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Values Build Startup Culture: A Founder’s Take on Getting Started

Guest Contributor
August 5, 2014 · 5  min.

This is a guest post from Ben Rubin, co-founder and CEO of Change Collective, which offers courses for behavior change with world-class experts.

For seed-stage startups, when resources are tight, trying to consciously build startup culture can feel wasteful. Below, Ben makes the case for why defining values is actually a worthwhile exercise, and he outlines his startup’s approach.

When my co-founder Derek and I sat down to start Change Collective, we had two things driving us: impact and culture. (I’ve previously discussed our excitement for transforming the way other people change, but how we work together as a company is just as important.)

Culture bleeds right into our product, our relationships with customers, and our potential impact on the world. How can it not?

We started the process of building our company culture early, before we hired any employees, by writing down our desired values. This was a great start, but actually expressing these values every day is difficult. Below, I strive to articulate how we chose our core values and how they became engrained in our culture as we grew.

Above all, it’s critical to derive company values authentically from the personal values of the founders and the founding story.

Values at Change Collective

Value #1: Learning and Growth

Why?

While working on our last startup, Derek and I often spent long lunches discussing what we were “hacking” in our lives: the latest diet, workout, productivity system, or leadership technique.

We loved this discussion and mutual support so much that we brought together a close group of friends, quarterly, for a long, candid conversation about our lives, our aspirations, and how we can make progress.

change-collective-values

How?

  • Hiring: We look for people oriented towards (even obsessed with) learning and growth. We ask folks what they are working on in life, what they’ve changed recently, and where they are heading.
  • Personal Development Budget: For the first year of Change Collective, as founders, we took no salary. Watching our savings dwindle led to little spending on our own learning and growth. But we’ve noticed time and again the same pattern: People invest in themselves when they have the resources and support necessary to do so. We make this easier for our employees by providing a $3,000 Personal Development Budget. Folks can use this budget for workshops, CrossFit memberships, museum passes, and more.
  • Weekly Personal Check-in: During our weekly company meeting, we help keep each other accountable and successful in reaching personal goals. Last week, I committed to getting back to CrossFit four days per week while ramping up meditation to six days per week. This week, I’ll let everyone know where I succeeded and where I need help.

Value #2: Freedom and Accountability

Why?

One of the most important pieces of reading I’ve ever done is the Netflix Culture Deck. (Slides 40-77 deal specifically with this topic.)

Their core message: Netflix trusts people to be responsible and therefore increases their freedom as much as possible.

I read those key pages while the culture of my last company was imploding. Business complexity had grown, and freedom had been drastically curtailed. Suddenly, we were tracking vacation days, implementing a nonsensical snow day policy, and generally sucking the life out of the place as a result. At Change Collective, we believe that accountability not only keeps us aligned and productive but enables tremendous freedom.

How? (Freedom)

  • Vacation: We offer an unlimited vacation policy. (Eventually, we’d love to have a paid-paid vacation policy.)
  • Gratuitous Time Off: We take every holiday on the calendar (including Evacuation Day/Saint Patrick’s Day). We’re also aiming to give most of the company the last week of August off and substantial time between Christmas and New Year’s as well.
  • Remote Work Policy: Our employees work remote when it makes sense for them, personally and professionally. Generally, folks head into the office 3-4 days per week as a result.
  • Dog Policy: Dogs are welcome in the office! Our operations manager Rob notes that he wouldn’t have been able to get a pup without this flexibility.

How? (Accountability: Freedom is nice — but without these systems, nothing much would get done!)

  • Self-Motivation: We select for highly self-motivated individuals. Very few employees would actually be more productive with our excessive levels of freedom. We find those people.
  • Clear Goals: We seek to have clear goals — organizational down to individual. We keep ourselves accountable to those goals through company progress dashboards, Scrum, etc.
  • Flow: There is a natural ebb and flow to our individual and company work. As I’m writing this from the office at 8:30pm,  our lead designer is exploring Seoul. Since we’re a startup, we definitely see more flow than ebb. We’d have it no other way!
Dogs are welcome (and encouraged) in the office. Say hello to Charlie!

Dogs are welcome (and encouraged) in the office. Say hello to Charlie!

Value #3: Directness and Kindness/Respect

Why?

I used to be a bit of an asshole. You could count on me to barely listen when you were speaking (too busy planning my rebuttal), bulldoze your suggestions (mine were better!), and ignore your emotions (and be unaware of mine). This lack of kindness and respect in communications made me almost impossible to work with.

But those who could ignore or work around my failings found a gem in my communication style. I was always direct and to the point — I gave real reactions and feedback when most people were used to folks dissembling in various ways.

I believed that the directness I so valued was in direct conflict with kindness and respect.

My co-founder Derek had the opposite communication style. Kindness and respect were paramount. You could count on Derek to be empathetic, to be a good listener, and to have amazing insights into personal relationships.

But when being direct ran the risk of ruffling feathers, Derek would avoid the rough conversations and maintain decorous relationships at all costs.

Derek had come to the same conclusion: Directness was in conflict with kindness and respect — but he had chosen the opposite side of the table to me.

Having the chance to work together so closely has led us to a different conclusion. We wholly reject the notion that directness lies in conflict to kindness and respect. In fact, Directness and Kindness/Respect support each other.

How? 

  • At Our Core: We’re working to take this insight into the heart of our culture. We strive to consistently achieve both directness and kindness/respect in our communication.
  • Retrospectives: We take the time to do a Monthly Company Retrospective where we celebrate our wins, understand our failures, and surface topics that may get lost in the messiness of running the business. At the core of our retrospective is our direct but kind and respectful communication style.
  • … unlike our other values, there aren’t as many clear bullet points for how we’ve built systems to express this. There should be and will be more — ideas welcome!

Always a Work in Progress

As we’ve grown Change Collective from just the founders into a real company, we’ve been constantly re-thinking how we articulate and live our values.

Each addition to the Change Collective team (Joel, Jim, Maroun, Edwina, Brent, and Rob so far!) has contributed greatly — and we look forward to years of additions + modifications!

Being thoughtful about our values has been well worth the effort. Best of luck bringing together yours!

change-collective-pups

Disclosure: NextView Ventures is an investor in Change Collective.