Successful Startups Are Built On Backs, Not Plaques

Photo Credit: Frontline Creative

Startups hang all kinds of crap on their walls. You’ve probably never paid much attention to it, but I highly recommend scanning the room next time you visit. What a startup hangs and where they hang it is a veritable DNA test for the startup itself.

Given a finite amount of space, what we prioritize tells us a tremendous amount about the founders, the employees and the culture of the company itself. Depending on their size, their funding, etc. the nature of these items may change, as may their meaning. I’ve seen everything from inspirational quotes, company values, photo walls, roadmaps, post-its, and everything in between.

Not all of these things are created equally. Some are whimsical, others are tactical. Some are accidental, most are intentional. Honestly, a lot of them are utter bullshit. There’s far more theatre in startup world than anyone would like to admit, and all the quirky staging the crew does for the startup show is a testament to it. Everything, ultimately, has its place thanks to the directors, ahem, I mean founders.

Companies define their values in a number of different ways. Search online and you’ll find infinite advice and case studies on how values came to be at Company X. Having lived through the experience a few times, I can attest it can be a bit of a brain bender. The process pits what you desire against what you believe matters. It’s a prescription for how you want your employees, and yourselves, to be in the lack of other guidance.

The problem with pre-defining your values, especially if just a select few do this, is that they may not truly represent what everyone believes. While founders have great insight and ability to shape the nature of their companies, it is best that these values be lived, not just dictated. In other words, what your company values is visible in how they practice their craft, not what’s printed on the walls.

So how do we establish values that can last?

If it’s valuable, commit to it

There’s an infinite number of powerful concepts that live at the heart of companies everywhere, that doesn’t mean that all of them apply. You want a set of values that is dense — a few things that carry tremendous weight.

What precisely is a non-starter for you? Consider transparency:

  • Transparent
  • Open
  • Public

Just because we say we are transparent, it doesn’t mean we’re completely transparent. Do we have some things in public, others in private? Does that still make us transparent, partially transparent, or something else?

Whichever version of something you choose, it’s critically important that you are precise and committed. Even better, though, choose it together with your team so you know you’re all starting on the same footing.

If you commit to it, live by it

Commitments have to be honored, otherwise they’re just words. It’s quite easy to tattoo a number of great sounding values on your forehead, but it’s significantly more difficult to live by them. But why?

Values are there to guide us in the things we do. That poses a challenge on two fronts:

  1. Values, no matter how well defined, are still open to interpretation
  2. Interpretation happens all the time, most of the time out of sight from others

Hence the problem. We can’t make something happen all the time the same way, well not easily. There are a couple of things that we can definitely do:

  1. Call it out whenever we see it not being used the way we think is right
  2. Check in regularly with your team to see how they feel

The best time to course correct is realtime.

If you can’t live by it, get rid of it

Values rarely change, for good reason. Usually, we do our best work to right the ship and align ourselves with the things we value most. Of course, these things aren’t always readily achieved nor are they always a priority.

Consider Yahoo!, everyone’s favorite bear to poke. Their values are:

  • Excellence
  • Innovation
  • Customer Fixation
  • Teamwork
  • Community
  • Fun

We can argue till we’re blue in the face whether or not the employees and team lived by these values. What we can likely come closer to agreeing on was how it impacted the way the business was run as well as the products and services it offered. When there is alignment, it shows.

Over time, a company may realize it’s long-term goals, merge or incorporate a new group or company, or face new competition that requires adjusting how they operate. Making the most of the opportunity that sits before you sometimes means being honest about what matters most, now.

Everything can’t matter all the time.

Culture is a living, breathing organism. As much as we can aspire to be all the great things we say we are on the walls, if they aren’t what we live and breath, from top to bottom, they’re at best hollow and at worst outright lies.

Move your values from the plaques that decorate your walls, into the hearts and minds of everyone you work with, where they belong.

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Gregarious Narain is a serial entrepreneur and product strategist. A reformed designer and developer, he writes on his experiences as a founder, strategist, and father on the regular. Connect with him on LinkedIn or say hi on Twitter.

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