristic across our team is what I jokingly call the responsibility gene. As a company, we are particularly responsive. But this concern did occupy our thoughts at the time, and so we decided to share our entire list of values at our offsite meeting, with a focus on what we considered our most important value: accountability. We spent a big chunk of that retreat talking about why accountability matters at Touchdown and how we could all strive to embody this virtue.
At subsequent offsite retreats, we emphasized other values that we felt were topical to what we were experiencing at the time. When “me too” erupted in the venture capital industry, we focused on the importance of diversity and joined #MovingForward. In my view, it’s important that we were small enough to solicit the feedback of our entire firm, and we proceeded with confidence that our D&I approach represented the views of the full team, not just those of our (white male) founders. We’ve also focused on how to leverage and temper our competitive spirit, develop investment judgment in our newer investor teammates, and many other topics that stem from the intersection of our values and our experience as a firm.
In preparation for our 2018 fall offsite, we solicited the entire firm to add to our values, and we gained close to 50 new concepts that reflected input from our broader team. At this point, we had more values than could be legibly read on a single slide. These are the values you can see in the interactive word cloud at the link below. If you move your mouse over the individual words, they expand into focus, symbolically reflecting how we use them.
I suspect we will continue to develop our values this way, with input from the entire firm, adopting what’s most relevant as we grow and evolve. It’s particularly important to me, Rich, and David that our values are not “handed down on stone tablets” to the rest of the company. While we’ve built an unusual amount of structure and process into our small firm, we also believe that everyone should have a meaningful voice, no matter the role, title, or tenure. This means we don’t want to quiz our team members in the hallway, but continue to make values an organic effort shared by the entire company.
Ignoring traditional methods for identifying company values may have contributed to our unusual approach, but it’s right for Touchdown’s culture and our growing team.
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