I’ve come to despise the phrase “culture fit.”
I don’t remember when I first heard it, but it was many years ago. Over time, it became woven into the world of entrepreneurship, as companies used it as a primary frame of reference for hiring. VCs turned it into a cliche, espousing the importance of culture fit during the entire spectrum of company creation, from the functioning of the very earliest teams through scaling a business.
For the past few years, I’ve tried to use the phrase “cultural norms” instead of culture whenever the concept of culture fit was mentioned. At first, this felt a little ponderous as I had to regularly explain what I meant by cultural norms and why I didn’t just say the word culture instead. I eventually learned that if I stated that culture meant nothing and was shorthand for saying “I don’t want to think hard about what is going on here,” I usually stimulated enough of a conversation that it ultimately became a useful one.
About a year ago, I was in a conversation (I can’t remember who it was with) and they mentioned the phrase “culture add.” I immediately loved it. Since then, I’ve used it as a direct contrast to culture fit and let it evolve to the phrase “go for culture add, not culture fit” as part of a longer rant on diversity on all dimensions (beyond just gender and race) and the evolution of culture norms in a company.
I felt confident in my understanding of this concept. I’d cite the Rooney Rule as an element of how to hire for culture add. If you aren’t familiar with the Rooney Rule, a relatively recent article in 538 titled Rethinking The NFL’s Rooney Rule For More Diversity At The Top has a short and clear description of it.
“In place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the rule — named after Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee — mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs. The rule, however, has two fatal flaws: the temptation to substitute sham interviews in place of a search for real diversity, and coordinator-level positions, a crucial step to head-coaching jobs, are not under the umbrella.”
As with many things in life, I marched forward, spreading the gospel of the Rooney Rule once I had internalized it as part of the idea of culture add. And then, in February, I ran into a brick wall during a Boulder roundtable on diversity organized by Andrea Guendelman of BeVisible. I was sitting in a big circle in the room, listening carefully, but also feeling like I was contributing my perspective and expertise to the group (which, when I reflect on this, means I was probably feeling smug, self-important, and casually tossing around things like the Rooney Rule) when I heard something referenced from Stefanie Johnson, a CU professor that made me pull out my iPhone and type a few notes to myself.
“Stefanie Johnson just wrote an article that the Rooney Rule doesn’t work. If you have only one female candidate in the finalist pool, it doesn’t increase that probability that you’ll hire a female candidate. The same is true for a non-white candidate. If you want to increase the probability, you have to have at least two female candidates in the finalist pool.”
I may have said something like “can you say that again?” If I didn’t, I should have. Regardless, it was seared into my brain. A few days later, I got an email from Stefanie (who had heard about the conversation) with a link to her recent HBR article titled. If There’s Only One Woman in Your Candidate Pool, There’s Statistically No Chance She’ll Be Hired. The article is clear and has the appropriate statistical support for Stefanie’s assertion. If you don’t feel like reading the article, the chart below summarizes it.
There’s a lot in the article, including this gem:
“Why does being the only woman in a pool of finalists matter? For one thing, it highlights how different she is from the norm. And deviating from the norm can be risky for decision makers, as people tend to ostracize people who are different from the group. For women and minorities, having your differences made salient can also lead to inferences of incompetence.”
and this punchline:
“And the evidence simply does not support concerns surrounding the myth of reverse racism. It is difficult to find studies that show subtle preferences for women over men, and for minorities over whites. But the data does support one idea: When it is apparent that an individual is female or nonwhite, they are rated worse than when their sex or race is obscured.”
As I finish up this ramble, let’s cycle all the way back to the notion of culture add. By using this phrase, one of the things I’m trying to do is break the notion of hiring people like everyone else in the company as a default to supporting the idea of culture. Instead, you are looking for people who add to your culture. This does not invalidate the idea of adding people like you, but it doesn’t let this be the default. It’s more subtle than mechanisms like the Rooney Rule, but hopefully, it will be effective long-term.
