Coinbase’s Culture Memo: Not Good, Not Bad, But I Reject ‘Mission-Focused’ Framing

Looking at my 26-day-old Tweet, it feels certain I was going to write *something* about Coinbase’s culture memo. Now in late October, we’re far enough removed to see initial reactions have play out, and that’s left space to see what has remained tumbling in my head.

What’s the “Best” Version of What Coinbase is Attempting to Do?

I’ve observed a tendency to label corporate cultures “good” or “bad” based on whether the critiquing individual agrees with the company’s professed values or could imagine themselves working there. While there are certainly “bad” cultures, I believe that label most accurately applies to organizations that have either (i) inconsistently executed their values, (ii) a set of professed beliefs that are strategically at odds with the company strategy or (iii) ingrained practices which cause unethical or illegal actions to flourish with management approval.

Outside of these situations company cultures translate more simply as “appeals to me” or “doesn’t appeal to me.” From what I’ve read recently, I don’t believe a company like Coinbase would appeal to me as an employee, but that doesn’t make it “bad.” Similarly, I don’t know enough about their current team and their practices to suggest that any of my earlier “bad” culture framework conditions apply, and I’ve certainly respected many of the folks who have worked there over the course of its life.

What I would like to understand over time is whether Brian’s vision for a company that doesn’t want to broadly engage in societal/political issues is the best version of its own playbook. That is to say, it’s unlikely Coinbase’s first stab at implementing this is the perfect way to address the concerns he outlines since we’re always learning and evolving. I’m curious how he and other like-minded CEOs will analyze where they were right, where they were wrong and how this collective knowledge will get shared. A non-zero percentage of companies over time will likely have their own version of Coinbase’s strategy, and for their benefit, I’m hoping he’ll engage in measurement and reflection. There are probably better versions of what Brian wants to implement and worse versions. My assumption around a stable future state for Coinbase and others would be they offer a “good” version of this approach, and then employees vote with their feet — some people will love it, others won’t, and that’s ok in the scheme of things (as Brian has noted himself).

What’s the “Best” Version of a Corporate Culture That’s Societally Aware, Politically Active and High Performing?

Separately, I’m personally not a believer that an organization’s political and societal engagement needs to come at the expense of company execution. In fact, and maybe this is my optimism about people (plus projection of my own personal preferences), I hope the best version of this type of company has a higher ceiling than the version Brian is laying out. Also I recognize that “societal” and “political” are getting conjoined here in a way that’s problematic. Perhaps a company can decide it won’t be broadly political but can’t avoid societal questions, no matter how hard it doth protest, so long as it employs, you know, actual human beings. Hold “societal != political” aside for the moment because it’s likely a post all its own, better written by someone more deft on these issues than I am.

What I hungered for after reading Brian’s memo was bringing likeminded people together to build the best playbook for the opposite approach. Founders who desire embracing stances on the other side of the spectrum need some guidance too. Because it’s messy right now in many companies and we shouldn’t be glib to just assume “hire good people” is the solution for anyone who wants to be the “anti-Coinbase.”

Who has built the model for high performance societally-active corporate success? What tech companies should we be studying, while knowing that no company is perfect? Twilio and Salesforce come to mind. Others?

Sorry, You Don’t Get to Own “Mission-Focused”

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So if I’m pretty even-keel on this issue overall is it weird that what *actually* bugs me is an attempt to claim “mission-focused” as the way to describe Coinbase’s culture? To say that, as a company, you’re “mission-focused” if you try to reduce the footprint of corporate time and energy spent on broadly societal issues seems unfair. It reflexively turns alternative POVs into “non-mission-focused,” which has all sorts of pejorative connotations. It’s one thing to use this language internally but it’s clear — from for example the tweet above — Coinbase wants to make it the external phrasing for their culture as well. And that to me feels like an overreach that I want to try and prevent. To me, mission-focused means having, articulating and living your mission, *not* any one point on the spectrum Brian is articulating. So dear reader, do me and George Lakoff a favor, and don’t blindly accept anyone else’s framing techniques.

There we go, three things that I wanted to get out. Probably disappointed the folks who wanted to see me slag Coinbase but at same time questioning enough to keep me in the SJW box for those who prefer to accuse me of performative wokeness. Mission accomplished!

Notes and More

📚 George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant” is a solid overview on how language frames moral issues, through a lens of why Republicans are so good at this and Democrats so bad.

📦 Things I’m Enjoying

Passenger Coffee from Lancaster, PA; Our Fake History podcast; single serving oatmeal cups

🏗 Highlighted Homebrew Portfolio Jobs

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