Beyond Beer and Ping Pong: An Inside Look at Startup Culture

October 27, 2014 Randy Frisch

company culture

Too many people I know involved in running a big business or a growing startup (like me) assume that culture simply forms on its own. That’s not to say they think that company culture isn’t a product of its people, but an assumption exists that simply providing certain perks or focusing on ‘being relaxed’ leads to a great workplace. In the last year, I started to realize how important it is to formalize (not a word I usually love) a set of guiding values for your company that shapes your culture. That’s right: a beer fridge and the option to wear a hoodie are not enough - but of course we have that here at Uberflip.

So why is it that so many businesses never take the time to establish a set of core values? Some will tell you it feels ‘cheesy’ or ‘forced’ - I think the issue is often just laziness or not considering the importance of culture as you scale. Please don’t take my remarks as though I’ve always been better at it than others. I finally got off my butt and established our core values this year. This does not mean our culture is perfect or that adding values can transform your company overnight - but it is the right start. 

As such, I thought I’d share some of the early steps of how we’ve started to better shape our culture for the growth ahead. 

Don't Define Culture Too Early

One of the questions you may be wondering, based on the above, is when do you sit down and carve your values into stone? I’ll admit we probably waited too long, but I also think you can’t start on day one. For those entrepreneurs growing a business from the ground up, I believe you can’t truly define your culture when you launch. Why? The problem is that many factors around how you execute your vision and the makeup of your team will be important to consider when you define your culture. These factors are guaranteed to change in the early days, so be careful not to set your culture in stone with so many unknowns. 

This does not mean you cannot use your vision and mission along with your personality to create a good work environment early. In fact, many people will even speak to you having a great culture before you define it.  As you begin to scale to a larger team, you should start thinking about formalizing your culture through core values that work for the team you’ve assembled (and will build out) to best execute on your go-to-market strategy. I wish we had done this when our team first hit around 15-20 members. 

Values Alone Are Not Enough

A healthy work environment isn’t one where Moses has to come down from above with cultural ‘commandments’. I believe that the best way to have buy in is to have the team contribute to how your culture is shaped. 

At Uberflip we regularly bring our team together for an event we call ‘Flip the Switch’. This is where we break our team into groups of mixed departments to brainstorm an idea and present a path to the team. This has proven to be a successful way to avoid the ‘groupthink’ in our daily teams and roles. Earlier this year I used a Flip the Switch event to ask the team to help define our values:

Uberflip culture

It was great to see the passion and opinions of our team as they explained how they saw us to date (or even hints of what they wanted us to be that we may have been failing at). One of my favorite presentations outlined how different values could be applied to our Customers, Company and the Individuals working on our team. The screencap below shows how they described one of their suggested values being a commitment to ‘Growth’:

Uberflip culture

Taking the input from the four different teams together with our CEO, we were able to narrow down what we wanted to use to define the culture that our current and future team members would embrace. 

Provide Guidance

Please don’t get me wrong - as the leader of the company, it is important to guide how your core values are defined. You should not simply leave everything to be determined by your team, no matter how capable they might be. In many ways, they will be looking to the company’s leaders for direction and inspiration. With this in mind before asking our team to define our values, I made a presentation on what we want Uberflip to be. It covered our mission, how we execute it, and touched on the values through examples of day-to-day experiences. As per above, I was able to build a lot of this out from our vision (which in our case is to “Power the World’s Content”). Using this theme, I built what became an 80+ page deck: The Uberflip Culture Deck. 

I am far from the first to create such a deck. Many of the workplaces best known for their culture (Zappos, HubSpot, Netflix) all have amazing culture decks that help illustrate how your values can be interpreted from daily challenges. My favorite is probably Dharmesh Shah’s Culture Code used at HubSpot.

Don't Expect Change Overnight

Just because you’ve got a slick culture deck or motivating core values don’t assume everything is going to fall in place overnight. Defining or changing culture takes time and reinforcement. Our event and team exercise was great - but it was a point in time along a long journey which can easily be forgotten. Others will join the team and never have experienced that team bonding event. So what can you do to make sure your culture is clear and engrained? Here are a number of items we’ve started to implement to ensure our culture is ever present:

  • Hire with culture - We have started to use our core values as a guideline for hiring. Making our values clear or questioning candidates around them allows us to hire the best and weed out those who don’t jell with our culture.
  • Welcome people into your culture from day one - On the first day of work for any rookie member of our team they sit with me and we review the Uberflip Culture Deck. This ensures that people understand why the rest of us do as we do. 
  • Track employee happiness and welcome ongoing feedback - I could do a whole other post on this. We use a tool called TinyPulse to allow employees to share their feelings. The simplest benchmark tracked here is happiness and I’m happy to say that, since embracing our culture, overall team happiness has already increased from an average score of 7.9 to 8.2 to 8.6 - not huge jumps but a lot when you consider it's less than 90 days in between each.
  • Paint it on the walls - I kid you not, our team members were begging for this (via TinyPulse). People want to embrace a culture they believe in and they want to see it all day long. Use the walls in your office as we have with ours
    Uberflip culture
  • Swag it up! - I’ll admit I just got to this recently - but throw your values onto your t-shirts and other swag - what better way to get buy in and see your team embrace what you’re all about.

Uberflip culture

A Solid Culture Will Scale

If you think back through your life growing up, you’ve probably seen the effects of well-defined core values in a group without ever thinking about it. Whether you were a Boy/Girl Scout or part of a fraternity at school you likely entered and embraced a culture. These values were not thought up the day you got there - they existed and were ingrained in members over time, but still work no matter how many people of different backgrounds come through. For me it was thinking back to my days at summer camp that pushed me to formalize our culture with the goal of creating an experience for our team to rally around today, especially as we scale from 30+ to who knows how many in the future!

Want to see Uberflip culture in action? Click here to see photos from Startupong, our first annual ping pong tournament, hosted by startupers for startupers. 

About the Author

Randy Frisch

As President and CMO, Randy runs around daily between marketing, strategy, operations, sales and execution of Uberflip's awesomeness.

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