On Company Culture

The last question from the audience during my interview with Tony was about maintaining company culture as your company scales up. Tony gave a great response about hiring a money guy earlier than expected—but truthfully, I wasn’t really listening because I was too busy forming some thoughts I wanted to share on company culture. Sadly, we ran out of time before I could throw out my two cents so what follows is how I would've answered the question had I actually answered the question.

We’re thinking a lot about culture right now at First Opinion because we’re knee deep in scaling up the team. Executives pay a lot of lip service to shaping and maintaining culture, but often that’s as far as it goes because they don't realize the most important part about culture is buy-in from every person in the company1.

Culture cannot be top down only. Let me repeat that because I think most executives forget it: company culture cannot be top down only. Many company builders think that just because they want to work a certain way, everyone in the company wants to work that way also, and so they attempt to impose their ideal culture on their early employees through sheer force of will and epic stares of disappointment, which only causes internal strife in the company2.

The best way to make a healthy culture is to involve the whole company early, and often, and come to an agreement that not only everyone can commit to and follow, but one they actually want to follow. Then, when everyone knows what’s expected, you hold everyone responsible for maintaining those expectations. When there is buy-in from all the employees and everyone feels like they were heard while setting it up, there is a higher chance everyone will feel ownership in the culture and will actively work to maintain it.

What do I mean by buy-in? Let's look at an example that has never worked out well for me in real life3: suppose you want to have a 9am development team standup meeting each day. Seems reasonable, however, your developers usually don’t get into the office until around 11am. So, everyday, you’re nagging your developers to get to the office earlier because you want to have standup at 9am. Meanwhile, none of your developers want to show up until later. So, everyday, there is noticeable friction in the office between you and your dev team because you’re mad at your developers for not meeting your expectations and they’re annoyed because they had no say in setting those expectations.

How should you handle this situation to make sure your company culture returns to full health and includes a daily standup? My advice, sit down with everyone involved and work out a time that everyone can agree on. The key is everyone commits to the agreed upon time and feels that their voice was heard and their concerns acknowledged and/or answered.

If you’re setting up a company culture, I recommend picking up a copy of Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh. In the book, Tony talks about losing control of his first company's culture and the pains he took at Zappos to make sure it maintained its culture as it grew up. There is a reason Zappos offers you money to leave the company if you're not happy there because Tony recognized early on that buy-in was one of the most important parts of maintaining a culture as you scale the company from 1 to 100+ employees and, consequently, Zappos has done amazingly well maintaining its culture.

I'm saying it one more time for emphasis: I think a healthy culture is created when employees have buy-in to your company's culture and that your company’s culture was mutually agreed to, not just dictated from the top down.


  1. Participation is more important for employee 1 than employee 100 because you are asking more from them. The important thing is, as their leader, you cannot just force your early employees to do what you want to do because that will ultimately make your culture toxic. You must listen to your early employees and form a culture that everyone agrees to (if you don't want to listen to them, why did you hire them?), then they will hire more employees and those employees will have been prescreened to have buy-in even though they will most likely contribute less to the creation of the culture. The goal is to evolve the culture into something that can survive without your constant monitoring. 

  2. and now, evidently, lots of Secret posts. 

  3. I am not a morning person, my ideal time to get to work is around 11am. I don’t have a problem working late, in fact, our whole family has kind of a strange schedule that is a result of my work schedule, with my daughter going to bed around 10pm and not getting up until around 9am. Other parents look at us like we’re aliens when we tell them her bedtime.