Cultivating an Extraordinary Culture at a Tech Startup

By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

20130722_185128The culture of a business is partly planned, partly organic and partly pure accident or serendipity, according to the speakers at Extraordinary Culture/Extraordinary Business at Mass Relevance Monday night.
Matt Chasen, founder of uShip, Sam Decker, co-founder and CEO of Mass Relevance, Liz Elam, curator of Link CoWorking and Dean Kakridas, founder of Fovnders@ATX were on the panel, led by Paul O’Brien, founder of Cospace.
A big piece of determining culture is who and how an organization hires, the entrepreneurs agreed.
‘A big piece is hiring and aligning to your core values,” said Decker. “Do you have anything publicly that states what those values are? If you don’t connect to those values, you shouldn’t be here. You need to make that visible so that people can bounce off or attract to that culture.”
At Link, Elam said, they offer all prospective new members a free day to work at Link to see how they like it. But it’s also so Link can see how they fit.
“While they think they’re checking out the space, we’re checking them out,” she said. “Do they open a cabinet that’s marked ‘Private Do Not Open?’ If they open it, they have a problem with boundaries. If you put up your hoodie and put on a headset and sit there and code all the time, this is not your space.”
In early stages, however, that kind of selective hiring is easier as Matt Chasen pointed out. It took the company eight years to get up to 70 employees. Then they brought on 70 people in the last six months.
“Your culture should be self sustaining,” Chasen said. “If you’re doing it right, the organism with reject people who don’t fit and accept those who do. When you go on a crazy hiring tear you’ve got to have something in place to moderate your hiring. We had people who had been there two months hiring new people.”
They use the company’s own referral network a lot, he said, tapping into some rich “veins of talent” wherein employees bring their friends and “they’re all great.”
Chasen said, in response to a question about the influence of executives on culture that he was surprised at the influence he has.
“It’s really been interesting, as we’ve grown I’ve noticed things I never would have expected in terms of the influence I have on people. The way you act gives them permission to act like that, and that’s bad!” he joked. “No, don’t do that. Our personality is reflected in the culture, good and bad.”
Kakidras said he thinks of the CEO as the “Chief Energy Officer.” He’s responsible for the energy in the place and it’s key for him to get up every 90 minutes or so from his work, walk around and test the temperature.
The way a space is laid out and the working conditions set have a lot of influence on culture as well. Having a ‘democratic’ layout in terms of all employees being on the same level, having everyone work in an open space rather than in offices, and creating communal areas for work and socialization plays a huge part in culture.
Decker called the Mass Relevance space a “reverse mullet: party in the front, business in the back.” With a huge communal kitchen where lunch is prepared by a chef, (an idea he admits he stole from Chasen). He wanted to create a space that facilitated serendipitous reactions.
“Someone suggested we get a chef,” Decker said. “We were young, we had money. We thought, ‘Okay, we’ll do that. That’s kinda cool. Then these serendipitous conversations would happen and we decided we’d make it full time. People are working and eating, these cross functional interactions are happening. No bad seed or issue can go unsurfaced in that environment.”
Elam said that, were she to redesign Link, it would have a much bigger kitchen. Where the food is, she said “is where the magic happens.”
But while Decker planned the chef and communal kitchen, Chasen said that was an accident at uShip.
“We were just hungry at lunch,” he said. They originally brought in sandwich materials, then realized it was inefficient for them to be making their own sandwiches.
“When we got our first sandwich assembler person, everyone just loved it and we just kept raising the bar,” Chasen said. “When we actually had our first really true chef he had extension cords wired together in this kitchen in a warehouse in South Congress, which was preposterous. It really became this thing that snowballed on its own. It was a natural thing that happened, you can’t really direct that stuff.”

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