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Sunday Deep Dive: 11 principles for building a great startup culture
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Everybody knows that company culture is important. But it’s hard to know exactly what makes for a great culture.
In today’s deep dive, I compile 11 principles for building a great culture from:
Ben Horowitz (cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz)
Ben Silbermann (founder of Pinterest)
Jack Dorsey (founder of Twitter and Square)
Brian Chesky (founder of Airbnb)
Patrick Collison (founder of Stripe)
Eric Schmidt (former CEO of Google)
Naval Ravikant (VC and founder of AngelList and Airchat)
Reed Hastings (founder of Netflix)
Keith Rabois (VC and former executive at PayPal, LinkedIn, and Square)
Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal and Founders Fund)
Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon and Blue Origin)
#1 Culture is not a set of beliefs. It’s a set of actions.
a16z cofounder Ben Horowitz’s book What You Do Is Who You Are is my favorite guide to company culture.
He explains that culture can feel abstract and secondary when you pit it against a concrete result that’s right in front of you, but it’s a strategic investment in the company doing things the right way when you are not looking. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve the problems they face every day. It’s how they behave when no one is looking.
Is that phone call so important I need to return it today or can it wait until tomorrow?
Can I ask for a raise before my annual review?
Is the quality if this document good enough or should I keep working on it?
Do I have to be on time for that meeting?
Should I stay at the Four Seasons or the Red Roof Inn? Should I go home at 5 p.m. or 8 p.m.?
Should we discuss the color of this new product for five minutes or thirty hours?
If I know something is badly broken in the company, should I say something? Whom should I tell?
Is winning more important than ethics?
If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.
In the clip below, Ben cites the quote from The Way of the Samurai: “A culture is not a set of beliefs. It’s a set of actions.” And goes on to explain:
“[Culture is] not what you believe, it’s not what you think, it’s not what you tweet… who you are is what you do… the behaviors are the culture, not the values. When people say they have 20 values, I ask how many of those behaviors they have. If it’s none, your culture is hypocrisy.”
#2 Culture is more like gardening than architecture
#3 Establish your standard of performance
When Bill Walsh joined the 49ers, they were the worst team in the NFL. Within three years, they were Super Bowl Champions.
In his book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, he writes:
“Winners act like winners before they’re winners…The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on your way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before their winners.”
And he provides six guidelines for establishing a standard of performance:
Start with a comprehensive recognition of reverence for and identification of the specific actions and attitudes relevant to your team’s performance and production.
Be clarion clear in communicating your expectation of high effort and execution of your Standard of Performance. Like water, many decent individuals will seek lower ground if left to their own inclinations. In most cases you are the one who inspires and demands they go upward rather than settle for the comfort of doing what comes easily. Push them beyond their comfort zone; expect them to give extra effort.
Let all know that you expect them to possess the highest level of expertise in their area of responsibility.
Beyond standards and methodology, teach your beliefs, values, and philosophy. An organism is not an inanimate object. It is a living organism that you must nurture, guide, and strengthen.
Teach “connection and extension.” An organization filled with individuals who are “independent contractors” unattached to one another is a team with little interior cohesion and strength.
Make the expectations and metrics of competence that you demand in action and attitudes from personnel the new reality of your organization. You must provide the model for that new standard in your own actions and attitude.
In the clip below, Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey encourages anyone thinking about leading teams or building a company to read this book:
“What’s important about this is that as you start building a team, you need to set expectations around how people need to perform in the company—how people need to act in the company. And these can be very simple things, but without that, you are rutterless—you will react to the outside. And if you react to the outside, you are building someone else’s roadmap and you’re building someone else’s dream instead of your own.”
Video source: Y Combinator “Jack Dorsey at Startup School 2013”
#4 Only hire people who champion your mission
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