Nobody honestly thinks having the ubiquitous ping pong table in your startup is culture, as six distinguished panelists can attest to at the meetup, “How to build a startup culture” last September 17 at the Orrick offices at CBS building.
The panelists were Dane Atkinson, CEO, SumAll; Wiley Cerilli, former CEO of SinglePlatform, Current VP of Constant Contact; Mark Peter Davis, managing partner, Interplay Ventures; Allyson Downey, co-founder & CEO, weeSpring, Zain Jaffer, CEO, Vungle; and Joaquin Roca, consultant & COO, Venwise.
How do you build the culture you want throughout the life of your company?
For Roa, it’s about “knowing your culture is connected to your business strategy and how you must all be together in knowing how to win your market.” He insisted on having “core values that rarely change” right from the start. For Downey, an ideal startup culture is about having “some radical transparency.”
Cerilli, who probably has more staff than all the panelists with more than 120, agrees.
“Hire people brutally honest with you and have a no-a--hole policy.”
Creating and preserving your startup culture requires some honest assessments. Cerilli likes to give leeway when it comes to off-hours camaraderie.
“As you get bigger, not everyone likes going out for drinks. People have different ways of celebrating,” he said, in response to how some startups think: “If you feel like drinking with somebody, you must work together.”
As for how people choose a startup culture, Jaffer, who has about 40 staffers, responded to how people sense it, intuitively. “Culture is about unspoken things.”
When it comes to hiring people, Cerilli said he doesn’t do interviews anymore but at one point in time, he said a person who often said “I” instead of “we” and those who mentioned their previous bosses (in an unflattering light most likely) are big no-nos.
For Davis, it’s crucial that he gets people who think in terms of being a partner than just an employee. “If you feel you can’t deliver bad news, that’s a boss-employee relationship, not a boss-partner relationship.”
In terms of talent, Jaffer said he likes “hiring people smarter than me” whereas Atkinson puts a high premium on “trust” and, borrowing from Cerilli’s management style, having a pus-up drop-down policy for those who think they’re getting “pudgy.”
“We ask if a person had a bad day for three days,” Atkinson said to help him or her get over the hump.
For Roa, diversity is the most important thing. “Ask yourself what you are missing in your team, because oftentimes we like people who like us. And if we’re white and we only have white men, that’s not good. A diverse team sees things wholistically.”
In Downey’s case where she and her husband are co-founders, they try to be honest about what the other half can’t do—and that includes knowing how to balance work-life balance and a virtual workforce. “If you can’t do (the latter), you're doing it wrong.”
But how do they communicate culture? For Davis, he likes to “drop the F bomb” and see how his interviewee reacts. “It’s all about show and tell.”
Jaffer went for a more measured approach. “We do anonymous surveys,” especially for those exiting the company, because they’re more honest. Cerilli likes how people communicate Wow moments on a wall at his company’s office.
But how does one handle a problematic employee?
Davis said you don't want to be last person to find out if there’s a problematic employee, because it can affect your bottom line. He said he has given someone another change, but when things didn’t change, he went by “addition by subtraction,” as he noticed the company and staff became more productive. “We just had to let this person go.”
Jaffer likes to ask himself, “I ask, ‘Is it my fault? Did I give this person an opportunity to succeed?’ If we didn't, everybody is accountable. You have to give this person a chance.”
The meetup was hosted by David Concannon, a partner at Orrick.