Company Culture

How should startups think about culture?

February 7, 2017
November 7, 2023
Lattice Team

Fred Stevens-Smith, CEO of Rainforest QA, recently sat down for a Resources for Humans interview and shared some insights into how startup founders should think about developing culture at their companies.

What is culture?

Culture is a mirror that reflects back the combined personalities of the people at the company, and so I think the only tool that you have as a founder to define a culture is hiring and firing.

Why is culture important for startups?

The C word, culture, is the most important thing for any startup. I think that if you look at what we have to do, we have to basically take, relatively speaking, tiny amount of resources, very small teams, and go up against these giant juggernaut companies, right? How do we do that? We have people who are vastly more autonomous, have vastly more ability to make decisions and take charge of things and drive things forward, than you would have at any big company. So I think that what building a successful company comes down to is about hiring the best people and retaining the best people, and for me, that is the purpose of culture. The purpose of culture is to have a very robust framework within which you can hire and retain the best people.

How are company values and culture related?

Your values are the yardstick you evaluate people against. Make your values explicit, and then with all of your hiring decisions, evaluate each person against those values. Are they a values fit?

What do startup employees care most about?

The people are all here because they believe that Rainforest represents the best opportunity for personal growth for them. I think that's the big advantage we have over a Google or a Facebook. These guys have infinite resources, they have a very exciting brand, but they don't have the capacity for personal growth. You're going to come in with a very defined career ladder with a very tightly scoped set of responsibilities, and if you work really hard and are really lucky you'll progress up that career ladder. But when you join a startup at our stage, you can do whatever you want. You can get involved all over the company, you can try lots of different roles and focus on what's really exciting for you.

What’s the role of management?

For a company like us, the role of management is basically to hire amazing people and just get out of the way. Getting out of the way entails making sure that your team is not blocked -- so unblocking your team, advocating for your team on an executive level, and not micromanaging.

As a founder, as a CEO, and I think also as a manager, your role is basically that of an editor. Just like with the culture piece, you edit culture by hiring and firing, I think that's pretty much the same when you get down to managing an individual or a team of individuals. You're editing. You're editing the objectives, you're editing perhaps the style of how each person works, what they spend time on. That's the level of interaction you want to have.

What’s hero mode? How does it impact companies?

There was an incredible talk by David Rusenko, who's the founder of Weebly. The thing that he said, which has stuck with me ever since, is that first time managers always default to hero mode. Bad management equals hero mode. Hero mode, as defined by David Rusenko, is this idea that there's always more stuff that needs to get done, and to get that more stuff done, you just have to work harder.

I often see that when we promote people internally into their first management position. They're just like -- I'm just going to work harder than everyone else. I'm going to go home later, I'm going to work weekends, you're going to get emails from me at 2 am. And that's just this huge catastrophe, because you just make yourself the bottleneck for everything, and your team is not able to be autonomous and thrive because they're constantly reporting to you about what they're doing, there's this constant interaction. As a manager you have to get comfortable with this thing that's very uncomfortable for high achievers, which is to take a step back.

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Note: This article includes minor edits from the original transcript to make for easier reading.

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