Don't F*ck Up The Culture - Advice For Growing Startups From Airbnb

Don't F*ck Up The Culture - Advice For Growing Startups From Airbnb

Rosie Allabarton

A meeting room at Airbnb, #### Airbnb were given some rather surprising advice from a VC after their last round of funding went through - CEO Brian Chesky decided to publicly share that advice and elaborate on the absolute importance of culture above everything else at growing startups.

At the end of April Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky went public with a letter that he had sent to his employees about a meeting he’d had with an investor of the company. That VC had just invested $150M in the company, and his advice? “Don’t f*ck up the culture.’ Surprised by the focus on culture over everything else that they do, Brian decided to publish what they had learned from that meeting in a fascinating and inspirational post on blogging platform Medium. Anyone thinking about founding their own startup or joining one should pay careful attention to Brian’s words.

Here is what he said:

Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial.

Independent, autonomous, entrepreneurial. These three traits are what every startup founder is looking for in his or her employees. Startups work because everybody’s ideas are listened to, everybody has a say and everybody is responsible for that company’s success. Each employee needs to have the mindset of an entrepreneur, whatever their role happens to be within their startup. However if employees aren’t in an environment where they are given the freedom or opportunity to generate ideas, have their voice heard or be given a chance to have an impact then that company will never be great. It may be successful, but it won’t retain loyal and passionate employees. And retaining a happy workforce with a positive, evolving, passionate culture is the key to every great startup’s success. Airbnb’s culture is so renowned that employees like Surabhi Gupta left Google for the travel accommodation marketplace.

An office at Facebook India.

Facebook is another (former) startup that has focused heavily on its employee onboarding, with new members of staff taking part in an orientation program that centres around the message that they are there to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. This isn’t a message that is reserved for Facebook’s users; this is company policy between co-workers - where an outspoken, ideas-driven culture is promoted. Perks at Facebook are also renowned, with free on-site laundry and dry cleaning, a $4,000 gift to new parents and 100% employee healthcare coverage. Although these perks don’t speak directly of company culture, they say alot about the respect the company has for its employees personal well-being. And if employees feel like their personal lives are respected by the company they work for then they are going to be happier when they are at work, which in turns leads to higher levels of productivity for the company.

Developing the right approach to company culture can depend hugely on how immediate a startup’s success is. If a company has taken a long time - and hired a large number of people - before success is a certainty for them then generally the culture of that startup has an opportunity to develop. With the right kind of culture people become accountable for themselves and for one another, there is less reliance on rules and regulations (unlike at massive corporations) as there is an assumption that people can be trusted to do their jobs without being supervised or regulated. When people feel trusted in this way they are naturally inclined to work harder because they feel like their decisions and work are respected by the management. It instills confidence and mutual respect amongst the team.

Individual work pods at Google Zurich.

Google, famous now for its company culture, had taken on over 1,000 employees before it was certain the search engine was going to become the global success it is today. Because of this the Google culture had years to evolve. In addition, the employee perks at Google are out of this world with free organic, chef-prepared breakfast, lunch, and dinner, free health and dental care, free haircuts, free dry cleaning, subsidized massages, gyms and swimming pools, hybrid car subsidies, nap pods, video games, foosball, ping pong, on-site physicians and death benefits. Google takes care of these things so its employees don’t have to worry about them.

Although having so many perks comes at a cost to Google, the company found that they actually saved money because they retained their talent. There were lower recruiting costs because people were staying in their jobs rather than going elsewhere and when staff turnover is low, company morale is inevitably higher. No one is suggesting that every young startup can afford to offer the perks that Google does, but offering your employees autonomy, respecting them to manage their own time and workloads and allowing their ideas to be heard and taken on-board create a culture that is non-hierarchical and promotes mutual respect. These are all good reasons for employees to stay at a company, irrespective of pay and perks.

“Our number one priority is company culture. Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like will just happen naturally on its own.” CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh.

Tony Hsieh of Zappos - the online shoe retailer - is famous for his stance on company culture. He also confirms the importance of getting the right culture started from the first day, as it’s very hard to change once it’s been established. He cites the importance of employees feeling like themselves in the workplace and having an integrated work and home life, rather than a separate persona for each.

We want the person to be the same person at home or in the office because what we’ve found is that’s when the great ideas come out, that’s when their creativity shines.

Zappos has ten core values that it passes on to each new employee. But Tony believes the importance lies not in what those specific values are, but that the company has them and manages its staff and culture around them. He believes that the company values should be no different from your own personal values if you want to secure success for you and your team.

The long-term value of company culture cannot be underplayed. Happy staff are productive staff. Employees whose ideas are listened to feel respected by and invested in the company they work for. High salaries and bonuses only make up for so much, as people who are miserable at work won’t stay in that company however good the money is. Creating bonds between your staff, making friends with co-workers, having an open, honest and fun environment benefits the whole team from founder to intern with long-lasting effects on company productivity and growth. As Brian Chesky explained:

“There are days when it’s easy to feel the pressure of our own growth expectations. Other days when we need to ship product. Others still where we are dealing with the latest government relations issue. It’s easy to get consumed by these. And they are all very important. But compared to culture, they are relatively short-term. These problems will come and go. But culture is forever.”

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Rosie Allabarton

Rosie Allabarton

Contributer to the CareerFoundry Blog