More importantly, at a discussion earlier this year, I realized once again how little I know about something I’ve been immersed in for many years. Or, if I’m optimistic, how much I can regularly learn just by paying attention, listening, and participating in a discussion, even when I think I’m one of the experts, advocates, or some other word that makes me feel good about myself. And, most of all thank you, Andrea, for staying after me, and for creating a forum for a major new insight for me that I might have otherwise missed.
I tell stories about my favorite investment (Harmonix), an investment we clearly missed and why (Twitter), and my worst and most heartbreaking investment (Interliant), along with lawsuits and eating babies.
I then go on a riff on Startup Communities and Fundraising, where the phrase “Any rich people around here?” popped out and got some applause.
I covered the inevitable question about dragicorns and big financings, went on my culture – competence rant, and then answered whether entrepreneurs are born or made.
I had fun at Big Omaha. While I think Halt and Catch Fire and Mr. Robot are way more interesting than me, this was a pretty good interview.
Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path, has an outstanding post up this morning titled The Difference Between Culture and Values. Go read it, I’ll be here when you get back.
If you liked that, go get a copy of Matt’s book Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business. It’s one of the books on my list of books all CEOs should read.
Matt distinguishes between culture and values. His punch line, which he reveals early, is:
Values guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right. Culture is the collection of business practices, processes, and interactions that make up the work environment.
At Foundry Group, we have a slight modification to how we think of values. Supporting our values are a set of “deeply held beliefs.” These deeply held beliefs tangibly define our values and give us a frame of reference to operate.
For example, one of our deeply held beliefs is that “we will never grow.” Each of our funds is $225 million, we have four partners and no other investment staff, and we work out of the same office we’ve worked out of since we started in 2007. We’ve had opportunities to raise much larger funds and have considered it in the past given a variety of factors. But, we kept coming back to this deeply held belief and realized that raising a larger fund would violate our brand promise of only raising $225 million funds.
Our deeply held beliefs are fundamental to our values, although we are comfortable challenging them regularly to make sure they are deeply held, and make modifications on occasion when we learn new things but only after a lot of thought and discussion, among ourselves and with several of our very close limited partners.
For example, when we started we said “we’ll make around 10 new investments a year.” This came from a belief around the importance of time diversity of investing – we have a three year time horizon for making the 30 or so initial investments in the companies we want in each fund.
Until 2013, we made between 8 and 14 a year, which is close enough to 10 (although the year we did 14 was a year where we all said “too much – slow down.”) But at the end of 2013, when the JOBS Act became official and AngelList created Syndicates, we decided to understand the phenomenon better by participating in it. So, rather than sit on the sidelines, observe, and prognosticate about angel / seed investing, we created the FG Angels Syndicate on AngelList and have done around 60 seed investments in the last 18 months.
Another example of a re-evaluation of a deeply held belief was our decision to create our Foundry Group Select Fund. Until we created this fund, we limited the amount that we could invest in a company to $15 million. We would occasionally go a little higher (the most we have invested in a company from one of our funds, other than Select, is $17 million) but, especially with successful companies, we were limited to what we could do in the later rounds. During a particularly challenging financing for Fitbit, which we believed deeply in at the time as an unambiguously successful company, we were frustrated that we couldn’t write a big check in the financing. We talked to our LPs about what we were thinking, quickly raised a late stage fund to invest on in our later rounds for our portfolio companies, and made our first investment from that fund in the last round Fitbit did in 2013. With Select, we are no longer limited to investing $15 million per company.
Matt states in his post:
“A company’s values should never really change. They are the bedrock underneath the surface that will be there 10 or 100 years from now. They are the uncompromising core principles that the company is willing to live and die by, the rules of the game.”
I strongly agree with this, although I have one nuance. It’s hard to be absolutely correct at the beginning of the journey. So, instead of being dogmatic about values you created when you were three founders in a cafe somewhere, make sure you have one layer of abstraction about how you implement them, that can be tuned over time. For us, these are our deeply held beliefs, which support our values, but can be tuned as we learn new things. But, because they are deeply held, they can only be slightly modified, rather than torn up and replaced.
Earlier this week I wrote a post titled The Religion of Silicon Valley. It was intended to be provocative and exploratory.
