• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

Culture is Hard: 5 Ways to Own It

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“Culture is not a ‘nice-to-have.’ It’s not soft. In fact, it’s quite hard,” writes Indiegogo founder Danae Ringelmann, who offers five pieces of advice for founders. 

By Danae Ringelmann (Co-founder, Indiegogo)

logo2-150x1501I love attending startup conferences as they generally do a great job of covering what new companies need to succeed. But one topic is always left off of the agenda: culture, which makes me cringe as all the tips in the world on problem identification, strategy, and execution mean little when a company ignores culture.

Since starting Indiegogo nearly seven years ago, I’ve come to learn that culture is not a “nice-to-have.” It’s not soft. In fact, it’s quite hard. A company’s culture, which I now see as a system of shared values and behaviors, is critical to a company’s success, as it’s the foundation for employee productivity and happiness. Building a company without being intentional about culture, is like building a house on quick stand. Not smart. So when Shaherose Charania asked me to tackle the topic at the Women 2.0 conference last month, I jumped at the opportunity.

Here are five major lessons that we’ve learned about culture in our journey to build Indiegogo as the world’s largest and most empowering crowdfunding platform.

Culture Is a Means for Survival

Shared values and behaviors are what enable people to trust each other and work together. I’d go so far to say, it’s critical for a startup’s survival. You can see no better example than by looking at where human culture originated. A hundred thousand years ago, the Cro-Magnons lived alongside the Neanderthals, a similar human species. The Cro-Magnons developed a system of values and behaviors such as painting on walls to share knowledge, eating together for meals to build trust, and funeral rituals to honor the dead. The Neanderthals did none of these things. The Cro-Magnons created a culture and thrived and evolved into modern humans, whereas the Neanderthals died out. No surprise.

Applied to startups where the most common cause of failure is not outside competition, but rather inside chaos and the team’s inability to execute, focusing on building the right culture to win is simply a necessity.

There Is No Such Thing as a Good or Bad Culture

When business editors publish “Best Places to Work” lists, readers often infer that those companies have a great culture. I would argue that those places are companies with cultures that are great for the people there. Every company needs to create its own unique environment, and not everyone thrives in the same environment.

So I believe there’s no such thing as a good or bad culture, but rather a strongly aligned or weakly aligned culture. Strong cultures help companies win as explained above. Weak cultures catalyze their demise. To be in alignment, the values and behaviors that the company needs to win overall are the values and behaviors that the people within authentically hold and exhibit every day.

For example, for companies primarily battling for market share, cultures that breed competition align well internally. For companies that depend on innovation, like Indiegogo, cultures that foment experimentation and learning align.

So the key for startup founders is to know what type of environment you need to have in place to succeed. You must identify the values and behaviors that will enable your company to win, and then find people who authentically exhibit those values and behaviors. More on that below.

Culture Is Always Happening So Be Intentional

Unlike strategy, which needs to be all set before you execute it, culture is always happening organically, whether or not any plan for culture is clear. As the founder or leader of your company, you set the culture with every action you take, every response you offer, or exchange you have with a colleague. The values and behaviors you exhibit will serve as the values and behaviors that your employees emulate.

So the take-away is, be intentional with your actions and words. Don’t make culture the eleventh idea on your perpetual Top Ten List of To-Dos. Know what your values are and make sure your own behaviors embody those values. Then hire according to them. Fire according to them. Create systems to help reinforce them, and reward those who embody them the most. Pay attention, every day. The work is never done, but the results are limitless.

Aligned Values = Productivity = Happiness

Through business school, we learned the importance of diversity in building successful companies. We learned to seek a diversity of thought, experience, personality, and backgrounds. The more diverse, the higher chance of success. But the one dimension you want homogeneity on is your values. The more people believe in the mission of the company and what’s needed to win, the easier it is for them to build relationships and produce with one another.

Research shows that happiness at work is not driven by perks and compensation, but rather by people’s relationships and their ability to contribute to the company’s success. So focusing on building an intentional and aligned culture not only increases your company’s chance of survival and success, but it also increases employee happiness. People spend 70% of their waking life at work, so it’s our duty as leaders of companies to ensure that we’re setting our employees up for success and happiness as best we can.

You’re Never Done

We explicitly focused on culture for the first time back in March 2011, after we raised our seed financing of $1.5m. My co-founders and I sat down with our first two employees and answered the question: “I came to work at Indiegogo because: ________?”  We each drew six pictures, which altogether resulted in four main themes. We turned those themes into words: Fearless, Authentic, Collaborative and Empowering — or FACE.  We immediately overhauled our hiring process and made sure every candidate went through two culture interviews to ensure they authentically embody FACE. We knew they’d fail at Indiegogo if they didn’t. We didn’t have a perfect track record, but overall our high retention rates have shocked our investors. Apparently, we’ve been doing pretty well at retaining and unleashing the right people for Indiegogo. I credit our early focus on culture.

At 85 people now, and two funding rounds later, we’re still focusing on culture. It’ll perpetually stay near or at the top of our Top Ten To-Do list. Why? Because with every new employee comes a new flavor of our values and behaviors, and as the company grows in size, the systems that worked when you were small might not fit anymore.  Now we’re in the midst of re-articulating the behaviors that map to FACE, and all 85 employees are contributing. From these results, we’re crafting a Values Blueprint document, which will serve as a guide to revisiting our hiring, onboarding, reward, and review systems, and more. And we expect to revisit all of this again when we’re 200 or 500 employees, and beyond. We’ll never be done.

So, one step at a time. Whether you’re an entrepreneur with an idea or a well-established, fast-growing company, keep culture at or near the top of your Top Ten list of to-dos. Don’t worry about its being “right” for everyone everywhere. Just be intentional about alignment, so both your company and your people can  all survive, thrive, and be happy. Good luck.

What position does culture hold on your Top Ten To-Do List?

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About the guest blogger: Danae (@gogoDanae) co-founded Indiegogo and leads the company’s Customer Happiness division. She was listed on Fast Company‘s Top 50 Women Innovators in Technology in 2011, and AWNY awarded Danae the “No Apologies” Changemaker award in 2013. Prior to Indiegogo, Danae was a securities analyst at Cowen & Co.