Culture is Simple. Building It is Hard. Advice to Growing Companies.

When I was a senior in college, I interviewed at many tech startups while looking for a job. I knew what I was looking for in a company, but I didn’t quite know how to put it into words. I’m not even sure I thought too hard about how to, because I had a word in front of me that seemed perfect. It was the buzzword that has become the matcha latte equivalent of working at a startup: culture.

Every interviewer gave me slightly different answers about what their “culture” was like.

“Sometimes we all get drinks after work.”

“We don’t have a lot of meetings.”

“Engineers are given a lot of autonomy.”

“We give out a lot of company swag.”

A word that seemed so simple suddenly turned into a buffet of meaningless phrases that didn’t get to the bottom of what I was actually asking for.

I wanted to feel respected and valued. I wanted to be trusted with my work. I wanted to have a positive experience being at work each day and collaborating with my coworkers. Maybe that positive experience involved weekly game nights, or working through a really awesome hack-a-thon project powered by unlimited cold brew on tap.

Those things are tools, not your culture.

Culture has become such an overloaded term, referring more to side effects of having these core values of respect, trust, and positive work experiences. However, this term sometimes leads people to believe that these side effects are the drivers of these core values, flipping it on its head.

This can result in “culture” becoming very prescriptive. “Let’s try to create an XYZ culture by doing [side effect A] and [side effect B],” which often feels forced. There are few cases where cause and effect are bidirectional, but this certainly isn’t one of them.

Personally, one of my biggest pet peeves around culture is the idea of “culture fit” when recruiting and hiring. It has the same prescriptive feel to it as described earlier. It is also very exclusive -- which is ironic, because it implies companies want their prospective employees to fit into a culture that is branded to be inclusive.

It was only when I started working at Notarize that I understood culture is actually pretty simple. Events are nice, but our events organically form because people enjoy spending time together. It was great to hear that our engineers have autonomy, but that is really just one manifestation of underlying employee trust.

Thousands of startups and companies alike continue to redefine and rethink their company culture. Some have dedicated teams, organizations, and committees to bring more voices to the mix.

As someone who cares deeply about what culture is, and what it isn’t, here’s my advice:

Focus on what makes people happy, listen to why they’re not, and try to address that first. Oftentimes it’s more about how people feel like they’re treated in their day-to-day rather than whether there’s a beer garden, free coffee, or people go out drinking together.

Culture is not any one "thing" you do, but how you make people feel valued and respected. 

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