January 13, 2014

TIL Culture Matters

For me, 2013 was a year of many lessons learned out of the unfortunate bankruptcy of QThru. It just seemed right to document all of the things I've learned through the process. This is the first post in my TIL (things I learned) series, focusing on things that engineers don't think about while working at a startup company. The first lesson is that culture really does matter.

If you're an engineer at heart and you spend your time building things, you are probably inclined to zone out when people start talking about mission statements, values, review process and org charts - the culture. In fact, one of the appealing upshots of working at a startup is that the management team is thin and isn't shoving these concepts down your throat at monthly or quarterly meetings. At first, it can seem like a breathe of fresh air that lets you get down to the business of building the product.

You may be able to get through a year or three without actively forming a culture. This was the situation at QThru from the moment that I joined the company. We bucked the trend, didn't define all the textbook parts of a culture and were perfectly fine. We secured funding, had office space and hired another employee.

Then things got difficult.

You see, you don't need the social norms and trust that come with building a well defined culture when times are good and people are getting along. It's during the toughest moments as an organization, when everyone is already on edge and you need to deal with unpleasant news. When you're in those moments, you'll appreciate that everyone has charted your startup's version of the Geneva convention that dictates how to treat each other.

For QThru, we never formed a culture that would have let us succeed. We didn't have any norms regarding open communication or engagement. This left the marketing and sales activities to not have a forum to hold honest conversations about the direction of the company. We didn't have a policy of respect, which caused some very heated conversations to happen and alienate groups within the company. We didn't build any system of accountability so individuals would get side tracked on tasks that didn't matter.

In the end, there was no foundation for anyone to stand on to help save QThru. Just like the Titanic, it was as good as gone the minute it set sail.

In the months that passed since the CEO laid off the technical staff, I had the opportunity to explore rebooting the company with a new leadership team. In our first meeting, the candidate for CEO asked me what I would change in the new company. After being very open about the detailed problems I touched on above, he showed me how working from day one on a solid mission statement, values and a policy of accountability at every level would have eased our problems.

Then he gave everything he talked about a name - culture.

If you're looking to join an early state startup company, start your own or are just applying for a job, ask about the company culture. Be on the look out for answers related to nothing more than free food and foosball. Culture is so much more than that. For an example of a real culture, check out usermind's hiring page where they discuss their culture.

Tags: qthru startup
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Dan Hable