Company Culture

The best culture hacks

Jessica Alter Entrepreneur & Advisor

July 23rd, 2013

As a CEO I think a ton about cultivating culture and I often find the little things really make a difference. We've borrowed ideas from different companies from interview questions we love to having the newest team member plan the next team outing.
One i just heard about that Lyft does - gives every new employee SBUX gift cards so they can go to coffee with everyone on the team 1:1. 
What are the best ideas (big and small) that help cultivate culture  that either your company used/uses or that you've heard?

Paul O'Brien MediaTech Ventures CEO

July 23rd, 2013

The little things make all of the difference
This is a favorite article from Shawn Parr that reflect on the idea that your strategy is moot; culture is what matters:

My second favorite touches on exactly what you said, that the the little things make the difference.  I particularly love this because in our increasingly "Lean" culture in which entrepreneurs (or rather, investors and advisors), are embracing the idea of an MVP, an increasing amount of evidence suggests the MVP isn't working. From the Greylock article (I believe) a couple months ago suggesting that you must build the Maximum Viable Product to this,
"If you don't seem paranoid about perfection, you're probably not aiming high enough. Sadly--for consumers--the vast majority of companies will never put this level of focus on their products, services, or interactions.  But building it into your culture, and making sure it's a collective and distributed effort, is a winning way to ensure your products are superior."

So... how?
I love two ideas:
  1. Serendipitous Encounters
  2. Fun Fridays
Serendipitous Encounters.  Create the opportunities for employees that work independently of one another to engage.  Ensure execs aren't locked away in an office.  Create many shared work environments that are more appealing than cubes or desks (rooms with a view, comfy but productive seating, shared desks, etc.).  Once a week have a company lunch, paid for, in which EVERYONE participates from the interns and consults to the CEO.  The execs on the team should never sit with the same people.

Fun Fridays.  A modest reflection of Google's informal policy that everyone should spend a certain amount of time working on whatever they want, dedicate a time to do that.  Friday morning is flex time... as long as it's work related, do something you want to do, outside of your scope.  You can't encourage it, you must require it, otherwise people will spend the time on their job (for fear of losing it for lack of time to deliver).  Lunch is shared and fun.  And you open the floor to discuss the morning.  Who has some crazy thing cooking? Ideas, all of them are rewarded.  Mistakes and lessons learned are rewarded even more.  Afternoon is back to work but the week ends with happy hour, live music, at artist showing, a cool speaker, etc. SOMETHING to have fun.

Why are those my favorite?  They cost nothing, practically speaking, out of pocket.

One more... pay people to leave.  Seriously.  Steadily increase the amount of money you will pay outright for people to leave.  Start a $1,000.  I assure you, the time and money you are spending in training and managing employees that aren't passionate about your venture is far greater than $1000.  Then, if you're so bold, make it $5k.  The person who takes $5k is the person who isn't on board.  That's the kind of money people need - to buy a car, pay off a credit card, etc.  It's enough that someone who simply has a job, and isn't part of your culture, will leave.   More importantly, it's not the act of doing this, but the behavior and the tone it sets in the culture.  It essentially says you are here because the opportunity and potential is tremendous; so much so, that if you can be bought to do something else because you don't believe it, I'll buy you - to do something else.

Balki Kodarapu Experienced Software Engineering Leader

July 24th, 2013

My most favorite topic... ever!  Thanks for the great contributions so far.
I personally believe the front-line leaders are the key influencers of the company culture.  In most startups, it is the founding members.
Even though I work for a large corporation for my day job, my group's leadership team has been a great proponent of building transparent, respectful, collaborative and growth-oriented culture.  Some of the small things we do that help develop such a culture are:
- Thank you Thursdays : Every Thursday morning one of the team members starts a simple thank you email recognizing someone else within or outside the team for their help.  The email chain continues throughout the day.  No coincidence that we get a lot done on Thursdays!
- Growing Leaders Conference : Our department director facilitates a monthly session exclusively focused on developing the skills of next-generation leaders by presenting them with real management challenges.
- Monthly Social Happy Hour: Each monthly (Friday) event has a special theme.  Themes range from simple barbecue or happy hour to Bollywood Hungama and Salsa lessons.  Each of these special events is hosted by one of the team members who is passionate about that subject.
- One Kind Thing (per day) : Every manager/leader routinely but deliberately finds a way to do one kind thing for some one on the team each and every day.  Kind things can range from sharing a delicious, ethnic lunch to giving the day off on the employee's kid's birthday.

