A couple weeks back we attended a very invigorating panel about startup culture. It was the third installment of Orrick’s Founder’s Guide series where they ask successful startup folks to talk shop. Orrick is a law firm that specializes in the tech world and startups. But as far as law firms go their content engine, Orrick Total Access, is actually very good. That was the inspiration for the panel, which included the likes of Amanda Hesser, Co-Founder and CEO of Food52, Shauna Mei, Founder and CEO of AHAlife, and Chantel Waterbury, Founder and CEO of Chloe + Isabel.
As a startup whose CEO’s obsession with culture pervades everything we do (which is a good thing), it was very inspiring to see what culture means to others in the startup world. But corporate culture isn’t just one thing, and that is especially true in the startup world. An already fluid industry, startups are constantly shifting strategies and people, so it’s hard to really nail a singular culture with all those constant changes.
While culture can often feel like a lofty, Jobsian goal, it is also an everyday practice. For Food52 this takes on a very real meaning. Hesser flatly states “at our company everyone washes dishes.” If something needs to get done, even if its mopping a 6000 square foot office space, it will get done. No one is above getting their hands a little dirty. This is an unbelievably important cultural aspect of a startup. Because of the shifting landscape that is the world of a startup everyone from the CEO to the interns need to be “all hands on deck.” Startups have a lot to do, and if someone feels like their pay-grade disqualifies them from certain tasks they are not a cultural fit.
There is a very real competitive edge to having a strong, well-defined culture. One of the most important cultural questions a startup asks itself is about new hires. Will they be a cultural fit or not? Mei sees this as putting the cart before the horse. “When you’ve defined your culture it’s easy to find the right people.” Your culture needs to be clear. When it is, people who are passionate about what you are doing will come out of the woodwork. Everyone wants to be a part of something they believe in.
It’s worked for us. A central tenant of Ceros’ culture: “We care,” though the exact words we use aren’t necesarily safe for work. This echos in everything we do, from the design of an email footer, to how our creative studio looks and feels, we care, and we want it to show. It’s hammered into us from our first interview to our first promotion and beyond. This diffuses very well into our hiring policy. We’ve been very effective at seperating the wheat from the chaff, and have ended up with not only highly skilled and qualified people, but people who are passionate, comitted, and love what they do.
But, the inverse can also be true. If you don’t have a clearly defined culture your hires will reflect that and further muddy your cultural waters. This is a slippery slope and all three panelists agreed that letting those people go as soon as possible was tantamount to their company’s cultural success.