Why Culture Should Be Your Central Focus

Jessica Alter   |   July 9th, 2013

This guest post was written as part of our FounderTalk series by Dave Kashen, co-founder of Wellsphere, a consumer health startup, and Unleashed, a leadership and culture development firm for startups. He also writes the awesome culture blog

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” - Carl Jung

Focusing on the Outcome

In 2005, I co-founded an online health company called Wellsphere with a classmate from business school. After a tumultuous four years, we grew the site to nearly 7mm monthly visitors and the company was acquired. Our original mission was to help millions of people live healthier, happier lives. But somewhere along the way, our primary focus went from building a great company to achieving a successful outcome. For me, the shame I imagined I’d feel if I failed as an entrepreneur became a central driving force.

Eager to show our angel investors progress and race toward raising a Series A round, we hired way too fast, without any thought of culture fit or a clear understanding of exactly what we needed.  When we found someone who had done the job that we were hiring for at a firm we’d heard of, we hired them. Our early hires hired their friends. Eight out of our first ten hires either did not share our values or did not have the right level of skill or experience for what we needed at that stage in the company (or both). We were making it up as we went along, but instead of being vulnerable and transparent we tried to present a confident front and pretend we knew exactly what we were doing – falsely believing that would maximize our chance of success. Before long, team members were taking extended coffee breaks and walks around the block to discuss all the ways that we were screwing up the company and how they could do it better. They even had a secret Yahoo! Group to coordinate their meetings and share their grievances and complaints, mostly about us. The rift was that bad. Ultimately, about 18 months after we had started the company, nearly the entire team of 12 that we had built either quit or was let go.

So 18 months into our startup, we essentially started over. We hired a new team, we found a strategy for driving traffic that worked and ran with it. We were enjoying meteoric month-over-month growth. Checking Google Analytics to see our visitor growth became a daily obsession. Enamored by our achievement, we didn’t stop often enough to ask whether we were creating the environment we wanted for our team, or having the impact we wanted to have on our consumers.

Personally, the drive toward having a successful outcome led me to make a number of sacrifices and tradeoffs that undermined my values. I have always valued balance and connection. We worked around the clock and I lost touch with most of my friends. I value nature and being outdoors. I saw it through my office window. I value authenticity and openness. I became cynical and guarded. I suffered greatly because of this; these were some of the unhappiest years of my life. I have come to believe that not only would I have been happier and more fulfilled, but we would have been significantly more successful if we had focused more on our values and impact, and less on the outcome.

Self-Awareness and Transformation

After Wellsphere was acquired, I hired a life coach who helped me to realize that I had had a story about myself that I was not good enough, and that I was making decisions and devoting my energy primarily toward proving myself. He helped me to see that if I could let go of that story, I could operate from a more loving, authentic place. I realized that the problem I feel most authentically called to solve is the lack of fulfillment in our society, and the massively overlooked disconnect between increased success and increased well-being. I left Wellsphere 6 months after getting acquired (leaving my entire retention package on the table) and enrolled in a year long coaching training program. I’ve spent the last five years reading and researching everything I could about positivity psychology, leadership and organizational development, trying to better understand how to help human beings thrive, as individuals and in organizations. And I’ve put that education into practice in co-founding Unleashed, a leadership and culture development firm for startups, and working directly as a coach and consultant to help my startup clients bring out the best in themselves and their teams. I became particularly interested in the notion of culture, and how to create an environment in a startup that leads to fulfilled, thriving teams and delighted customers. Over the last several years, I’ve been working with a number of startups to create such strong, aligned cultures.

