Sunday, November 02, 2014

Can You Replicate Start Up Culture Again, And Again?

Everyone just loves to talk about start-up culture... More importantly, how you recreate this culture in a big company (or even medium-sized one). One clear guide that's hit my reading list is Peter Thiel's new book Zero to One. Thiel's book discusses the core foundations of culture (amongst other things) and why it is important. One point he brings up when choosing a start-up is to invest in teams that share common interests and that have a deep relationship with each other. Should founders be friends? What about Google's 20% program? Is it better to have people just bump in to each other and that's where ideas come from (check out Adobe's approach in Utah below)...

This post is about keeping the start-up culture alive...


Almost, my entire career has been working in tech start-ups. I've either started my own and/or worked for others. There are some common threads that I've started to pick up as I've watched start-up companies move and shake the company culture (this includes things I think/thought were important too). My short list is some of the threads I've heard, and witnessed over time...
  1. We need to scale this thing... Every time I hear this, my internal clown starts his juggling act - is this a good idea or just a reaction. I then go directly to Chapter four of Getting Real by ThirtySeven signals to help me with my insanity on the topic. The point of the chapter is to more or less speak to scaling your software infrastructure, but I think the same holds true for company infrastructure. Without clear goals and metrics, you're scaling for what? I'm a conservative company spender (bias alert), so I lean towards waiting on new hires (or purchases) until you can clearly measure the output (I like speed dials). Without this, you've potentially wasted money. Oh, and I've made this mistake... Scaled without thinking about the real need and value (another bias alert) 
  2. Above all else, culture is best when encouraged... Those companies that push for cultural expression are the durable ones. When companies celebrate weirdness (personality), people flourish. When people blossom, so do ideas. When ideas fruit, so do profits. So if you're REALLY interested in keeping your start-up culture, enable passionate expression and engage your teams to do so. Have fun! Oh, and I have dismally NOT followed this!!! But I really, really want to!   
  3. We need to act more professional... Um, no you don't! Style yes, trying to hard, NO! Peter Thiel has a great comment about suits in his book. If a team they want to invest in wears a suit, they don't invest (potential irony here). Good question though... Are you being yourself? Zappos famously advocates weirdness in their culture (check out their corporate values here - http://about.zappos.com/our-unique-culture/zappos-core-values). I'm all for uniforms (I grew up in Catholic schools), as long as they don't overtly try to "sell" (which could mean over-trying the weirdness thing) then great. Oh, and I've fooled myself here too... Thinking the "professional look" somehow equates to success (I kill it in jeans - dang!)
  4. We need to look at this process... Processes are good, yes (I'm a fan of CRM which requires good process management). But uber-process management is bureaucracy at its finest. I've seen leadership advocate for a management role when mistakes have been made by subordinates. Careful of the want to hire a heavy management org or a bunch of suits to work though your processes (worse is hiring a consultant to do this). Better to allow your team to make mistakes and have them come up with creative solutions. What would happen if your your teams figure it out, and you gave them the opportunity to do so. Your C-level staff should work to inspire them to find the mistake faster and enable the collaborative culture to effectively do so. Otherwise, the process you implement won't ever see the light of day. Teams get frustrated! This is an excellent read on how constraint creates innovation by the Harvard Business review. Oh, and I've stupidly said, "we need someone/consultant to manage ______________". Organic results are best!  
  5. Iterate or your business model, again and again... I think the monthly fee is boring. Yes, required by law to be a SaaS or PaaS company. That said, what about subscriptions, services AND per-use fees, ad fees and metering fees? You probably didn't nail your revenue-makig model so amazingly the first time, so experiment! There are so many other ways that customer sees value. Google doesn't charge for analytics, so you can have a better website to drive traffic through its adwords program - the more relevant you are on Google search, the more you'll spend in advertising. That's genius! Oh, and I am a card-carrying member of the SaaS subscription model.
  6.  Take snowdays, give 1.5 hour lunch breaks and give updates on rad shit employees did over the weekend... If your employees are sharing their passions, ask about them! Most people have something their into, so ask. People work together, so ask about THEM. Timeless, eh... Oh, and I have started in a Monday meeting without asking about their weekend. Lame... 
  7. Never, ever, EVER act too busy... The engaged CEO (or leadership team) is only valuable when they are engaging, and I mean a little too often. I saw a video where Steve Jobs has a purpose-built 90 minute meeting where he discusses EVERYTHING in the company with his key leads. They are then, in turn, to go back to the staff to speak to the objectives, opportunities, opinions and failures. Moreover, the style of communication isn't full of "business speak". Check out this great article by FastCompany comparing Steve Balmer to Steve Jobs. In this article they speak to how each communicated a company re-org. It is fine if the leadership team or CEO is some times aloof, but if the alignment isn't reinforced and people are passionately inspired then who is guiding this ship? Oh, and I've thought about how I needed to be holed up in some ivory tower as a position of power... How stupid I was! Never again, be on the floor with your team.

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