High-Impact Entrepreneurship

Thoughts on organizational culture, from Fred Wilson and Scott Kurnit

Reprinted from AVC. Original article here

By Fred Wilson, a VC and principal of Union Square Ventures, and Scott Kurnit.

When I announced the MBA Mondays series on People and mentioned I would end with a number of guest posts, I got an email from my friend Scott Kurnit, founder of About.com and Keep Holdings. Scott said, “Culture that is something I have thought a ton about. I’d love to contribute a guest post.”

So what follows are Scott’s thoughts and experiences on building culture in an organization.

Culture

Every company has a culture. The issue is – do you let it happen by accident or do you shape it?

- The CEO is the culture driver. It can’t be done by HR or anyone else. You either live it… or don’t bother.

- Many cultural imperatives are the same at every company. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them down and socialize them, but come up with the 3 or 4 that make your company special, that make someone want to join your company… or not. Your people ARE your culture. The culture quickly takes on a life of its own.

- My favorite cultural imperatives are: Be Adaptive, Be Adoptive, Encourage Push Back, and Cherish Input, but NOT consensus. That said, these are ours – adopt what you like, but make your culture your own.
I think about company culture every day, but last week was especially poignant withAbout.com back in the news. We “pre-set” the About culture on day one and it’s one of the half dozen reasons the company is around 15 years later after six CEOs, four owners and almost no investment for the last decade.

As Fred noted in his May post kicking off the culture discussion, you can get away with an accidental culture for the first 20 or 30 hires – but then culture takes on a life of its own. I’d say that you’re better off doing what we did with About when from the outset Bill Day and I locked ourselves in a room and thought it through. What kind of people did we want to work with? What was going to make us strong all the way through to a thousand team members (yes, we banned the word employee). Were we going to trust our people or manage tightly? Were we willing to pay top dollar or save money and hire at the 50th percentile? Who was going to be most important – senior management, staff, Guides, advertisers or users – and in what order? What would our decision making process be? Would we come in early or stay late? Did we care if people were in the office or working remotely? Etc., etc.

Culture was extra important to the About model since our business needed to get big fast, but it also showed me that defining a culture sooner than later builds the best business foundation. It seems so obvious, but out of 150 start-up CEOs I’ve discussed this with I found only three who pre-determined their culture. That’s crazy!

It doesn’t matter what your culture is, but have one. The sooner everyone knows what makes the place tick, the sooner you’ll hire the right team members and then they’ll hire the right ones and then them and them and them.

While I list all 10 of the Keep Holdings culture imperatives below, I’ll pull out a few that are religion for me and likely the most controversial.

Be Adaptive: We’re working in an amazingly dynamic industry. Be prepared to change on a dime. If I hire you to do X but need you to do Y tomorrow, buck up and go with it… or don’t come in the first place. You sure get a different kind of person when they’re game to ride the waves. Don’t want to ride waves, go work at Big Slow Corp Inc. and good luck with that.

Be Adoptive: Hey, we work in the Internet – Invent like crazy, but don’t be afraid to adopt good ideas from everywhere. Don’t tread on someone’s patented business process, but if you like someone’s ideas, build on them. Yes, that’s legal – and it’s OK to admit you don’t have all the great ideas.

Pushback: Everyone should know why they’re doing something. I’ll never forget when I asked a colleague at Showtime for some quick data analysis. When I asked him the next day where it was and he told me he needed another day I realized *I* screwed up by not telling him I only wanted the info if he could do it in 10 minutes. Everyone should be encouraged to say, why, how long should I spend, what should I not do instead and are you sure it’s worth the effort? While this was about saving some time, this simple concept now makes our company more transparent and productive at every turn – whether for little tasks or big strategic issues.

Input, not consensus: This may be the biggest for me since it’s the major thing I can point to for why AOL crushed Prodigy in the pre-internet online world. I still have nightmares of 18 people sitting around a table trying to make a pricing decision. It took Prodigy over a year to adjust pricing to be more in line with – and trump AOL and it took Steve Case’s AOL one measly day to respond. One year… one day. I still get chills. Rather than have the indecision of 18 people, pick one to be the decider as the very first action. Trust me, that person feels the weight and authority when they own the decision. They’ll get a ton of input… rather than having endless discussions. Group decision-making makes people fearful of engaging with the concern that it will never end. When one person’s in charge… they want to hear it all. And fast. And get it right. And crisp. And done!

OK, here’s the whole list that drives Keep.comTheSwizzle and AdKeeper. Feel free to Adopt as appropriate… but make sure you live it. These are not for everyone… but you should all have those that work for you.

Consumers always come first.
We operate as an “upside-down pyramid:” customers first, those who directly engage with customers second, management last.
We respect individual privacy and aim to give consumers greater control of their web experiences.
We embrace community, with users in control.
We maximize value to our partners.
We love brands, products and services!
We partner with brands to help them succeed on the web.
But user experience trumps money every time.
We operate with the highest integrity.
We are straight shooters and demand integrity in principle and practice.
We don’t tolerate politics.
We admit and confront our mistakes… and learn from them.
We are adaptive, flexible and nimble.
We race towards opportunity.  We spin on a dime.
We move at Internet speed – ahead of the crowd.
Jobs can change at any time.
We are adoptive, embracing good ideas from all sources.
We embrace diversity in perspective, viewpoint, thinking and actions.
All ideas are welcome and appreciated.
We encourage teamwork, risk-taking, creativity, and speed-to-market
Teamwork makes better products, but can slow things down.
So, we encourage single ownership, creativity, risk and speed.
We value input (& push-back), not consensus.
We value everyone’s opinions but recognize the power of crisp and quick decisions.
Decision-owners must solicit input, welcome push-back, and ultimately make the call and execute.
We are strategically focused.
Our work is market focused.
We build and evolve world-class products.
Our offerings will be powerful, relevant, scalable and low friction.
We only want to work with the best people, those who are prepared to work harder than the competition.
We are positive in our outlook and behavior.
We will compensate better.
We will have more fun.
We will sprint a marathon and win our races.
We will succeed together.
We exist to build long-term value for our investors.
Everyone who works here is an owner.

Comments

Contact us

Press center

Community

Newsletter Sign Up