Do You Know Why?
You can explain what you do in a 10 second pitch. You can show how you do it through an amazing demonstration. But can you clearly define the reasons why you do it? If you can, you’ll attract the most motivated people, the ones who share the exact same purpose. If it’s true that startups’ missions are deeply rooted in the founders’ personal stories, they still need to be expressed and obvious for the rest of the team, the users and all the people you’re enrolling.
The decision to become an entrepreneur can be motivated by wanting to make money. In France, we have a real problem with that idea, but it’s true. It’s ok to make money. But truly great companies are motivated by a mission and a cultural vision.
Having a mission helps you achieve goals that ‘regular’ companies aren’t able to do.
First, it lets you attract the best talent. When the money is equal, the best people are attracted to companies that are pursuing the best mission. Remember that building a company isn’t just a question of business models, markets, strategy, whatever. At the end of the day, you need a pitch that brings talented people along with you. Otherwise, you’re alone and you can’t build anything.
Next, a mission helps you to manage the tough moments. You’ll have moments when you wonder if you can keep going. At those times, rational arguments can fail. But having a strong mission that you believe in will push you through it.
And lastly, your mission helps you to make fast decisions. Clear missions render debates obvious. They make it so that everyone in the company sees why you’re doing what you’re doing.
So you need a mission from the beginning.
That doesn’t mean that you have the perfect mission. Like most other things in entrepreneurship, as you move on, things change. If you’re lucky, you get into a virtuous circle where your mission brings you some success, that success brings you more confidence, that confidence leads you to a grander mission, and so on.
One way that your mission becomes real is in your company culture. The everyday culture that you promote should be taken very seriously. There’s a lot of confusion about what a company culture is. It has nothing to do with company perks, or office design, or vacation, or what you say, or what you write down. Google isn’t innovative because it doesn’t have a dress code and people come to work in shorts — it’s innovative, period — and as a consequence, nobody ever cared what people were wearing to work. Culture isn’t built on these surface features — it’s built on who you hire, who you promote, and who you pay well.
For example, it’s easy to say, “We believe in gender equality and equal pay between men and women.” But the only question is whether or not your actual payroll demonstrates that. If it does, then your culture takes the gender salary divide seriously. If it doesn’t, then you’re just like every other company on the planet.
You can’t fake your culture.
There needs to be a perfect alignment between what you think, what you say and what you do. And that’s just not the case for the majority of companies. By the way, your company culture can be honest and real without being good. If you’re a bank that fires the bottom 20% of your workforce every year, that might not be good, but if that’s what you believe, and you’re open about it, and you do it, it’s at least honest and real. So if you’re ruthless, be ruthless. If you’re collaborative, be collaborative. But remember that the culture at the heart of your company becomes a part of you. It’s like DNA, you can’t just change it from one day to another.
Your culture will ideally be expressed rather than created. It should exist naturally within you, your cofounders, your early team. Its expression should also be natural and selective. A badly defined culture will let anyone in, it will adapt itself to whoever you hire. But a good culture will reject as many people as it lets in. If your culture expresses a value, make sure that it’s not a bullshit value that everyone agrees with. “Innovation” isn’t a culture, because who’s on the other side? Who is going to put up a sign in their company, “We don’t innovate.” It’s not a value, it’s just a buzzword.
Real values are ones that have an opposite.
Those opposites are strong values as well. Take Facebook’s commitment to openness. That’s a real value, because there are people who are fundamentally opposed to it. In fact, there are even other companies that launched as an opposite value — just look at Snapchat. Facebook is based on openness and perpetual sharing, Snapchat is aimed at forgetting and closing the records. Both of them have a value and therefore a culture that becomes part of their company, and that’s an advantage that has turned them into billion-dollar companies (one more than the other, of course).
A value expresses a choice that you can fight for. And others can fight against it. That kind of value makes a lot of the choices that you face easier. And that’s the kind of culture that strengthens your company. Do it from day one. It might change over time, and that’s ok — but install culture from day one.
That’s why you don’t recruit just for competence. People in Europe are generally bad at really installing a culture in their company, and so they think that competence is the most important thing to find. But a person’s competences can change and improve; it’s hard to change someone’s culture.
