So what is culture? Does culture matter? If so, how much time should you spend on it?
Let’s start with the second question first. The primary thing that any technology startup must do is build a product that’s at least 10 times better at doing something than the current prevailing way of doing that thing. Two or three times better will not be good enough to get people to switch to the new thing fast enough or in large enough volume to matter. The second thing that any technology startup must do is to take the market. If it’s possible to do something 10x better, it’s also possible that you won’t be the only company to figure that out. Therefore, you must take the market before somebody else does. Very few products are 10x better than the competition, so unseating the new incumbent is much more difficult than unseating the old one.
If you fail to do both of those things, your culture won’t matter one bit. The world is full of bankrupt companies with world-class cultures. Culture does not make a company.
So, why bother with culture at all? Three reasons:
- It matters to the extent that it can help you achieve the above goals.
- As your company grows, culture can help you preserve your key values, make your company a better place to work and help it perform better in the future.
- Perhaps most importantly, after you and your people go through the inhuman amount of work that it will take to build a successful company, it will be an epic tragedy if your company culture is such that even you don’t want to work there.
Creating A Company Culture
In this post, when I refer to company culture, I am not referring to other important activities like company values and employee satisfaction. Specifically, I am writing about designing a way of working that will:
- Distinguish you from competitors
- Ensure that critical operating values persist such as delighting customers or making beautiful products
- Help you identify employees that fit with your mission
Culture means lots of other things in other contexts, but the above will be plenty to discuss here.
When you start implementing your culture, keep in mind that most of what will be retrospectively referred to as your company’s culture will not be designed in, but will evolve over time based on the behavior of you and your early employees. As a result, you will want to focus on a small number of cultural design points that will influence a large number of behaviors over a long period of time.
In Jim Collins’ massively successful book Built to Last, he wrote that one of the things that long lasting companies he studied have in common is a “cult-like culture.” I found this description to be confusing because it seems to imply that as long as your culture is weird enough and you are rabid enough about it, you will succeed on the cultural front. That’s related to the truth, but not actually true. In reality, Collins was right that a properly designed culture often ends up looking cult-like in retrospect, but that’s not the initial design principle. You needn’t think hard about how you can make your company seem bizarre to outsiders. However, you do need to think about how you can be provocative enough to change what people do every day.
Ideally, a cultural design point will be trivial to implement, but will have far-reaching behavioral consequences. Key to this kind of mechanism is shock value. If you put something into your culture that is so disturbing that it always creates a conversation, it will change behavior. As we learned in The Godfather, ask a Hollywood mogul to give someone a job and he might not respond. Put a horse’s head in his bed and unemployment will drop by one. Shock is a great mechanism for behavioral change.