How to Deliberately Build a Scalable Company Culture
What defines your company culture?
Whenever I look at our company, I am in awe of the amazing team we’ve built — a team dedicated to excellence and execution, and not afraid to try, fail, learn and try again. As we celebrate our 100th hire, I’d like to take the opportunity to answer a question we get from other founders: How did you scale your culture?
The answer is simple. We’ve been incredibly deliberate about it.
Creating and Evolving Values
When is the right time to start thinking about company values? Have the values discussion early on so that founders are on the same page about what’s important when making decisions on behalf of the company — from time management to project prioritization. In our case, our partners are our first and most important value. And by partners, we mean customers.
Another question new founders often ask is: When should we define our values? When should we talk about the actual norms and details about the culture and what’s encouraged versus what’s not?
My advice is to start really early on, with just the founders in a room. As you start the hiring process, your early values will be a guiding light during the hardest trade-offs you will have to make. For example, if you are about to release a great feature that could potentially be improved and perfected, should you launch or wait until it’s perfect? If urgency and fast iteration are part of your values, you would most likely choose to launch the feature and get feedback instead of waiting for perfection. What’s also important, though, is that you are open to evolving your values, especially in the early days as your company grows from the founding team to a small group of people, to dozens and hundreds more.
Our initial values were things we firmly believed in and stood for, and they helped guide key product and people decisions. But as we grew the team, we also went through multiple iterations of the values. It wasn’t a complicated exercise. We asked ourselves what we’d expect from others and what we think others should expect from us.
Our values are simple: They are the behaviors we hope everyone at the company will strive to exhibit. They include “partners first,” “ownership over our work and the company,” and “humility and selflessness,” just to name a few. Live by your values and design programs and processes — from reviews and the space around you to recognition and incentives — to encourage these desired behaviors.
Here are some examples of how we live our values in our day-to-day lives:
Embrace Your Culture Through Detailed Touchpoints
Our office art celebrates partners. The first art piece we ever bought was from Vango, the first partner that integrated with us in July 2014. Another piece is a photo mosaic of tree branches painted by our designer, Natali. The photos in the mosaic are all comprised of our partners’ logos.
Acknowledge Achievements, No Matter How Small
Events and awards are some of the best ways to engage and motivate teams. They also serve as great occasions to reward team members who exemplify core values. Don’t go overboard, but celebrate actual team accomplishments like growth or revenue versus funding or headcount. The little things can have the biggest impact, like coming in early to cook breakfast for your team, creating safe spaces for the team to show off their accomplishments, or encouraging them to use and learn your product.
Here are some team events we’ve created:
- Breaking Bread (inspired by Twilio): Every Wednesday, we hold an hour-long company dinner where we eat together and a team member showcases something they’ve built, whether it’s a new tool, a sales strategy or a cool campaign. We also encourage individual team members to build an app implementing our company’s app features and showcase it in front of the whole company at the dinner to score a highly-coveted Patagonia Branch jacket — the only way they can get one.
- Build-an-App Day: As mentioned above, we encourage all team members to build their own apps as a way to understand the process our partners need to go through when integrating with us and using features to drive growth.
The Importance of Stories
Last but not least, stories make a company’s soul. One of my Stanford professors, Jennifer Aaker, teaches a whole class about the importance of stories in company culture. The stories you tell (and those told about you and your team) build one of the most important parts of your company’s identity. Stories create a sort of company folklore that can be passed around and down. There are stories you tell at all-hands, to new employees and to your clients. But most important are stories that people tell about you and your team. As the founding team, one of the most important things you can do is to actually live by your values every day, influence the team around you in a positive way, and create stories together.
Mada Seghete is co-founder at Branch, where she leads the marketing team and is responsible for many of the culture initiatives.