“Culture” is what makes a company look strange to others from the outside. It’s a combination of all the quirks, traditions, and personalities that make it unique. Ultimately, culture is defined by how your company is different from all the others, not how it’s the same.
A company’s culture should be like an Indian wedding.
If you’re American and have never experienced an Indian wedding, it will seem very strange at first. They are colorful, elaborate celebrations that can last multiple days. From choreographed dances during the Sangeet (the pre-wedding party) to the groom riding in on a horse, to the bride’s vibrant-colored Sari (there’s no white dress), they can feel otherworldly.
The traditions are so specific at an Indian wedding that you find out quickly whether you like or dislike the cultural experience (I love it). This isn’t a comment on whether Indian weddings are better or worse than other kinds of weddings – they are just unabashedly different.
Company cultures should be like Indian weddings. They need to have key elements that make them distinctly different from other companies.
Good company cultures only entice candidates who will thrive there.
A company’s culture should be so specific that it acts like a filter separating those employees who will thrive there from those who won’t. This means there will be many prospective employees who won’t want to work at the company due to the vibe they get during the interview process. You want people interviewing with you to say to themselves “this is not the right culture for me.” You do not want to appeal to everyone, but instead, massively appeal to only a few talented people that will join your company.
One of the reasons for the enduring success of Amazon is its distinct culture. Amazon has a frugality at its core that very few start-ups can match. They take frugality to the extreme — their CEO is famous for his quote, “your margins are our opportunity.” They have a lot fewer perks than other comparable tech companies because their view is that every dollar they save internally can be passed on to the customer.
Of course, the Amazon culture does not appeal to everyone. It was not designed to. It attracts only those few people who instantly “get it” and will work their butts off to fanatically help the end customer and get them the lowest possible price. That’s what a great culture does; it filters for those who will thrive there.
Google’s original obsession with ‘Googleyness’ is another example of a specific company culture. Unlike Amazon, the founders and early employees didn’t care much about frugality or margins. Instead, they wanted intellectual excellence while fostering collaboration and an open-source approach. They strived to be seen as “weird” and were proud to wear that label.
Google’s early interview process filtered for these attributes, asking candidates ‘out-of-the-box’ questions and putting them on the spot to come up with heretical solutions. And this process didn’t appeal to everyone. Someone who had previously worked at IBM, for example, would have likely been turned off. But Google didn’t care. Their focus was on finding people who fit into their specific culture – people with ‘Googleyness.’
Most things companies think are part of their culture are not actually part of their culture.
98% of startups have an open office layout, so it is not part of your culture if you don’t have private offices. But if you give everyone a private office, it is part of your culture because that’s really different.
It used to be that having work-from-home options was part of the culture, but post-COVID every tech company now embraces work-from-home. Though companies that are fully distributed (like Zapier and GitLab) have specific cultures.
If you’re a tech start-up and require that employees wear suits, that is definitely part of your culture. But suits are not part of the culture of the White House because people are expected to be more formal when working near the President.
It would be really neat to see a tech start-up that required business attire, use Windows, host their apps on their own servers (rather than use AWS), and be cash-flow positive from day one. That would be really different. It might only appeal to a very small percentage of the population, but they might end up having rabid fans and attracting talent who will thrive there.
SafeGraph’s culture is defined by how we are different from all the others, not how we are the same.
A company’s culture should be so strong it feels like a cult sometimes. This is why at SafeGraph, we fundamentally aim to create a unique culture. Employees know that they cannot get a similar vibe elsewhere.
In addition to being a weird company because we are just a data company (not an application – most investors think this is a bad idea), we also have a few unique values we stand by:
- Do fewer things but be great at them.
- Judgement is the x-factor.
- We are the enablers, not the solvers.
- Respect our own time — get leverage.
- Respect others’ time — don’t be a bottleneck.
- Focus on growth.
At SafeGraph, we actually eschew optionality. This is very different from most companies. Instead of trying to do a lot of different things, we try to do as few things as possible to become the best at what we do. Most companies try to keep their options open – not us. We do fewer things better and that’s providing data to our customers.
Another way our culture is different is that we understand we are not the problem solvers. Our clients are the ones who will leverage our data to change the world, not us. This humility colors everything we do.
We also care a lot about growth on an individual level. That’s why we use specific, positive feedback across the entire company. You don’t have to be a manager or the CEO to provide positive feedback to an employee – anyone can do it, and that means we all grow faster together.
Our most unique component of our culture is to get leverage — it permeates everything we do. SafeGraph outsources anything that’s not part of our core business. Here’s what I wrote about this in my article, The New Status Game for Companies: Fewer Employees:
“The ability to select vendors becomes more important than even the ability to recruit great talent. Not every worker should be an employee. Great companies like Apple and Google (who both have incredibly high revenues per employee) understand this by choosing to hire contractors to work on peripheral projects rather than meaninglessly add headcount: the tech industry has added surprisingly few jobs since 1990. Over the last 24 years, direct employment in tech products or services companies has grown by 31 percent, which comes out to an average growth rate of 1.1 percent…The best companies are obsessed with boosting their leverage whenever possible.”
As of 2019, we are in the 99th percentile on the revenue/employee metric and we reached sustainable profitability. In 2019, this was a contrarian approach in a world that was focused on growth over everything else.
Culture is a free form of leverage.
When someone thinks about leverage, they think about things like labor, network effects, economies of scale, zero marginal cost of reproduction, etc. They don’t think about culture.
And yet culture is a forgotten form of free leverage. It’s what attracts the right employees at the right time and leverages them to grow the business for the long term. And it’s free! It doesn’t cost the company anything to implement because it’s just a unique and unified way of thinking about the business.
Of course, culture isn’t really “free.” Culture takes effort. It takes massive work. It takes time.
Culture is about how the company is different, not about how it’s the same.
To the outside world, a company should scream “we are different.” This is how potential candidates know if the culture and the company are right for them. The company shouldn’t feel like Google or Amazon or SafeGraph, it should feel like its unique self.
Instead, the company should scream over the loudspeaker how it’s different from other companies – how its core values create a unique culture that can’t be emulated elsewhere. And once a new employee joins the team, that feeling that they got during the interview process should only intensify. The company culture should be exactly what it signaled to be. This will help cut down the number of “wrong” hires a company makes each year. The clearer the company’s signal is, and the closer the culture matches what it tells the world it is, the easier it will be to hire A-Players who are a perfect match for the company.
Having a specific culture gives a company free leverage. It’s how the company can differentiate itself from other start-ups to attract the right talent at the right time. It’s how the company is different that matters, not how it’s the same.
Special thank you to Anirudh Pai and Thomas Waschenfelder for their help and edits.
I assume it should be quirks not quarks
“Culture is about how the company is different, now about how it’s the same. ” – should be “not” instead of “now”. [the bolded statement towards the end of the article.]
Company culture typically means conformity where groupthink and “Yes, sir is rewarded”. Questions, experiments, and innovation are exiled. If culture means being different, most companies don’t have culture, they have shackles and blinders.
Sustainable companies, on the other hand, reward diversity and drive change. Is a business that is Agile and reinventing itself a culture or the opposite of a culture?
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This is a good post. A healthy, differentiated culture is hard to get right. Bad culture is easy. Just like product needs to have a differential advantage, your culture needs to have a differential appeal. And it needs to be able to scale, too. Big challenge, worth the focus.