Culture. Some startup CEOs prioritize it and build theirs with the same attention they give to product. Others think it’s shorthand for “snacks and massages” or dismiss it as “mission statements and other bullshit we’re too busy to worry about now. Just kick ass – that’s our culture.”
At Homebrew we believe culture matters and starts forming right away – whether you want it to or not! In getting to know founders during their fundraising process we push to understand The Why because their motivation will be the first strands of the company’s DNA. Even when putting together our Entrepreneur Advisory Board we looked for folks who built not just amazing businesses but strong cores. People such as Jeff Lawson, Twilio CEO, of “Draw the Owl” fame.
Once we’ve invested in a company, I find it easiest to talk about culture in terms of hiring because it’s (a) often the most important post-financing activity and (b) it’s an immediate use case with real tangible decisions. Example conversation, which works whether the CEO is really interested in defining culture proactively or comes to the discussion with skepticism:
Me: So you want to hire two engineers and a designer, right?
CEO: Yeah, it’s my top priority right now. We’ve got a bunch of great candidates. Ton of interviews scheduled for next week.
Me: Cool. What skills are you focused on?
CEO: Well for the engineer we want someone who has several years of Ruby experience and…… [fill in technical specs]
Me: Got it. What about personal attributes? What matters to you there?
CEO: Works well in a team – we tend to be really collaborative. Not thin-skinned – we like to give direct but constructive feedback. Likes being a user of the product they’re building. Believes in the ultimate vision of this company and why we’re here, not just the potential lottery ticket of stock options.
Me: Awesome. What questions are you going to ask that will help you understand whether the candidate has those qualities? And what if you had a candidate who nailed the skills part but was a real mismatch compared to those attributes?
Spoiler Alert: The answer is incredibly important when it comes to culture. Which do you think will build a stronger company over time? A technically competent team of people who share no collective set of motivations, styles or goals – or – a technically competent team of people who are united by a clearly articulated set of values and expectations the CEO has both described to them and tested for during the interview process? It’s not a trick question.
In a startup’s earliest days your hiring decisions are the most important ones in setting your culture. I don’t care about what you write on a motivational poster. The people you invite into your company to extend and expand its capabilities ARE YOUR CULTURE. If you can interview for these qualities and show the discipline to not hire people who lack or are in opposition to these attributes, then you have a foundation that will solidify over time. One which will make the successive hires and functioning of the team easier. If you don’t, if you build a foundation with shoddy materials, it gets harder. Don’t compromise on this. Document these qualities. Work with your other team members, and your recruiter if applicable, to assess the candidate against them. Note the questions you’re going to ask them and their references. And debrief together.
This isn’t just about keeping assholes out. It’s about being thoughtful about who you bring in. And that’s the first step towards building a culture.