Observations on Company Culture

I recently visited around fifteen companies in SF — small startups just past series A to 20-year old internet companies — without dropping any names, here are some observations.

Authentic belief in a company’s mission — that one’s work is actually important — is different than the normal lip service that companies pay when talking about “changing the world”. Culture isn’t just letting dogs in your office, or nice couches, or wearing Hawaiian shirts. You can literally smell the culture. It’s in the air, written on people’s faces, in how they speak and act. It’s imbued from the top-down through founding stories and values. As well as also from the bottom-up from the interactions between co-workers and visitors . Everyone’s attitude influenced the overall culture, positively or negatively. We all know that communication is 85% percent body language — culture is communicated non-verbally as well.

It’s seems very, very hard to keep missionary cultures as companies grow. Finding engineers is hard enough, but finding engineers is harder still when they need to believe in the mission. Finding engineers is tripley hard when a company is also quadrupling in size. Everywhere we went had smart people, that was clear. However, challenging them to do great work and getting them to believe is hard. The “craziness” of the mission (not a scientific measure) seemed directly correlated with the quality of people.

A focus on metrics and product direction lent a sense of urgency to everyday activity. We visited a company where in the center of the office, the hockey stick was prominently featured. It’s a visual reminder of where the company is, where the company has been, and how the company is doing. Without a view of the metrics, they could kid themselves into believing that they were doing well. There was a huge difference between the companies talked a big game of growth and those that could actually show outsiders their growth.

With all that said, here are a couple of my suggested ingredients for what makes a great culture: founder myths — the trials and tribulations of what the founders had to do to create change in the world (i.e. hero’s journey), missionary people — people who believe they are doing something for others, heaps of trust, a focus towards continual improvement, and luck.

Getting the culture right seems really, really hard, but seems vital to getting real work done.