I read this really caustic blog post a few weeks ago about “Company Culture”. I think the title was “Your Company Culture is Bullshit”, or something equally inflammatory. It was actually a pretty good post (if anybody can send me the link to that post, I’d really appreciate it – it was on Hacker News a few weeks back). EDIT: As Luck would have it, my roommate, close friend, and fellow startup founder, Paul Gerhardt found the link.
The basic argument went something like this: most companies define their culture in vague and general terms that don’t really mean anything. Obviously you want employees to have integrity, to be respectful, and to keep an open mind. But at the expense of what? These principles don’t mean anything unless there are necessary tradeoffs—unless your company chooses to value one thing over another. For example, you want your employees to work hard, but are you willing to sacrifice their work life balances to achieve that?
WePay has never had to think about our company culture until now. To date, our culture has been a direct reflection of our personalities. When it was just Bill (my co-founder) and me, the culture was defined by our personalities and our long-time friendship. When we added Eric and Karl during our summer at Y Combinator, the company culture was characterized by four guys living, working, and hustling together. We never really tried to define our company culture because it would have been ridiculous and obvious. We just worked really hard and spent as little money as possible.
The first time I saw a dramatic shift in our company culture was when we made our first post-financing (fifth, total) hire following Y Combinator. We hired Khang Tran, a talented engineer with a deep passion for user experience and an eye for design.
As a ten-year veteran in Silicon Valley, and somebody who has been a part of many (some good, some not-so-good) startups, culture was pretty important to Khang. We never really talked about it with him, but he alluded to it a lot.
Khang did as much to determine WePay’s culture in his first few months on the job as the rest of us had done in our first year:
- We began working Khang’s hours (roughly 8:30am – 9pm). Before this, we worked roughly the same amount, but our hours were erratic.
- We separated work from personal life. For the most part, we now take off weekends and spend time with our friends and family.
- We became more serious about our jobs. I’m having a tough time articulating this point, but I’ll try: we stopped screwing around; we realized that we are here to get things done, to build a company, and to get users; we stopped soft peddling problems and started aggressively looking for solutions.
- We started to define roles and divide labor. We started to trust each other to own large parts of the application, without needing to decide/design by committee.
- We started thinking about culture and building a team. Khang said he loved coming to work every day, and that if he ever lost that feeling he would quit. Since we don’t want to lose Khang, we definitely don’t want him to lose that feeling.
Even then, we never really thought about culture – we still didn’t have to; it would have been masturbatory.
We are now at 12 employees, and our culture is no longer something that happens automatically. For better or for worse, we are losing the ability to directly affect culture – it’s no longer a direct reflection of 3 or 4 peoples’ personalities. People have begun to talk about our culture, how it’s changing, and how it should or shouldn’t change.
However, we have not lost control of the levers that affect culture. We still decide who we hire, what we reward, and how we direct our resources.
We realized (very recently) that if we don’t take a step back and think about our culture, then we won’t take advantage of the levers that we do control, and our culture will develop arbitrarily. We would lose complete control over the one thing that affects whether I want to wake up every morning and work my ass off for this company.
So over the past few weeks, we have tried to define who are we, what kind of people we want to hire and what things we value.
I read an interesting tweet the other day: “If your company doesn’t talk about culture often you don’t have one.” To elaborate: if your company doesn’t talk about culture, then you don’t care about it, and you are lost.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about how we started the conversation about culture.