Smoke It, Don’t Sear It: How to Create and Preserve a Genuine Culture
Business bloggers glorify company cultures without any consideration of their origins. Anyone can point at Netflix, Zappos, or other cultural icons and say, “Do that.” But how do you build a genuine culture if you’re justing copying someone else’s? You don’t.
Cultural imitation has a terrible track record (e.g., the whole 20th century). Cultures are specific to geography, historical events, political regimes, and institutions that we inherit rather than choose. Silicon Valley and 10th-century Baghdad are among the most innovative of their respective eras, but they achieved their innovations on very different terms.
The startup that tries to copy Zappos will fail. Rather than imitate cultures, leaders should study cultural transmission and understand how to apply it in their businesses.
After launching JotForm 13 years ago, I had my fair share of cultural successes and hard lessons. Drawing on those experiences, I’ll talk you through a three-piece model of culture that emphasizes the role of talent and recruiting.
1. You Create What You Model
In a company of one person, the culture is that person’s habits, behaviors, and beliefs. It’s not a culture in the traditional sense, but it’s not a personality either, because it is transmittable. Real culture is born from the relationship between the founder(s) and the first hires.
When companies talk about hiring for cultural fit, they often misunderstand what their culture is and is not. You like basketball, and she likes basketball? You drink IPAs, and so does he? Who cares? Those are preferences, not values.
I like working with people who are quick to execute, creative, and nice. As a product guy, I put product first and work well with people who share that mindset. By screening for hires with those qualities, I find people who share my culture and are likely to transmit it to the third person, the fourth, and so on.
Hire people who don’t necessarily share your personality but who do value similar habits, behaviors, and beliefs.
2. Culture Needs Close Quarters
Culture is a virus. In fact, we use the term “viral content” when cultural memes spread far and wide. People can only transmit viruses in proximity. Social networks create “close quarters” using communication technology. Businesses, too, need ways to create close quarters if they want to perpetuate their cultures.
I blew this once I started scaling JotForm. In 2008, we had three employees. When we reached 28 in 2012, something went wrong. We were unproductive, uncollaborative, and uncommunicative. We weren’t a big company, but it felt that way. The long-term employees and I shared a culture, but the rest did not.
So, I carved up the group into cross-functional teams of four or five people. Critically, I planted a veteran employee on each team. The cultural “virus” spread easily in these tight-knit settings. Through company-wide events like Hack Weeks and Demo Days, we continued to sync up the culture between these smaller, autonomous units and the wider group.
3. Smoke Culture, Don’t Sear It
If you put a five-pound brisket on the grill and crank up the flames, the meat is going to be awful. The outer meat will char quickly, but the inside won’t cook. That, essentially, is what happens when companies scale too quickly.
The old-timers become the cultural fringe. They overcook and become disparate from the core — the mass of employees. In the raw center, the meat is inedible and unchanged. The raw recruits don’t know the expectations, and most don’t get contact with the crisped edges.
If you want culture to spread evenly, smoke the brisket slowly. JotForm is bootstrapped, so that wasn’t hard. Before we hired anyone, we had to have their first-year salary in the bank. That is still the rule. The one-year philosophy keeps risk low and prevents us from hiring quicker than we can transmit our culture.
Company cultures differ because the values of the founders do too. Whatever culture you choose to transmit, focus on finding the right people, creating close quarters, and permitting enough time for the culture to spread.
Remember that people spend most of their waking hours in a workplace and want to enjoy it. Stop trying to copy or hack culture with someone else’s model. Create your own and be a model to others.
Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of JotForm.