Startup culture done wrong

I’ve had many discussions defining a company culture but we never agreed about it. There are as many cultures as companies, and it’s easy to focus on specific ones when trying to define a general model.

Yesterday, Siqi Chen proposed an interesting definition of a company culture:

Company culture is what happens when the boss is not around.

I love it because it confirms a few things I believe in.

Company culture is a top down thing

The company’s culture is created and driven by the company founders and embraced by its employees, not the other way around. So it’s a common mistake to think you can build a great culture by hiring great people.

Great people don’t drive the company’s culture, they nourish it. A common mistake is believing you can weight on the company culture against its founders nature. I’ve met many people who left the company sad and bitter after trying too much.

Hiring great people is difficult, but it’s not the hardest part. The hardest part is providing them with a great culture and challenges that make them stay. For that reason, the turnover rate and talking with former employees is the best way to know about a company culture.

Company culture is about doing

If there’s one post you should read about the Ubergate, it’s Fred Wilson’s Values and Culture. Fred connects Uber perfect execution with the win at all costs company’s culture. The last paragraph asking if Uber would be the success story it is without its ruthless culture is something to watch on every company.

Pointing out the dark side of Uber is interesting because it’s far from the usual marketing thing in which every company tries to look cool and have an awesome culture.

Still, culture all about both sides of doing, what, like trying to piss off taxis companies, and the how. And you can see that both are inspired by the company’s management, hence a top down culture from spirit to execution.

Company culture is learned, not innate

Finally, company culture is a learned thing, not an innate one.

When Ruby on Rails was the big stuff, I’ve heard too many people bragging about how they had the 37Signals culture, even though they never worked for the company.

They did not know what they were talking about.

You can’t have a company culture if you’ve not worked for that company, if you did not nourish yourself from the team, if you haven’t delivered something with them. It’s impossible. Only the daily life of a company can make you both embrace its culture and as a reward add your personal touch on it. You certainly share some core values, but the culture is something else. It’s something you need to join the company to discover, understand and embrace.

When I was a kid, dad used to say my sisters and I were good exports. It was a way to say we were behaving well when invited at a friend’s place and they always have compliments about us when the boss was not around.

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