Stephen Peters Looking for the next challenge and opportunity

July 23rd, 2013

We borrowed from Nike's slogan and adopted a policy of "Just You Do It".  That is, when the team was sitting around discussing things and someone came up with a good idea, we'd assign it to someone to implement.  We found that people were coming up with good ideas, but we were falling down on the follow-through because they were never actually *assigned* to anyone as a work task.

Once we realized we were letting opportunity slip through our fingers we made it explicit that yes, we want to do that and made sure it was assigned to someone to do.

"Just You Do It" did indeed work :-)

Brian McConnell

July 23rd, 2013

I would always hire based on capabilities rather than a specific role. Most companies hire for a specific role and try to find an exact fit. I would look for people who have skills that generally fit our needs, knowing that specifics change and peoples' interests change. Smart people get bored quickly especially when they are pigeonholed into doing a specific thing. That doesn't scale, but in small companies it works well. I'm also a big believer in the 40 hour workweek as the baseline. Requiring more than that should be the exception, either because you have a legit make or break deadline, or because an individual is on a roll. If you're routinely pushing people to work 60+ hours a week, you need more people, or need to narrow what you're trying to do. I think this is even more true of knowledge based jobs due to mental burnout. Sadly, too few tech companies have read the century old research that documented productivity falls off after 40 hours. I also like Zappos idea of making it easy for people to leave without "failing". Sometimes you don't know if something's a bad fit (in either direction) until you're there. Zappos pays people to leave if they don't like the culture, job, etc, without being punitive. I think its a smart strategy and avoids ill will on both sides. You obviously want to hire as wisely as you can, but you can't predict everything based on a resume/portfolio and a few interviews. My $0.02 Brian McConnell


July 23rd, 2013

You should check out They provide perks affordable for small and medium size companies, mostly startups. They have team building events, fitness, entertainment options, a lot of things that can help build culture!

Michael Grassotti Founder, Technologist & Coder

July 23rd, 2013

Wow great topic. I've spent a lot of time talking to other founders about this recently - at my startup we are turning these hacks into automations that can be shared with other companies. We've collected a few hundred ideas so far - probably my favorite comes from AppNexus. They have been growing very fast so need to be really good at on-boarding new team members. At the end of their first week, every new team member gets an email asking what they wish they'd been told on day one. Responses end up in the day-1 training package for future employees. 

Alec Guettel

July 23rd, 2013

Great topic!  Look forward to seeing ideas. 
Most important thing you can do in my book is hire naturally happy people in the first place. 
Finding everyday ways to celebrate small victories (e.g., maracas at every sale) can be really important too - lets everyone feel good about progress and momentum. 
Transparency is the other big one for me. People sign up for the startup environment because they want to be a part of the adventure. Have to trust that they can handle the ups and downs and share as much as possible as far down as possible. Has a lot of ancillary benefits (idea gen, building up resilience...)

Joseph Moniz Software Engineer

July 24th, 2013

Create your own memes.

At one of the startups i've worked at in the past. All new hires had to answer 3 preselected questions about themselves in front of the entire company. One of the questions was "What would be the first thing you saved if you were in a burning building". HR would say to new hires "If you pick that question, the answer is always James". James was the engineer who'd been with the team the longest. So it eventually created an internal only meme. Marketing even once made a video where some interns were dressed up like fire fighters and they ran in the building to safely save James from the wildly dangerous fake fire.

- Joseph Moniz

"Wake up early, Stay up late, Change the world"

Paul Cuciureanu Tech Lead at Ubisoft, Community Architect

July 24th, 2013

Understand the social network that extends beyond your employees' relatives/friends - the context in which your organization functions. Then introduce people who have not met before to each other.

>> One I just heard about that Lyft does - gives every new employee SBUX gift cards so they can go to coffee with everyone on the team 1:1. 

I really like this idea. How can we extend it beyond colleagues?


July 25th, 2013

I just read Reed Hastings's presentation on Netflix's culture (Freedom & Responsibility) which is great

This is Dharmesh Sha's endorsement of it:
"If you have time to read one document on the topic of startup culture, you should read through the NetFlix “culture deck” (embedded below).  If you have time for two, read through the NetFlix deck twice - it’s that good."