What belongs together comes together.
We talk a lot about diversity in the business world, and how it needs to increase. But your company culture needs to be homogeneous. This doesn’t mean anything about race, gender, what school people went to, what nationality they are. This means that the people who come in need to share a homogeneous culture and mindset.
No one likes to say this, but a big part of being able to do that is age. If you look at founding teams, there’s a data point that’s very important: founders who don’t share a generation are in a much more difficult position than those who are close in age. It’s hard to make things work when there’s a generational gap, even a small one. This gap is getting to be harder and harder as time goes on — and if you don’t think so, and you’re over the age of, say, 25, go try to understand Snapchat’s active users and the per day usage numbers of those users.
Once you’ve created a homogenous culture at the beginning, it’s a question of how you can apply it at scale. If we look at Google, they’ve got the famous culture of “Don’t be evil.” It’s a real value, but good luck trying to define it. What is “evil”? Is collecting data on everyone everywhere “evil”? It can be debated. But at the same time, “Don’t be evil” has a huge emotional component to it that places that value above other traditional business concerns. Not only that, it allows Google to debate the future and what they want to be as a company, while also giving them a great deal of clarity for the present. That’s the mark of a good value: one that makes today’s decisions easy and that informs tomorrow’s possible decisions.
Amazon had an even more concrete example with the question of “What’s with all the doors?” Because doors were much cheaper than desks, Amazon’s office desks were just doors. And every time someone came through the office, and every time an employee sat down, they were reminded of one thing: Amazon is in a retail business where every penny counts. You could put that up on the wall, “Every penny counts.” But what company wouldn’t say that? At Amazon, the idea became much more powerful as a symbol that immediately shows exactly what the company is about.
Don’t try to imitate the culture of others.
You can read about other people’s culture all day. If you’re wondering “What’s the best culture I can implement?”, you haven’t understood the most important point.
Your culture needs to be natural to you. If you try to imitate others you’ll end up making bad decisions. You need to know what you’re fighting for, who your enemies are. Every startup is fighting against something or someone. Your individual enemy should push forward your individual culture.
One company’s successful culture isn’t “better” than any other one. A bad culture is just one that doesn’t make a choice. The traditional corporate world is full of this, companies that try to have it all and never make a choice. That’s why they’re in so much trouble and why no one believes what they say anymore. The thing you can say about a “better” culture is that it will be coherent, visible and shared.
It’s not about putting quotes on the wall.
You can put up all the posters you want, but if no one sees the details of how that saying exists at the heart of your company, it’s just bullshit. That’s why you have to hire only stars and only those stars who feel like they’ve finally found the job they’ve been looking for all this time, the one where all the members of the team are pushing toward the same goal. Sure, that’s hard to find — but it’s worth waiting for.
Concentrate on the “why.” What you’re doing, that’s easy. How you’re doing it, that’s easy. Even more, both the “what” and the “how” will change over the company’s life. But the “why,” specifically a “why” that isn’t fake, that’s hard. The “why” gives you structure. The “why” gives you a team that can achieve things that outsiders thought were impossible.
This entire discussion on your company’s mission and culture comes down to mechanism design.
Mechanism design is how you create incentives to encourage the actions and the culture that you’re aiming at. Every time that you implement a process or a rule, it will have an impact on your employees and your company. That’s why you shouldn’t implement anything too early in the life of your company. Carefully consider the impact of each of process when you do get to that point. Think about what you’re trying to achieve, think about the possible side effects, think about how the people around you are going to actually react, not just how you would react or how you hope they react.
One of the first processes at TheFamily wasn’t something having to do with sales or programming. It was the idea that we eat together on a regular basis. Food and drink are still today one of our biggest expenses. Why? Because we believe in the importance of sharing meals together as a critical part of our job. Eating together creates a bond, a community. Eating well (and drinking well) together creates a caring community. Does that seem simple? Sure. But think about what other companies actually put the effort — and the budget — into that kind of mechanism design. There aren’t many. And we believe that’s one of the reasons why we’ll still be toasting the successes of our startups for a long time — and loving every drop.
Your Mission equals your Why and embodies in your Culture.
