Sep 2, 2021
by Mark Watabe
Does your company claim to have a list of core values or primary principles? Can you name them all and cite how they shape the day-to-day?
If you are at a larger and more established company, there is undoubtedly a list somewhere. We might say your company has great corporate culture if its people can rattle off the values without looking them up and if those values actually shape decision making. In poor corporate culture stated values are clearly at odds with reality. Being at a place that is mum on the subject of values is without a doubt preferable to that situation.
If big companies need values for alignment, then what about startups? Truthfully, it is a waste of time for small teams (like at Perygee) to sit around debating how to create a culture when there is so much fun product & company building work to do. But as we get to know each other and grow together, we need to be on the lookout for opportunities to turn our emerging 'soft culture' into the explicit 'corporate culture' we want to exist for the next wave of hires.
As a remote company started during the pandemic, we weren't able to have an in person conversation about values until 6 months into already working together virtually. In early August we met up for the week in a house rental just south of Boston. After 2 days of total relaxation, we spent 3 days breaking out the sticky notes and digging into the meaty topics: Why must Perygee exist, and how are we going to work together to make it happen?
We all agreed that having explicitly stated values that guide how we ought to work together is a good thing. We also agreed the fewer the better -- we don't want a list we have to keep fiddling with, and we don't have time to make laptop stickers and t-shirts. Within a few hours we settled on committing to one core value:
You read this and probably think, "ah yes, every meeting should have an agenda before hand" or you are reminded of that time you first heard someone say "why don't we end this call now and give everyone back their time". Yes, concern for efficiency follows from this principle, but it is only one small part. It is worth digging into each of these 3 words separately to understand what this imperative means to us.
Respect means treating someone on their terms, and in a way that works for them. The 9-5, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year schedule really doesn't apply to a remote first tech startup. Our meetings and modes of communication need to serve each individual as well as the group. Not everyone needs to keep the same schedule, but everyone needs to up their availablity status game. Does your calendar accurately describe when you are busy during your work hours? If you are broadcasting a green circle on Slack, are you prioritizing responding to messages?
When we say everyone, we mean everyone: founders, hires, customers, prospects, candidates, partners and so on. At the retreat one engineer shared how at former employers there had been a two tier system created by the product and sales approach: sales sold a promise, and the company had to fill the product gap with professional services. Instead of working as one team in which the product building team responded to the needs of its internal users, engineers were mostly shielded from the all-nighters and crazy deadlines that were due to the deficiencies in the very product they were building!
There are only two currencies: time and money. And in our current stage time is the more precious resource. However, when we think about saving time or best using time we have to think across multiple time scales - this week, this quarter, in 5 years. If one person can spend 8 hours today on a task that saves everyone else 5 minutes a day for the foreseeable future, should that person make the investment? These flywheel decisions add up, and making the right investments for tomorrow is of critical importance. To feel good about our triage decisions we need to consider what we think our team and processes will look like in 3-6 months.
Since the retreat we've found ourselves referring to our one core value when discussing how to reformat our morning check-in or when triaging what to do next. Hopefully in a year or so we'll write an update on how this principle shaped our culture and help us grow, stay tuned!
If you are at an early stage startup, or have been at a company since early days, how does this compare to your experience? Did your team discuss values from the beginning, or did it come up once you reached a certain size and realized not everyone is going to care about the vision nearly as much as that first handful of people? Get in touch, we'd love to hear about your experience.