Motivation Drives Culture

One of the most common questions I’m asked is: can you intentionally build a certain kind of culture, and if so, how?  Because startups are so founder-centric, the founders’ own unconscious motivations and beliefs largely determine the company’s culture.  There are tons of great books, articles and videos about the importance of having a clear vision, and defining and living your values in building a great culture. But one of the least often discussed and most powerful ways for a founder to build a certain kind of culture is to do some deep introspection and better understand their own motivations for building the company. With that awareness, you then have the opportunity to make sure you’re pursuing a vision that truly inspires you, and to choose moment-by-moment whether to lead from a place of fear, striving and compulsion or from a place of love, service and inspiration. These choices will largely determine your company’s culture.

So if you’re a founder, please take the time to ask yourself why you’re really doing it. What’s truly driving you to embark on a journey that’s renowned for having a remarkably low probability of success? Are you in it for the glory? The win? The exit? To prove, at long last, that you’re good enough?  If you’re honest with yourself, the answer is probably yes.  It was for me. After all, it’s most likely what’s gotten you to where you are today. But I’m guessing there’s also some part of you that recognizes that there’s another way to operate, and perhaps is even longing for it.

Having It All

I believe that you can have it all – that you can build a successful startup and enjoy the journey. And that should be your goal. Because if you come from a place of trying to prove yourself and suffer along the way, even if your startup does succeed the sense of lack will not suddenly disappear. You’ll come up with a new mountain to climb, find someone else who’s doing even better than you, and march off again on the same grueling journey.

Many of my coaching clients tell me that they worry that if they felt peace and contentment that they would lose their motivation and drive. And that is probably true. They would lose their current form of motivation, that compulsive drive to win (or to not lose). But that doesn’t mean they would become beach bums or couch potatoes (or worse, failed entrepreneurs). There is another source of motivation – love, inspiration, joy.  Imagine the culture you’d build coming from that place. What if you started a company for the sheer joy of creating something in the world? For the excitement of bringing out the best in the people you hire, and the impact you’ll have on the customers you serve? What if you could build a successful startup, and love every minute of it?

You can also catch Dave at the upcoming FailChat on Culture on July 17th in San Francisco. 

Comments (7)

Crystal on July 9th, 2013

Great piece! Thanks for sharing!

The disconnect between the team leaders and the team at Wellsphere reminded me of what the team at 15Five are working hard to prevent with their weekly employee feedback platform, aimed at engaging employees with feedback and getting the pulse of the company. It helps identify problems, lack of engagement or passion, and ultimately – may flag an team member that’s on the verge of jumping ship. It also helps keep the team motivated toward the same goal and builds a great company culture.

Definitely going to share this piece with them :) Thanks again!

Thomas Knoll on July 9th, 2013

It’s hard to remember to tiller the rudder and trim the sails at the same time. It’s easier to wait until there is a problem and then scramble to fix it. I mean, that’s what we’re best at right? Fixing problems?

LeeRit on July 9th, 2013

Very nice post. Thanks for sharing.

I personally think the same way as you said. But when we’re in action, it’s sometimes too fast and too hard to stick to what we originally set out to do.

This is a great reminder. Thanks once again.

Jessica Rios on July 9th, 2013

Any insight on when is a good time to hire? We don’t want to hire too early or think we can do it all and hire when it’s “too late”..
Also, how to chose between 2 great candidates?

Manav Kataria on July 9th, 2013

Just what I needed! A rightful path towards being successful as well as making the world a better place. Thank you!

Suresh on July 9th, 2013

Hi Dave !

Great to read this post. I could almost see myself as I was reading it.

Thanks,
Suresh

brynnharrington on July 9th, 2013

Nice post, Dave. I love the emphasis on deep introspection and self-understanding. The start-up world — well actually, the whole world — moves so fast these days that it’s difficult to carve out time for this. The one think I’d add to this is the link between motivation and behavior. Understanding ourselves and our motivations is only worthwhile if we can use that information to ensure our behaviors reflect our true desire/true way of being. I think founder/leader behavior drives and reinforces culture, so the important check for founders is whether their behaviors are consistent with their true desires. It’s not just about being mindful about how you want to show up, but also being relentless about making sure you actually show up that way.


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