I’d heard over and over again how important culture is to the success of a startup. But how do you take a handful of founders and co-workers and start to codify what cultural traits are shared amongst the group? As a founder and CEO it’s inherently an awkward process, especially introducing it.
Imagine your parents come to dinner one night and announce that the family’s core tenants are now X, Y, and Z. You and your siblings will likely have several sequential reactions, including wanting to be at any other dinner table on the planet.
First: That’s stupid, why do we need to do this? Everything was fine in our family without them.
Second: Why did you choose those ones? Our family doesn’t stand for X, here are three examples of things you’ve done counter to X in the past week.
Third: If these are our whole family values, why did you not talk to us about them before rolling them out?
I imagine that rolling out “values” to any group of people would elicit a similar series of reactions. So where do you begin?
At Next Big Sound we were probably 7 or 8 people, and starting to plan our next financing round where I knew we would at least be doubling the size of the team, when I began trying to codify what NBS stood for.
I wrote out a bunch of values that I believed were shared amongst the team:
- Learning - learning as much as possible from each other, our customers, from the market and on our own every day.
- Building Value - creating real value for our customers, investors, and ourselves (everyone at Next Big Sound was granted stock options).
- Fun - excited to get to work each day and spend time with the rest of the team.
- Thoughtfulness - being thoughtful towards everyone in our ecosystem (data partners, customers, industry, press, investors, advisors, competitors) with each decision that we make.
I shared these with David and Samir and the team and asked everyone for feedback and thoughts before sharing with our investors. Initially Thoughtfulness was “Respect” but Jason Mendelson smartly pointed out that you can’t force someone to respect other people.
Once the initial awkwardness of the introduction passes, the actual work begins. Weaving these values through everything that the company does is the true test. From promoting and praising, to firing and highlighting when these values are upheld or violated. It’s not an air campaign, with a PowerPoint presentation and poster, but ground combat drilled on a daily, weekly, and opportune basis.
Here are a few examples of how we brought this to life from the employee's first day through the length of their tenure at the company:
[A] Every Friday we have a full team meeting at 10am, we call it “Friday Bagels.” I take that occasion to talk about what’s been learned that week, things we’ve built and released, feedback from clients, shoutout to thoughtful actions and decisions, and fun things we’ve done as a team.
[B] We started saying in our regular 1:1 checkins with the individuals on the team - you might not always be learning, but you’ll be building a ton of value. Or you might not always be having fun, but you’ll be learning a tremendous amount. If you go more than 2 days where you feel like you are not learning, building value or having fun, we have a big problem and you should come talk to me or anyone else on the executive team.
[C] I wrote a welcome letter to each new employee to read on their first day, which hopefully set the tone for their time at Next Big Sound.
It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to Next Big Sound!
Let me tell you how I honestly want the next couple of years of your life to unfold. I want you to learn more each week than you learned in a month at your previous job. I want you to create more value in a shorter period of time than you ever thought possible. I want you to earn the respect of everyone at the company, and be thoughtful towards every person on the team, all our investors, customers and every member of the Next Big Sound music and technology ecosystem. Finally, I want you to have more fun at work than you ever expected.
Learning. Building value. Thoughtfulness. Fun.
The only way for a company to grow successfully and sustainably is to find other people who believe in the mission you are on, people who understand the way we work, and people who are aligned with our core values. My advice to first-time entrepreneurs is to get over the awkwardness and set down the values as early and concretely as you can. Then you can begin the real work of infusing that through the whole employee lifecycle and anchor yourself to a set of unique and inspiring principles.