The comments were great and helped me think through this concept more (note: the comment counter is broken on the main page due to a plug-in conflict – we are trying to figure it out. The counter is correct on the post page…)
Then I wrote a post titled The Board Operating System. A few folks tied together the concepts of Religion and Operating System as an operative metaphor for Silicon Valley.
That stimulated a bunch of other phrases in my mind to use as metaphors. As I ponder them, I’m curious which ones fit or don’t fit, and why. Some phrases include:
- Operating System
- Frame of Mind
- Something Else?
If you are game to play and help think through this, comment away!
I turned 48 on December 1st. I took a week off the grid (from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving until the Wednesday after my birthday) – part of my quarterly off the grid routine with Amy. We had a very mellow birthday this year, spent it with a few friends who came to visit us in San Diego at the tennis place we love to hide at, and basically just slept late, played tennis, read a lot, got massages, ate nice food, and had adult activities.
I returned to an onslaught of email (no surprise) which included a long list of happy birthday wishes. I had 129 happy birthday wall posts and about 50 LinkedIn happy birthday messages.
As I read through them, I was intrigued and confused.
- The Facebook wall posts were nice – almost all said either “happy birthday” or “happy birthday + some nice words.” I received one gift via Facebook (a charitable donation – thanks Tisch, you’ve got class!) Ok – that felt pretty good.
- The emails were mixed. Many of them were like the Facebook wall posts. A few of them were online cards. But about 10% of them asked me for something, using the happy birthday message as an excuse to “reconnect.”
- About 50% of the LinkedIn messages were requests for something. The subject line was “Happy Birthday” but the message then asked for something.
I decided not to respond to any of them. There were a few emails with specific stuff that I wanted to say, but the vast majority I just read and archived.
I found myself noticeably bummed out after going through the LinkedIn ones. I woke up thinking about it again today, especially against the backdrop of reading Dave Eggers awesome book The Circle (more on that coming soon.)
I’m an enormous believer in the idea of “give before you get.” It’s at the core of my Boulder Thesis in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City and how I try to live my personal and business live. Fortunately, many of the people I am close to also believe in this and incorporate it into the way they live.
When processing my birthday wishes, especially the LinkedIn ones, there was very little “give before you get.” That’s fine – I don’t expect that from anyone – it’s not part of my view of an interaction model that I have to impose it on others. But I was really surprised by the number of people that used my birthday as a way to “get something” without “giving something” other than a few words in a social media message.
This confused me. The more I thought about it, the more I was confused, especially by the difference between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. When I tried to organize my thinking, the only thing I could come up with was that email was “variable”, Facebook was “generic”, and LinkedIn was “selfish.” I didn’t love these characterizations, but this prompted me to write this post in an effort to understand it better.
I’m going to ponder the “culture of different communication channels” more, but I’m especially curious if anyone out there has a clear point of view on the different cultures between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Feel free to toss Twitter in the mix if you want.
Sometimes you have to stop doing things to make more progress.
2013 was a complicated year for me. Lots of things have gone well, but I struggled with a deep depression from January to May. My running has been erratic (no marathons this year) and I’ve struggled a lot physiologically, which at this point I think I’ve been able to determine is some version of what is called adrenal burnout or cortisol deficiency.
As part of trying to get back to a happy place, I decided to stop traveling. I haven’t been a plane for work since the middle of May. Yesterday was the first time I got on an airplane since June (when I went to visit my parents for their 50th anniversary). I’m on a two week vacation (one week completely off the grid) – something I do every year around Thanksgiving since my birthday is on December 1st.
My annual rhythm tends to run from 12/1 to 11/30 due to my birthday. It’s a much bigger marker for me than January 1st, especially since I still have some grumpy jewish kid behavior around Christmas. So – with a week to go in my version of this year, I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do differently in 2014.
I immediately flashed to no business travel. Waking up in my own bed at home for the past six months has been transformative for me. So I decided to continue to not do business travel in 2014.
