It’s never too early to start thinking about culture

By Matt Ziegler

“It’s all about the people.”

The idea that people are the driving force behind the success or failure of startups has been drilled into us repeatedly through cases, classroom discussions, and guest speakers…we get it.  The HBS curriculum also preaches that people are central to success in companies of all sizes, and that companies institutionalize people practices through culture.  

Despite implicitly understanding this, founders are consumed by building products, finding customers, and raising capital.  With the emphasis on finding PMF, it’s not surprising that founders make early hiring decisions based on “who is the best person for this job?” instead of “who is the right person to help me build my company?”  I’d argue that building a culture is just as important as finding PMF.  

My views are strongly shaped by my internship experience last summer at DoubleDutch, a mobile enterprise startup in SF.  DoubleDutch cared deeply about its culture from early on and built a strong culture built on transparency, growth, and trust.  Based on my conversations with fellow HBS interns in the Bay Area, I feel DoubleDutch had a truly unique and awesome culture. Only a couple months post Series-A funding with 15 employees, we spent a day at an offsite retreat brainstorming what made our culture so unique, and how to protect it as the company grows from 15, to 50, to 100-plus employees.

Here is what DoubleDutch taught me about the importance of having a strong culture from day 1:

Strong cultures make decision-making easier
The values that make up a team’s culture serve as “guard rails” and help clarify priorities in difficult moments.  Early on, DoubleDutch faced a dilemma: it found a major bug in a product for its largest client and needed to decide whether to tell the customer.  Losing the account risked the future of the company, yet there was a chance the customer would never find the bug.   With an explicit, established value of “doing right by our customers,” the founder made the right decision to immediately notify the customer of the bug.  DoubleDutch and the customer worked to fix the problem together, and the founder retells this story to reinforce the importance of having shared values.

Culture is solidified early on
While culture comes from the founders, it eventually must be lived by the employees.  The first 5-10 hires are critical toward building a culture (they will become your VPs of sales, product, etc.)  One purpose of our “culture brainstorm” was to force each functional area lead to think about how they would build DoubleDutch culture into their hiring processes as they scaled their teams, but they needed to first share and live the culture to be able to transfer it. 

Culture is a talent-acquisition asset
Great tech talent is scarce, and top-caliber engineers typically have multiple simultaneous job offers.  By building a strong culture, DoubleDutch was able to hire several developers away from other “hot startups” that had greater funding, proven success, and offered higher pay.  Culture was the difference.

In the midst of chaos that comes with driving toward product-market fit, take a step back and think about the type of working environment you want to build.  Try to get it right early – you may never get the chance to “pivot” your culture.


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