Your list of important things to do when launching your startup is long. One aspect that I have more often than not seen neglected by founders is to decide and actively share with their employees what kind of culture they want to build and live their startup life in.
Investor pitches, office space, company logo, website, employment contracts, … — the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, too many times the word culture will not appear on this list. This is somewhat understandable. Culture sometimes feels vague and not like something you can actively define from the very first day of your company. Founders likely tend to think that culture is something that just kinda happens along the way.
However, with so many firms publicly stressing and almost advertising their company cultures, there must be a benefit to it other than attracting top talent. From my own experience of building WATTx, an innovation hub in Berlin, I learned many different benefits of formulating and writing down values and actively shaping a company culture from day one together with your team:
Boost buy-in and credibility
By devoting time to defining your culture, you place value on it, which means that you’re demonstrate that the working environment and how your team will feel at work matters to you — something that does not seem to be the case in every startup as we drew positively surprised reactions from people that had left other startups to join us. It ensures buy-in from your team and immediately boosts your credibility.
Kill annoying rules
Clearly defined and transparent company values establish implicit ground rules for everyone and actually make certain explicit rules obsolete.
For example, one of our values is “We support ideas.” Without needing to explicitly lay it out, this has huge implications as to how we conduct brainstorming sessions, critique content, and give feedback — the focus is on the idea and making it better, not on the person or emotions. Depending on your values and how effectively you frame them, face time in the office or unlimited vacation policies become something that will be handled according to the cultural baseline you set, without you stressing over it.
Provide an anchor
Especially in a company’s early days or for new employees, your spelled out values provide an anchor as people can immediately place a finger on what’s important and what’s fair game. This is particularly important as not everyone is an intuitive genius and possesses great interpersonal skills — a notion many founders in tech will be able to relate to.
Grab that steering wheel
It serves as an internal steering wheel for founders. When you fail to notice the behaviours you’d like to see in people, for example an extensive amount of collaboration, you can go back to the values and remind your team what you agreed upon and what is important to you. Also, and probably even more important, you can look at your value set and ask yourself: “Am I seeing these values lived by everyday?” By applying this self-check, you prevent your culture from drifting in an entirely wrong direction — something extremely hard to revert (honestly, forget fixing it later. It won’t happen). You can also more easily adapt your values as your company’s overall mission or direction needs to change.
What is crucial to understand is that culture is something that does not come into existence merely because you write it on a few slides — it exists because people start to breathe and act according to a certain value system. That means that you as a founder or company leader need to show the way. This starts with understanding that the vast majority of your company’s culture will be shaped by you — whether you like it or not. Molly Graham, who was in charge of Culture and Employment Branding at Facebook for two years puts it this way:
“Self awareness (or awareness about your founders) is a really good starting place. It brings up a handful of helpful questions that can be useful in thinking about the DNA of your culture. Fundamentally, it’s an exercise in self-awareness.”
Codifying your value system (which is the basis of your culture) in form of a story (watch out for clichés; you have to really mean the story you tell) can be a defining moment for your company. For example, Paul Buchheit’s blog post in 2009 let Facebook own the “hacker brand” and instilled it in the company’s DNA. In our case, each employee receives a designed and printed WATTx values booklet that illustrates our culture and the inherent value system in a very visual manner. The analogy we chose is astronauts on a joint space exhibition — it reminds us of our mission to tackle really hard problems and go after moonshot projects, and that we can only achieve these mission by working together.
So we remind ourselves with a great quote from Larry page on why moonshots matter and highlight that we all contribute to making our company special. Then the story goes into our eight codified values, each represented by a fitting space exploration illustration and a brief explanation. All of this we discussed in great detail during an almost 2-hour onboarding session with the entire team.
There’s a ninth value we at WATTx like to live by: no bull shit. Our currency is ambitious ideas. And we look at culture and values the same way — no bull shit. And your startup will benefit if you do the same. Guaranteed.