But that’s an easy one, since I’m already doing (or not doing) it. So I’ve begun thinking about the next things I’m going to stop doing. Some are work related and some are personal. I’ve always been an abstainer instead of a moderator so things like “no alcohol” pop up to the top of the list quickly. But that’s less interesting to me at this point than things that are more profound in a business context, like “no travel.”
As I work on my list of things to stop doing, I’m curious about what, if anything, is on your list.
“Passion is temporary. It doesn’t last long. Love is enduring. And that’s the important thing. If we all had love in our lives to the degree that we should, it would be much happier.”
— UCLA Anderson | John Wooden Global Leadership Award ceremony (May 21, 2009)
Last night I had dinner with my partners and our significant others. It was a wonderful evening with the three people I work most closely with, the people they love, and the most important person on the planet to me.
Earlier this year I had dinner with Jamey Sperans, one of our investors. Late into the night we talked about a variety of things at an outdoor restaurant in Philly under the heat lamps as a chilly spring night unfolded. Much of the conversation was personal, as in addition to being one of our largest investors, Jamey has become an incredibly close friend. I was struggling with my depression so we talked some about that, but that merely served as a launch point for a deeper conversation.
In that discussion, we talked about the concept of “Business Love.” For a long time, I’ve talked about “business intimacy” – it’s the relationship I try to develop with the entrepreneurs I fund and the people who I work with. It’s a level of emotional engagement that is much deeper than “friendship” or “respect”, is not easily developed, and can be quickly lost if one party isn’t interested in investing the energy or violates a fundamental principle such as trust or honesty.
Jamey and I agreed that “business love” was more profound and significant than “business intimacy.” We discussed the concept of business love in the context of Foundry Group with the unambiguous agreement that the four of us (Ryan, Seth, Jason, and I) have a “business love” relationship.
Once a month we have a full-day offsite. We try to keep our process to an absolute minimum, so we have lunch together on Monday’s and a once a month offsite. The rest of our interactions are continuous and real-time, including almost all of our investment decisions.
Yesterday’s offsite was a perfect example of business love. We spent the day sitting around Jason’s dining room table (the general location of our offsite), got calibrated on a few things that are new initiatives of ours including FG Angels, a new treat coming out next week from us, and a new project we are launching in January. We talked about a few deeper, long range things we want to get right, especially in the context of several of our very successful investments. And we argued about some stuff that we disagreed on in an effort to both understand the data and get aligned.
It was awesome and one of my favorite days of the month. When we split up around 3pm (we end when we are finished) I had a permagrin on my face. I walked home and spent a few hours grinding through email. I went to a meeting and then picked up Amy to head back to Jason’s for dinner. We had an amazing dinner as a group to end the day.
I woke up this morning thinking about business love. I remembered my conversation with Jamey. I recalled that Jo Tango had written a post on business love a while ago and went back and looked it up. I’m guessing that Jamey was the LP in the post that Jo is referring to, since the principles of business love, that Jo refers to, are exactly what we talked about.
- Members of those firms really respect and like each other. They’re very tight. In fact, they love each other
- They have a sense of mission. They want to make money, but that’s not the most important driving force
- How they treat each other spills over to how they treat their entrepreneurs and investors
The process of creating and building new companies from nothing is hard. It’s incredibly rewarding when it’s successful, but the process can be an excruciating, chaotic, and messy. There are moments of extreme stress. Failure is always lurking in the background. Working alongside people you truly love makes a huge difference, at least for me.
I’ve written before about hiring for cultural fit, and about the importance of prioritizing cultural fit over competence when hiring at startups. I started thinking about it again when I saw this Dilbert comic, because it pokes fun at the culture of startups and their propensity only to hire people who fit into them. But what are we talking about when we talk about cultural fit, anyway?
You’re probably familiar with some of the stereotypes around startup culture (free massages and dry cleaning, craft beer, cool art on the walls and dogs at the office, pulling all-nighters to ship on time) and the kinds of people who work at startups (according to Dilbert, “self-conscious hipster” types with “an earring and headphones.”) Stereotypes like these give you a picture of what startup culture might look like to an outsider, but they don’t reflect the intrinsic values that define startup cultures.
