Company Culture Is Part of Your Business Model
February 14, 2014 Editor 0
A few years back, I was waiting for the light to change at 51st Street and Fifth Avenue in NYC. As I stood there, an elderly south Asian man came up next to me with a cart loaded with breakfast food that he was delivering to a meeting. When the light changed we both moved forward. As he pushed the cart, he did not see a small gap at the edge of the sidewalk. His cart wheels got stuck. He continued to push, the cart toppled over, and the food (still in its wrappers) spread all over the road.
As I looked at him, I saw dread in his eyes. I bet he assumed he was about to lose his job.
Suddenly a group of about a dozen people swarmed from behind us and began picking up the food. They’d restacked everything in the cart in less than a minute. A few bagels were lost, but the damage was minimal. The old man smiled, clearly relieved.
As the group of breakfast rescuers headed north on Fifth Avenue, I walked fast to catch up with them. They were obviously together. They explained to me that they worked for a software company near Chicago and were on a team trip to Manhattan as a reward for outstanding performance. In their company, they explained, the culture is very strong, and part of their firm’s ethos is that you should help people who need help, because someday you’ll need their help in return.
I was impressed by the simple way this group articulated the most basic aspect of their corporate culture: Help each other.
Every company has a culture, like it or not. Most cultures just form organically, usually around the personalities of the founders. Sometimes that is great: Earlier in my career I worked in a fantastic culture at Lotus, which had formed around founder Mitch Kapor. But more often than not, it is bad. And, once a culture forms, they are really hard to change.
Culture, in my mind, is the single most important attribute to successful companies. Inevitably, when things don’t go well for a company, the culture is what has a lot to say about whether or not you make it.
I think leaders should think of their culture as the first and most important business model that they create. It is the platform from which the more traditionally thought of business models emerge. A great culture enhances your ability to create great business models (and execute on them too!)
In my own company, a health care startup, I had a chance recently to set an example. I am a die-hard Red Sox fan. The last time the Sox won the World Series at Fenway was 1918. Last fall, I had tickets for Game 6 of the World Series, which fell on a Wednesday, and by the weekend before it was clear that this could be the evening when the Red Sox could win the Series at home.
Many weeks before, however I’d set up an important meeting with a very large prospect in St Louis—the city, coincidentally, whose team was playing the Red Sox in the Series. Many people had changed their schedules to be there for the meeting. I really wanted to cancel it to go to the game in Boston, but I decided that would be selfish. It would create problems for other people so I could attend something that would be fun, but hardly essential. So I gave up my World Series tickets, and I attended the out-of-town meeting.
The cultural point I was trying to make in our very new company is that we are all in the together, and even the CEO must show respect for others’ time. If you disrespect someone’s time, you are disrespecting them.
One company’s culture I particularly respect is athenahealth. I know the founders, Jonathan Bush and Todd Park, and I witnessed how much thought they put into forming the right corporate culture from the moment the launched the company. They might not have thought of it as a business model expressly, but it was. Today they fully appreciate that much of their success derives from the intentionally created culture. It took a while for them to get real traction in the market, but the culture kept them in the game until things really started to click. Athenahealth values teaching and learning, which helps it attract talent that wants to learn and grow.
When someone is leading a startup, it’s tempting to focus primarily on the business model, customer development, or product-market fit. But it’s important, even in the very early days, to actively think about culture. Look at five years and think about what your company should look like, and what you want employees to value. Have your team write down five behaviors it wants to see from its leaders, and five behaviors it will expect from employees. Spend time thinking the culture through and be specific.
Thinking proactively about your company’s culture as an integral part of its business model is a good start. The next step is to actually start behaving in ways that make it a reality.
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