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Culture Matters

October 19, 2011

vcmike

After years of pontificating about startups (both here and in board meetings), now that I am starting my own little venture it’s time for me to start eating my own dogfood. Which, I have to say, is pretty cool. I’m thinking in a whole new way about the enterprise of building a business.

For some as yet unidentified reason one of the things I am thinking about is culture. Don’t ask me why a one person organization needs to bother with culture, but I can’t help myself, I am thinking alot about it. I think what got me on to this toot was a blog post by WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg talking about culture and the story behind Automattic’s corporate creed. It’s a pretty cool thing — they make every new employee sign on to it:

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

What’s especially cool is that Automattic really does live by this creed (or at least seems to).

So even though Resolute is only me right now, I’m still thinking about culture. And I think culture can describe not just how an organization’s internal constituents relate to one another, but also how it relates to the broader community around it, whether it be customers, partners, advisors, etc. Which applies as much to a sole proprietor as to a large firm, if not more so. So, I’ve been reflecting on what “culture” I want to establish with entrepreneurs, with my advisors and Entrepreneur’s Roundtable, with other seed investors, with big bad VCs, with service providers, et cetera. I don’t have it fully fleshed out, but what I do know is that my culture will be a reflection of ME — my personality, my values, my style. Which it has to, to be authentic. A founder who sets a culture that isn’t authentic is kidding him- or herself.

But as I’m pondering all this, I also am acutely aware that the real challenge is not so much establishing a culture at the founding of an enterprise, but rather figuring out how to remain true to that culture as the enterprise grows. Yeah, it’s a great idea for founders to fill a whiteboard with “values” and “guiding principles.” But let’s be honest — that is all a bunch of crap unless those founders can look back 10 years later and know that their company still embodies those values and principles. I know just how hard, and how rare, it is to pull this off. But I’ve also seen firms succeed at this.

Much as I hate to admit it, the success that stands out for me here is my brother and his firm, T3 Advisors. He started T3 10 years ago. Yup, 2001. Things were ugly. 9/11. The bubble bursting. Our father losing his battle against cancer. It was not a happy time. But he had a vision for what he wanted to build, and a passion to do it. So he chucked the safety and security of a partnership and the regular paycheck to launch his own firm. And, over the ensuing 10 years, we have often kibitzed about the building of a firm, the building of a culture. Examples of firms that worked hard on culture, and other examples of firms that only paid it lip service. And I’ve watched him build T3, very deliberately and very consistently paying attention to what it would take to sustain as a much larger firm the culture that made it so fun and inspiring as a 3 person partnership. Unlike most, he’s pulled this off in spades. But it hasn’t been the result of luck, serendipity, or good intentions. He’s maintained culture “the old fashioned way.”

Tonight, I gave my brother a call during my painful crawl home through the Mass Pike rush hour. (We check in with each other most days). I told him about the great afternoon I spent catching up with some old buds I hadn’t seen in years. And he told me, all pumped up, that he spent several hours canoodling with one of his cofounders about “the next phase” for T3. “So,” I asked, “what’s the next phase of T3 all about?” To which he burst out, full of excitement, “culture. 2012 is gonna be all about company culture for T3!” “That’s great,” I said, “good for you.” Not wanting to throw a wet blanket on his enthusiasm, what I didn’t point out was that, in the ten years I’ve watched him building T3, this was exactly the 10th time I heard him proclaim the next year the “year of culture building.” Which, I realized, is exactly why he has been successful at building a thriving, successful enterprise that is every bit as true to it’s founding values today as it was the day he and his cofounders left the big firm and stood in front if that whiteboard.

Culture matters. It really does. But it takes work. Don’t kid yourself into believing that just talking about culture makes it a reality. You gotta walk the walk.

One Comment

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  1. October 21, 2011

    This is inspirational. I agree that culture is critical, and think the true challenge is identifying what we want ours to be. You are right to say it must be authentic to the founders true vision. As founders we ask ourselves, what drives us? Honing in on those values and sharing them with our teams is probably the best way of defining our company’s unique culture. Thanks for Highlighting this topic.

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