Core values: how to use them to build company culture in your startup

One of the best presentations I have seen about building company culture is from Mikey Trafton – this video is definitely worth watching! (it is near the bottom of the linked page)
At my company we really tried to avoid the bullshit “mission statement” stuff.  We found our personality based on being a team of software engineers (we did very difficult work – it required intelligent people who collaborated really well).  We defined this into core values and started building company culture into all parts of the company including tech support, marketing and even sales.    Core values are a short list of qualities or attributes that identify the personality of your company.  They can also reflect part of your differentiation in the marketplace.

Our original core values

building company culture
These core values give us lots of advantages:
1) Collaborative / helping – this allows a small team (underdog) to compete in an industry against bigger competitors – we just work better and faster because we collaborate so much.
2) Play nicely – the “no asshole” rule – you can’t have good teamwork with assholes around – everyone has to be nice or we can’t collaborate.
3) Hard work – this was also going to be necessary to succeed as an underdog – also since we were bootstrapped with no funding – we had to move a few mountains.
4) Care about your craft – we discovered this was the key to hiring and keeping great software developers – they love to learn so we created an environment where they would always be learning – this gave us very high employee retention especially in developers which is a huge advantage in the industry.
These values happen to reflect parts of my personality so it worked out.  Remember that you want the company to be a place where you want to work, so your company culture should reflect the founder’s personality to some extent.

Building company culture at your startup

1) I would think about how your company fits into your industry and what attributes will allow it to be successful.
2) Look for parallels to strengths that you (the CEO / founder) have.
3) What do customers love about you and your company?
4) Capture these characteristics in some basic core values.
5) Review them and think if you would fire an employee for violating a core value.  If you wouldn’t then get rid of that core value.
6) Socialize your list with your co-founder (and/or other key employees) to get some feedback.
7) It may take a little time to figure out your core values.  My company didn’t get a written list until about year 6.  But we did pair programming and lots of close teamwork which helped to communicate priorities organically.  Having a written core values list helps you scale – especially when you are hiring fast and growing rapidly.
8) Once you have the list of core values figured out, you need to communicate, reinforce and measure your core values in your team.  Build them into hiring, day to day operations and performance reviews.

Core Values aren’t generic, they are very specific to your company

One more thought on core values – they don’t have to be “good” things – they have to be things that resonate with your team and your customers – they should be things that they really care about.  An example that I always give at my company is transparency – many people praise transparency as a great thing and on the surface it sounds good but my company is a security company and customers want security not really transparency.  So transparency would be a poor core value for us even though it is typically a “good” thing.
If you aren’t defining your core values and building company culture then your employees will do it for you. :-O