Culture devours strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner

by: | November 16, 2016

A few weeks ago, I spent some time at my alma mater, celebrating with old friends. The reunion I was attending was an awesome experience, and it reminded me that engineering is a team sport. It also made me think about what I do every day, and why I love it.

My ideas about talent, culture and building winning teams started in engineering school, and formed when I moved to Silicon Valley, joined Elon & Kimbal, and started building startup companies like Zip2, docSpace, Critical Path, Kobo and now League.

Fast forward 20 years and 4 startups later. I get asked all the time about the secret to startup business success.

What is it? What’s your strategy? What’s the magic?

Simple. Culture. Culture devours strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Culture? You mean ping pong tables, chill rooms, craft beer, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll?

You’re watching way too much HBO.

Success starts with a clear defining vision of a better future, and a mission to solve important problems and create value for people. Success requires a clear understanding of your values.  Values aren’t just pretty words to include in HR manuals. They must be clearly defined.

Values are the how—not the what or why—the how. How will you compete? How does your David take on Goliath? Because startups are a team sport, and every new category is super competitive. (If you don’t think so, you should quit while you’re ahead.) There’s only one podium, it’s global, and no one ever remembers the bronze medalist. You want to be on that podium? Define what you value, and outline how you will work like hell to compete and win.

That is the foundation of culture. And the foundation of startup success. You own it. You must uphold it, and grow it. You are the custodian. You must hire people who fit that culture: people who want to win, who passionately contribute to achieve your mission, who share your values in that effort, who contribute and help grow your culture. If they don’t, make a change as soon as you can. You must setup a system for your culture to live in.  A cadence.  An openness.  A set of stories that weave together successes, failures, images, feelings, milestones, patterns, sayings, emojis, artifacts, awards, and more.  

Finally, as CEO, you need to work every day to inspire your team and help them achieve unbelievably great things. Make them better versions of themselves. Support their health and wellbeing—physically, mentally, emotionally.  This is a marathon sprint.  People need to be their best selves to win it.   

Realize your vision. Achieve your mission. Win. Have fun.

That’s the formula.

And in its own way, it’s magic.

  • Chitra Anand

    Great article Mike – Culture is everything…the hardest thing for companies to build and sustain; finding deep meaning and purpose in your work

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