Finding A Startup Aligned With Your Values

people-woman-coffee-meetingAccording to a study reported in the New York Times, “One of the most important dimensions of job satisfaction is how you feel about your employer’s mission” (Source). Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell University, reports that equal incomes may produce significantly higher life satisfaction if the person aligns with the mission and values of his or her workplace. “When most people leave work each evening, they feel better if they have made the world better in some way, or at least haven’t made it worse.” (Source)

Where we work and the nature of our work greatly impacts our life satisfaction. We owe it to ourselves to find a startup that aligns with our values and will enable us to produce our best work.

Company decisions are driven by values. These values impact everything from what the office looks like on Friday afternoon to how customers are treated. When evaluating whether a startup is right for you, you need to understand the company values and how they align with your own.

Startup Values: What Are They, Really?

Each startup operates within an implicit or explicit value system; this is the set of principles that guide every aspect of the business and will deeply shape your experience working at a company.

Values help companies orient and make decisions when they reach impasses. They provide the answer to the question: “does this align with what we want to achieve?” and should be consulted before proceeding with any major decision.

Company Values Drive Behavior

Whether implicit or explicit, these values shape company behavior. They encompass: hiring, firing, how employees are treated, the kind of office environments fostered, the formality of employee attire, philosophies towards customers, parental leave policies, the kind of products built, how products are marketed and sold, and…so much more. Companies’ values will shape every experience you will have at a startup. Here are a few examples of stated company values:

  • Talk straight. (ServiceRocket)
  • Results first, substance over flash. (Rackspace)
  • Focus on the user and all else will follow. (Google)
  • Deliver WOW Through Service (Zappos)
  • Respect for the Individual (Accenture)
  • Move fast and break things. (Facebook)
  • Take work but not ourselves seriously. (Kapost)
  • Feel Free (Twitter)
  • Judgement (Netflix)

According to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, “The actual company values, as opposed to the nice-sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted or let go.” (Source) Netflix is known for its strictly enforced culture code, which is publicly available through their “culture manifesto” on the web.

Netflix’s culture manifesto highlights the relationship between values and behavior through a famous example of corporate fraud, Enron, which stated high-and-mighty values in their lobby like “integrity, respect and communication” that clearly did not translate into company-wide behavior. These values, as the Enron example and Hastings quote illustrate, mean nothing without corresponding action. In almost every case, unless you’re working with a very early company, the values will be explicitly stated.  

How can you tell if a company lives its values? A few questions you could consider asking before joining a startup:

“How are values lived at this company?”

“When has the leadership team had to make a difficult decision in order to stay true to company values?”

“When a team or individual strays from company values, what are the consequences?”

Many companies state values that sound great, but actually allow for toxic behavior. “Above all, win,” sounds nice, but it could leaves the door open for jerks to be gainfully employed–as long as they “crush it”. If there’s a stated company value that sounds fishy or nebulous, you’d be wise to ask questions. Don’t accept vague answers or leave without concrete stories and examples of how values are put into practice–or prepare to be disappointed.

It’s important to note that even startups that fail to define their values (again, most often very early-stage companies) have them; They’re just implicit. Any company that doesn’t explicitly state its values is more likely to operate under values that they would be embarrassed to put to proverbial paper. According to Netflix’s Co-Founder and CEO Reed Hastings, “Real company values are the behaviors and skills that we particularly value in fellow employees.”

For example, among their nine values, Netflix explains that their value “Judgement” looks like this in practice:

Judgement

  • You make wise decisions (people, technical, business, and creative) despite ambiguity
  • You identify root causes, and get beyond treating symptoms
  • You think strategically, and can articulate what you are, and are not, trying to do
  • You smartly separate what must be done well now, and what can be improved later

(Source)

Early-Stage Startups

As previously mentioned, early-stage startups are the least likely to state values but are, of course, still guided by values–they’re just implicit and/or default. A company made up of just two co-founders, for example, may not be mature enough to have created a fancy deck like Netflix, but perhaps they created the company in order to perpetuate the good ol’ days of University where they met.

If you’re thinking of working for a very early-stage company, encourage them to discuss their values among the leadership team (ideally including you, especially if you’ll be joining the leadership team) and ensure there’s alignment before going all-in. Also, expect early-stage startups to pivot quite a lot, and as a result, to potentially re-align their values when they pivot. If a startup starts out serving bankers, but then pivots when they realize their real customer base is high school-level educators, the values and culture will likely change as a result (though, of course, not necessarily).

If a company doesn’t claim values around something you care about, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t champion them. But it is less likely to be a priority. On the flip side, a company may state a value but not actually take actions that reflect it. Look for a startup that incorporates values you care about into their every decision.

If you’re considering working for a startup, inquire about their values during the interview process. Research ahead of time what values the company states on their website, and then ask about how they are actually lived at the company. What was a difficult decision the startup made in order to stay true to one of their values? Listen for stories that include plenty of details. You’ll quickly get a sense if the values hold meaning or are just there for show.