Gnip CEO Chris Moody explains this distinction really well when he talks about values vs. vibe. He defines values as “the guiding principles or code-of-conduct” that inform a company’s daily operations, whereas vibe is “the emotional side of the company … highly influenced by outside factors.” To figure out whether an aspect of your startup culture is a value, he says, try asking yourself these questions:
– Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?
– Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?
– Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?
– Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?
So, for example: riding your fixi to the office or playing foosball between coding sessions are vibes. Treating people with respect or being passionate about your work? Those are values.
Your company values should be clear, accessible, and pervasive – take, for example, Zappos’ 10 core values. Having clearly defined values is important because they drive your company culture, not the other way around. It’s also important when you’re hiring for cultural fit, because without clear company values you run the risk of making poor hiring decisions: hiring people because they look or act or talk like you, and not hiring people because they don’t.
Here’s an example: Businessweek says hiring managers are now asking candidates questions like, What’s your favorite movie? Or, What’s the last book you read for fun? If you’re asking interview questions like these at your startup, you need to make sure you’re screening for values and not for vibe. Just sharing your love of The Big Lebowski doesn’t make someone a good cultural fit for your company: in fact, it’s often the people who give unexpected answers who end up being your company’s most creative problem-solvers.
I chair the board of directors for the National Center for Women & IT (NCWIT), whose Entrepreneurial Alliance works with startups to help them recruit and retain more women in tech roles. There’s strong ROI for including more women on technical teams: women improve collective intelligence, make startups more capital-efficient, and bring the perspectives of half the population. But if you’re a “dude brew” startup, you may not even know why you don’t hire more technical women, and you might need help from NCWIT removing gender bias from its portfolio companies’ job ads.
Gnip recently told NCWIT that they added three women to its engineering team. They credited this in part because the VP of Engineering, Greg Greenstreet, attended every local women-in-tech networking event, recruited on campus, and talked to as many female candidates as possible. But fundamentally they succeeded in hiring more women because, like Etsy, they made diversity a value. Gnip assigned strategy, money, and resources to their recruiting efforts, and factored diversity into evaluations of cultural fit.
Every startup is going to have a company culture, by design or by default, so you might as well design yours with values that attract and keep the best possible talent. Once you’ve distinguished between your values and your vibe, hiring for cultural fit won’t just be easier; it will give you better – and likely more diverse – employees.
If you’re interested in more information about joining NCWIT’s group of startups, let me know.
A few weeks ago an entrepreneur of a fast growing consumer-oriented company told me that he has every new employee do customer support for two weeks. Their approach is they onboard the new person, given the a one week “get settled into your role / get up to speed on the company” period and then they spend weeks two and three full time in the customer support organization.
I’ve let this roll around in the back of my head and think it’s absolutely brilliant. The first week is a typical “first week at a new company” which includes a formal day of orientation on the first day. The next four days are structured around on-boarding the person and getting them involved in their role and their team, but not too deeply. This allows there to be a “break in period” where the person is learning the systems and structure of the company.
Week two is a full time immersion in the customer care organization. Total front-line stuff. The same first week any new customer care rep would get. Day one is whatever the normal orientation is followed by four days of “training wheels customer care.”
Week three is a fly on the wall from a managers view of customer care. Rather than front-line support, this is involved in all the meetings – up and down the customer support organization – to understand what people are dealing with. The last day includes a debrief meeting with the CEO.
I think a version of this process could be created for virtually any size company in any market segment. You are trying to have the person do three things: (1) be on the front-lines of the company and understand what that looks like, (2) engage directly with the product and customers, and (3) understand how the organization works from the customer point of view.
There’s a powerful second order effect, especially if every employee does this regardless or rank or title. In the first month of their tenure, they see the organization from the inside out. This creates a powerful common view that can generate an entirely different set of early actions for anyone in a new role. It also creates a powerful culture dynamic. And it does a little of what we try to do in the first month of TechStars – which is to “slow down to speed up.”
I’m curious if anyone out there is doing something similar or has suggestions to add or modify this.
