According 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:
- 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
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.