Start on day 1Mission is not something you can just decide, you have to build it. You do not need to have a mission on day 1, it works like a virtuous circle: success brings confidence, confidence brings a more ambitious mission, that brings success… Mission grows in ambition with time but culture should be clear and strong on day 1: be crystal clear about who you are and how you want to work. You can pivot, iterate, change your name, your processes, etc: your What and your How can change, but your Why cannot change.
Do not recruit on skillsBe with people that look like you. At the beginning, diversity in terms of age, family situation, etc never really works. It is not about age in itself, it is about mindset. Hire only stars: stars are not the persons with the best CVs, they are the persons who feel that your company is where they truly belong. Remember that the awesomeness of a company is proportional to the number of employees who work there for the Why more than for their salary.
Align your words and actionsCulture is not what you say or what you write: it reflects in who you hire, who you promote, how you pay your employees. Your culture is strong when there is a perfect alignment between what you think, what you say and what you do.
Do not try to look goodCulture does not necessarily look good. A good culture rejects as much as it adopts. Every culture relies on a set of values. Beware of bullshit values: these are values that no one can be against such as being innovative or honest. Real values are easily recognizable because their opposites are also acceptable values such as Facebook’s openness vs Snapchat’s secrecy.
Do not try to imitate or to compareCulture is about expressing something very intimate. If you try to copy the culture of others without sharing their goals, you’ll hurt your company badly. Besides, there is not a culture that is better than the others. Culture is a choice that is not good nor bad, what is bad is when you do not make a choice.
Do not confuse building culture with establishing perks and sticking cute postersDo not confuse symbols with real management actions. Bermudas, babyfoots, cats etc are only nice-to-haves, they are the consequences of your culture, not its foundations. Posters are nice, they convey what you want to say, but writing things is not enough.
Define your enemyEvery good culture has an enemy. Who is yours? Knowing what you fight for will create a sacred unity. It is a very old political trick: create a war to focus people on it instead of internal politics. Same applies to startups. The enemy is outside.
Do not implement processes too earlyEvery time a process is implemented, your employees’ behaviour is impacted. It is called mechanism design: it is how people act when incentivised to do something. Mechanism design is the architecture of culture. For instance, Facebook implemented the “one mile rule”: FB employees earn 2 000$ less on their salary if they live farer than one mile from the office. Beware: rules take over people’s brains, every process has a side effect. Budget allocations for instance, with new budget being increased only if the previous one were totally spent, can kill a company.
Follow the threefold code of Culture: coherent, visible and sharedHaving a strong culture will allow you to attract the best talents, because at equal salaries, people look for a meaning in their job, to manage your downs, because at the very moment when everything seems wrong, deeply believing in your mission is the only way to survive, and to take quick decisions, because if your mission is crystal clear, your strategy will be obvious.
Articles to go deeper
Dan Gillmor, "Intel’s Andy Grove Was Brilliant, Paranoid, and Prophetic. No Wonder Silicon Valley Reveres Him”
Slate, March 2016
Nicolas Colin, “11 Notes on Amazon (Part 1)”
TheFamily Papers, January 2016
Nicholas Carlson, “The Untold Story of Larry Page’s Incredible Comeback”
Business Insider, April 2014
Brian Chesky, “Don’t Fuck Up the Culture”
Medium, April 2014
Robert Phillips, “Trust and the Fall of Public Relations”
Jericho Chambers, January 2014
Michael Mace, “Google Logic: Why Google does the things it does the way it does”
The Guardian, July 2013
Eugene Wei, “Amazon, Apple, and the beauty of low margins”
Adam Lashinsky, "How Apple works: Inside the world\'s biggest startup”
Fortune, August 2011
Steve Yegge, “Stevey’s Google Platforms Rant”
Ben Horowitz, "Why We Prefer Founding CEOs”
Andreessen-Horowitz, April 2010
Nicolas Colin, “Finding Your Big Idea”
We told you, they lived it!
Damien Morin, CEO @ Save.co
Damien Morin started Save.co while he was still a student, opening a store to repair phones. He met Cyril, his co-founder who came in to repair his wife’s phone. In less than two years, Damien turned his store into a scalable business model. He has hired more than 600 people, opened more than 100 corners in 10 countries across Europe, and raised $17m with Save.co.