Having been the first employee at Jopwell, a Black-owned venture-backed tech company, people often ask me to share the biggest lesson I learned from my startup journey. The truth is, I’ve learned so much that it’s hard to single out one takeaway as being more important than the rest. But lately, with so many tech companies like Uber on the receiving end of a barrage of negative press, the importance of deliberately crafting an empowering, enjoyable, and productive company culture has been weighing heavily on my mind.
Like diversity, culture is one of the most costly oversights that founders make in the early days of building their company from zero to one. What’s worse is that when neglected, the negative effects of these oversights compound very quickly and become more difficult to correct over time. Imagine a team that doesn’t value forming personal relationships with each other outside of the office, or value allowing each person to bring his or her whole self to work everyday. This small team eventually develops into a whole company of people not invested in the entire well-being of the colleagues they see everyday. I was recently listening to “Master’s of Scale,” a podcast hosted by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and I was struck by something that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings – the episode’s guest – shared about company culture shock.
“I believe that a strong culture is critical to companies that hope to scale,” Hastings said. “But truly strong company cultures emerge only when every employee feels that they personally own the culture. And by strong culture, I don’t mean authoritative. A strong culture should be a true articulation of how your employees work at their best. It should be grounded in your shared mission, the thing you are trying to accomplish. It should be understood by everyone and built by everyone, and it should start from your earliest days as a startup.”
So what are some key traits to look for when building the foundation of a productive culture centered around employee well-being and moving the company forward? Below are the four types of people that I’ve discovered – through my own experience of helping to build a startup and which I will use as the basis for building the culture at any company I start or lead in the future – will get you there. Founders, listen up: You’re going to want to hire these MVPs ASAP.
My biggest pet peeve? People asking me for solutions to problems they could easily figure out on their own if only they tried. At a startup, there is a new challenge and a new fire to put out every day. One day it might be that a product feature breaks right before a demonstration of the platform in a sales meeting with a major potential client. The next day it’s that a user growth campaign isn’t yielding the new signups projected, or that a new design isn’t in line with our brand. Hustlers are the people you want in these situations. They know how to make a way out of no way. They take initiative and get things done. Hustlers prioritize the issues, investigate what went wrong, and course correct before galvanizing the team. They bring solutions to the table, not more problems.
Utility players are flexible in their roles and contributions to the bottom line. They forget title, and job description. They can be the franchise player or the pinch hitter. One day they might be leading a new marketing effort or even taking out the office trash. The next day they might be a QA engineer testing the new release of a product, documenting bugs, and working with engineers to implement changes. At the end of the day, having people who aren’t above pitching in to close whatever gaps arise on the team is what gets a young startup to the next level.
Startups can be quite homogenous in the early days because people tend to recruit potential new hires through their immediate networks since it’s easier and faster than seeking out new talent. As a startup grows, however, strong leaders will ideally seek out individuals with more diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and personalities. The ideas and contributions those teammates bring to a company will mix things up and help create healthy dynamic tensions that challenge every employee to step up their game and drive the business forward. But in order to manage all those different personalities, companies need emotionally intelligent leaders. Those are the people who work to understand intangibles such as the unique stressors, motivators, and communication styles of the various team members.. Some people produce their best work when micromanaged - others when operating autonomously. Others perform best when they build strong relationships outside of work with their colleagues. Yet others might perform best when they receive public recognition for their work. Exceptional leaders understand this and use this type of information to drive the entire team forward.
Adam Grant, an author and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, characterizes “disagreeable givers” as those who "enjoy conflict, like to challenge the status quo and rock the boat, but are motivated to do that in service of making other people successful or achieving a meaningful organizational goal." These people often employ first principle thinking. Reid Hoffman, a well known entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author, defines that idea like this: "Instead of blindly following directions or sticking to a process, a first-principle thinker will constantly ask, 'What’s best for the company?' and 'Couldn’t we do it another way instead?'" In short, disagreeable givers challenge points of view, like to address conflict head on, and freely give and take constructive criticism. Everything they do is in service to the goals and mission of the business. Still, it’s important to understand the importance of clear communication. There is enough ambiguity to deal with while starting a business from scratch; communication between teammates needn't be another complication. Knowing how to share opinions, challenge positions, discuss issues, and come to a mutually agreeable solution is essential to the health of functional and fruitful work relationships. Not every disagreement is an argument and not every criticism is an indictment.
As Jay-Z so eloquently put it in 4:44, "Nobody wins when the family feuds." Culture can make or break any company. If you're a budding entrepreneur, be deliberate about the people you choose from day one. They will set the foundation of your company for years to come.
Anastacia Gordon is a writer, backpacker, and budding VC investor interested in music x media x culture x tech. She is currently a summer associate at Kapor Capital and was a founding team member at Jopwell.