Building a startup is tough, but building a culture is harder!

Building a startup is tough, but building a culture is harder!

One of the exciting things about starting a company is the opportunity to build culture from the ground up. Having experienced bad corporate culture firsthand (and repeatedly), we were especially eager to create our own. We were also mindful of the challenges new startups face building a positive culture—plenty of famous cautionary tales like Twitter, Uber, Away and others were front and center in our minds. We knew our team, investors and customers would all benefit if we built our business on the foundation of a healthy culture. But how?

We set out determined to get it right, but quickly found that the ongoing daily challenges of building a startup—the unrelenting series of emergencies and critical opportunities—is all-consuming. The rollercoaster ride is real, people. How could we find time to build a culture?

The answer was easier than we imagined. A trend kept slapping us in the face: Time and again, our success came when our emerging culture was strong and our failures appeared when we didn’t live up to our personal core values.

So, we dug in harder and resolved to really focus on what it was we were trying to be. We applied curiosity, a core value we were living well, to learn more and broaden our perspective on what core values are and can be. We poured over all the information and data points we could find, pestering leaders we knew and admired, scouring the internet, and talking to people about what made their company tick or clunk. Here are a few of the resources we found especially helpful:

  • Simon Sinek Videos: It Starts with Why, Trusting Teams, Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe;
  • Jordan Peterson’s YouTube library and 12 Rules for Life;
  • Tim Ferris (too many podcasts to mention!);
  • Principles by Ray Dalio;
  • Books and Blogs by Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Beyond the resources, we found that there’s no greater teacher than experience. Great lessons on culture were coming to us every day as we fought to build our business.

One example is a tough discussion with our lead investor—shortly before they wrote the check—which went really well because we brought transparency and the deep truth to the meeting, The deep truth: what we were thinking, why we were thinking it and why it mattered to us and to the business. We were terrified this conversation could be a deal breaker; instead it galvanized our relationship and built a priceless platform of open communication and trust.

Another example is our internal communication. The feedback loop we have in our development process is jarring to most people. We are direct; we are challenging; we are open to feedback and new ideas; we trust our teammates to bring their best, to speak their truth even if the team thinks it is wrong and/or off the mark. We are open to sharing our failures and gaps in knowledge in front of the whole team.

Finally, it dawned on us: Core values are not aspirations, beliefs or even principles or rules. They are behaviors. They are the behaviors you want from yourself and the behaviors you want from your teammates. You are what you do. It is these behaviors that will reflect positively or negatively on your business, your people, and your outcomes. It is your company’s code, its DNA.

The next step was to capture what these behaviors were and should be. Initially, senior management started writing down all the key behaviors and actions we wanted our company to stand for and live by and what we wanted from ourselves as leaders. Once we had this framework built, we worried about implementation: Was this really going to happen? How would the team feel? Can we live by the behaviors we wanted for ourselves and others? We had seen too many times values crafted by a few executives and then given to marketing and HR teams to roll out. There were fancy posters and catchy mottos, but no real adoption, no change in culture. We wanted our cultural credo to be more meaningful, more rewarding, more real. How do you create a culture that is both optimal and organic? One that is ideal for the business but also truly embraced by employees? Our lead investor provided the answer: Give it to the team. Let the entire company build the foundation. What do they like, want, feel and need?

This was a risk. What if we were greatly misaligned? What if the team didn’t want what we wanted? What if they thought what we were asking was unreasonable? Our worries were misplaced. The team came back with everything we had hoped for and more. In no time, they outlined exactly the behaviors we had struggled to identify as critical to our culture. Delighted, we sat down together and codified our company culture, our credo, our code.

The secret to this alignment had been right in front of us all along, We had been trying to behave in the way we wanted our culture to be; we had been talking about culture and values all the time as we were obsessed by it; we had been sharing podcasts, book recommendations and videos with the team. Yes, we had made plenty of mistakes along the way but by simply trying to practice the right behaviors ourselves, we had unwittingly created the very culture we were trying to construct.

Here at Reibus we have now captured our cultural code and it is a part of our DNA. We try to live it every day and we talk to each other about it all the time. We stress it with our new candidates and will not hire someone who cannot live it. We make our code a key part of our performance reviews. I think most pleasingly we hold each other accountable to live by our code and will speak up when we are not. We’ve found that living by our code makes it easier to live by our code. Funny how that happens!