My friend Chris Moody, the COO of Gnip, has another guest post up today titled Startup Culture: Values vs. Vibe. He’s written about this in the past on his blog, but we both thought it was worth reposting. Enjoy – and comment freely, especially if you disagree or have constructive feedback.
I hear some form of the following question frequently from founders that are starting to have early success:
“How do we hire a bunch of new people and grow the company quickly without losing the culture we’ve worked so hard to establish?”
I’ve been fascinated by different company cultures for as long as I can remember and I love asking entrepreneurs to describe the culture of their companies. Over time I’ve come to realize that when you break down culture descriptions you’ll often find a mix of two components: values and vibe. Although each component can have a significant impact on the overall feel of a company, the way you establish and manage the two should be different.
I think of values as the guiding principles or a code-of-conduct upon which a company was founded and which it operates on a daily basis. If you establish the right set of values early, these principles won’t change with time. Values establish your company’s view of the world and determine how you treat others including employees, customers, partners, and investors. Most importantly, values serve as the foundation on which tough company decisions are made. Values are 100% controlled by the company and should be unaffected by competitors, market conditions, and industry trends.
The people you hire will come with their own set of values. Every person you hire should have personal values that completely align with the values of your company. 95% isn’t good enough. In fact, if a team member violates a company value, the violation should result in removal of the individual from the company. Here are some other things to consider around establishing and maintaining company values:
- Document and talk about your company values with your team all the time. Consider publishing your values, and talking about them with customers, partners, etc. to add an extra level of scrutiny to your commitment.
- I believe a set of five or less documented values is ideal because you want all your employees to have them top-of-mind when making decisions. If you have too many values, people simply won’t remember them.
- Determine a set of tough “trade-off” questions that you can ask during the interview process that will help you determine if a candidate’s values align.
- Good values require tough decisions to be made in order for the values to be upheld. If you establish values that are never challenged, these values aren’t serving any real purpose.
This last point is particularly important. Watered down or generic values might be easy to uphold, but they also won’t establish a strong culture. Companies with unique cultures tend to have values that are unconventional and sometimes controversial. A famous example of a unique value is Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” (I believe the actual company published version is “you can make money without doing evil”). I’m guessing “don’t be evil” is discussed at Google hundreds of times of day when decisions are being made, and I bet it is surprisingly hard to stay true to this value even though the premise seems fairly simple. The fact that Google allowed this value to become public knowledge has resulted in a huge audience of observers that are constantly scrutinizing Google’s actions to see if they are staying true to their values.
Vibe represents the emotional side of the company. Like all emotions, vibe can be fairly volatile and is highly influenced by outside factors. For example, think about the vibe of a company on the night that the first product is launched vs. the vibe of the same company when Apple announces they are launching a competing product or service. When it comes to vibe, management can certainly set a tone and lead by example, but the reality is the vibe of a company will naturally change with time as the company grows and the products/employees mature. The biggest influence on vibe is typically success. Most companies that are doing well tend to have an overall positive vibe.
In the last few months, I’ve talked to two different startups that described one of their values as “Work hard. Play hard.” Is this really a value? Perhaps this statement actually describes the vibe at a certain moment in the life of the company. If an employee is no longer willing or able to play hard but is still producing at a high level, is this person no longer valued by the company? Working and playing hard together might be an important part of the company in the early days, but will it be a necessary component for all 300+ employees when the company has been around for 10 years?
As a leader, there are aspects of vibe that you will naturally want to try to control. However, you have to ask yourself a few questions:
- Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?
- Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?
- Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?
- Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?
If you answered, “yes” to all of the above, congratulations: you’ve just identified a new potential value. However, it can be fairly liberating to realize that the foosball table in the middle of the office is nice, but it isn’t crucial to the long-term success of the company.
I know this won’t be a popular statement, but I don’t think maintaining culture (as defined by many entrepreneurs I’ve encountered) is important. Instead, I think it critical to focus on establishing strong values early and hiring people that have aligning values. Maybe it is all just semantics on how you define culture, but I believe you shouldn’t sweat the vibe part. You’ll have an overall positive feel if you are successful and that is the only type of vibe that really matters.