Advice For Founders: Stop Running Your Startup “Like A Family”

Before joining the amazing company I work for now, I spent several years doing marketing consulting for various stage B2B startups. As a result, I’ve been granted insights into many different startup cultures ranging from the excellent to the mediocre to the occasionally crappy.

Even if you sell the most incredible product in the world, if your workplace culture isn’t great, you’re not doing it right. Since recently (finally) reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, I really agree with his perspective that a great company culture is essential.

To make your company culture great, your most important values must be lived by you and your team. After all, company mission statements are only as strong as how well they’re operationalized.

On this topic, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend where well-meaning founders make the mistake of deciding to solve the “values/culture thing” by declaring that their startup is going to run “like a family,” especially during early stages. Here’s some thoughts on why “running your company like a family” is a really bad idea.

Saying you run your company “like a family” is extremely vague, and by doing this, you may create confusion among your team.

More often than not, when a CEO says to her team that she wants to run the company “like a family,” what she really means is that she wants to run the company according to her definition of how a family runs. After all, no two families are alike. How Jack the CEO’s family operates may be vastly different than how Jane the VP of Sales’ family functions. This leads to terrible and avoidable miscommunications.

Let’s say Jack the CEO calls his executives into a meeting and tells them that the company will now run “like a family” and that he expects leaders and their teams to act accordingly.

What if in Jack the CEO’s family, it’s common to call people out on their mistakes in public settings. After all, a little public shame is how people learn to correct their mistakes, right? So, without explicitly verbalizing any of these assumptions about what family means, Jack expects that when telling his executives to “run their teams like a family,” they’ll align with his understandings.

When Jane the VP of Sales heard Jack’s speech about “family,” she would have likely unconsciously applied it to her own understanding of family. Jane’s family does not behave like Jack’s family. Jane’s family only delivered criticism in private. People are praised in public, and given constructive criticism in private. Period.

When Jack the CEO sits in on Jane’s meeting with her Sales Development Reps (SDRs), one of the SDRs, Carl, reveals that he’s very behind on his numbers for the quarter. To Jack’s surprise, instead of tearing into him in front of the other SDRs, Jane centers the discussion around best practices and what everyone can work on as a team to improve processes. Jane plans to address Carl’s individual issues with him after the meeting in private and to review his performance improvement plan then. But Jack butts in, “Carl, why is everyone else outperforming you? Do you take this job seriously?” Jane goes beet red and after the meeting feels unsettled and confused. Why would Jack  undermine her authority in front of her team, and why he would blatantly go against their stated values? After all, wasn’t this company supposed to run like a family?

This is a pretty simplistic example, but you get the point. If you think a family should behave a certain way, chances are someone else disagrees. So don’t run your company “like a family”. State your explicit values instead.

Your experience of family is inherently subjective, but you likely won’t see it that way—and unchecked subjectivities are a big problem.

Perhaps in your family everyone was supportive, so you think running a company like a family means supporting each other. Great. But what if being supportive in your family also meant that while men in the family worked, women were expected to work only until they had children and then stay at home? So when your VP of Product comes to you announcing she’s going on maternity leave, will you treat her “like family”?

Some families are toxic, and you may unwittingly turn your company culture toxic if you run it like your family.

This is a point I’ve been intimating along the way in this post, but a lot of families are, simply put, dysfunctional and toxic. Maybe in your family you “just don’t talk about” the alcoholic gambling father in the family, so when the CEO’s personal problems start affecting his performance, or he does something unethical, it’s understood no one is to confront it lest they be breaking the family code. After all, you’re family! This is a really big problem and it’s surprisingly common in companies that run this way.

You can’t easily fire or lay off your family.

As Ben Horowitz shares in his book, as CEO or leader, you’re going to have to lay off people, many of whom are really, really great but who just aren’t the right fit anymore or because you personally failed them in some way. Depending on what stage you’re at in your company, it’s not a question of if this will happen—it’s a question of when. And running “like a family” will make it much harder for you and your executives to do this. Because it’s really hard to lay off “family”. Startups aren’t, and can’t be, families.

Better Alternatives Exist

On the surface, running your company like a family sounds like a nice, cozy idea. Family can be a source of a lot of joy and community for many people. But I’d argue that even if every single one of your employees right now consists of your actual family members, still don’t run it “like a family”! Instead, create company values that are specific and actionable. Some examples from leading companies:

  • Talk straight. (ServiceRocket)
  • Results first, substance over flash. (Rackspace)
  • Focus on the user and all else will follow. (Google)
  • Deliver WOW Through Service (Zappos)
  • Respect for the Individual (Accenture)
  • Move fast and break things. (Facebook)
  • Take work but not ourselves seriously. (Kappost)
  • Feel Free (Twitter)

Note that these values have nothing to do with “family” but may overlap with how some families operate.

Final Thoughts

I implore you, startup leaders: stop running your companies like a family. If you have that written somewhere in your mission statement or on your website, take it out right now–or at least be very specific about how you as a company actually define operating like a family. Instead, think about all of the good things you see in family and write those down as values that your company should embody.

Special thanks to Daniel Nelson, Founder of Food On A Truck, for his feedback in an early draft.