I became a significant equity holder in my first startup when I was 24 years old. I joined the company a year earlier because of my excitement and respect for the founder and his vision. Five years younger than the founder I had business experience, and no advanced degree.
He was smart, hard working, full of energy and enthusiasm and destined for success. When his lips were moving, I was learning. I would have followed him anywhere.
Within a couple of years we brought on other experienced team members. They had an influence on me. I was an observer of people and how they did business. I noticed some of their beliefs were different than the founder’s.
Their beliefs focused on making us a product centered culture. Great products, fully featured and fully tested and then shipped. Our founder created a sales culture. Create a good product but sell it while in development and ship it while it is still in beta.
Being the VP in charge of everything except sales and marketing, the product centric culture suited me. It was me and my team who were deluged with customer support calls, working through many nights to fix bugs. Then we’d race to the airport with diskettes to send customers who couldn’t print their W-2’s or whatever software update they needed immediately.
A conflict in culture at the leadership level created confusion throughout the company. All of us except the founder and the VP of Sales were trying to move the power base of the company from software sales to software development. This disagreement turned into a two week running dialogue with the founder.
Finally, the founder had enough. He called a Saturday morning meeting for the key leadership. There we were. I still remember that day. The face off came on a cold and cloudy November day. The founder sat on one side of the conference table and in a show of unity we sat on the other.
After listening to our gripes, the founder revealed a profound truth I’ll never forget. He said, “You want to know what the culture of this company is? It is me! I am the culture.” It was one of those clarifying moments in my life. I learned right then and there how a culture is established and maintained in a startup. The founder is the culture. That was the end of the meeting. That was the last time we discussed culture.
Culture sets the environment in a company. It defines how you need to behave to be successful in a company. Thus, establishing acceptable and unacceptable behavior. As the founder, you set the tone for everything from expected working hours, to whether it is okay to chat in the break room, to which business objectives have priority.
The founder’s character sets the culture in the startup. Who you are, the way you treat others and the rules you play by are the culture you define. Your move.