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Startup Culture Values

How to Define Them and Make Them Real

As our hiring pace accelerated at DataFox, I noticed interviewees would often ask a question like, “What’s the best thing about working at DataFox?”

Since we interview in pairs, I’d get to hear one of my teammates respond. Their answer was always about the people at DataFox: “I know my teammates have my back.” And, “my colleagues go out of their way to teach me about the projects they’re working on.” Or, “I’m proud to work with people who represent us so professionally."

It struck me that, while everyone’s answers addressed common themes, having those themes clearly defined and constantly-communicated would help create energy and momentum around our shared values.

So we set out to nail down our core values for the first time.

Codifying Our Values, Round 1

At the time, we had a team of about 15 people, small enough to fit in one conference room. We huddled together and I wrote four questions on the whiteboard:

  • What are you motivated by?
  • What do you enjoy doing?
  • What makes us great?
  • What do we want to achieve?

Everyone answered the questions on post-it notes, as many as possible in about 10 minutes:

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We then read out all the answers and grouped them into similar themes. The consistency was remarkable. We circled the top themes, gave them names, and voila! We had v1 of the DataFox values: Teamwork, Constant Learning, Solving Hard Problems, and Delighting our Customers.

We created a shared document with these core values, and listed them on our website. But that wasn’t enough to keep the exact words we had chosen top of mind, so we slipped back into each using our own words to describe our values. As CEO, I missed an opportunity to amplify our values and make them more powerful.

Codifying Our Values, Round 2

By 2016 our team had more than doubled, so more than half the team hadn’t been a part of our original codification exercise. When I asked around, people were excited to revisit the words we had chosen.

This time, the team was too big to fit in one conference room. So I suggested a different approach:

I sent out a Google Form (survey) asking everyone on the team to answer similar questions to last time:

  • What motivates you?
  • What do you believe in?
  • What makes us great?
  • What two values do you see in our day-to-day that you want to encourage in the future?

The survey was voluntary, but 100% of the team participated, submitting over 150 ideas!

We designated an eight-person “Values Steering Committee” to identify common themes in all those submissions. Each department at DataFox (engineering, data, sales, marketing, customer success, etc.) nominated one or two people to join the VSC.

We came together, identified the top themes, and gave those themes names. Again, the consistency in all those ideas put forward by the entire company was astounding. This consistency showed how, through our rigorous interview process and the importance we place on hiring people for culture fit, we had built a team of people with common values.

These were the five values we selected:

Empathy

We seek to deeply understand and care for customers (and each other). Our crusade to eliminate grunt work started by solving our own problems. We still rely on our own product, every day, to drive our business. Our weekly all-hands meetings start with a review of customers’ joys and pains. Our engineers love joining customer calls - it’s fun to tell customers “yep, we just built that.”

Constant Learning

We are constantly learning by investing in development and being hyper-transparent. We share demos, host hackathons, and send company-wide end-of-week emails to share the good, the bad, and the ugly of our projects and initiatives. We don’t have corner offices, and what our board knows, our whole team knows. Teammates across all departments teach new hires dozens of classes in their first week.

Ownership

We all act like owners and give each other lots of responsibility and trust. Every teammate has truly helped shape the team and our vision for the future. There is a culture of volunteering, rather than checking off “to-do’s.” We’re frugal but readily invest in areas that move the needle. So, no ping pong tables or business class flights, but free healthy lunches and a collaborative office.

Professionalism

We hold ourselves to the highest bar ethically and professionally. We’re structured and deliberate in our recruiting and training processes. We know our clients expect and deserve flawless execution. Even our sales emails get compliments. Ethically, our simple rubric for decision-making is: if your action were published in tomorrow’s New York Times, would you and your loved ones feel good about it?

Humility

Our team is a smorgasbord of personalities, but with one distinct commonality - there are no jerks. We build new teammates’ desks, have lunch together every day, and we all refill the water cooler. “Family” extends to our friends and families. We respect each other’s personal lives and interests. We play soccer, run half-marathons, and read books together.

It was fun to see significant overlap with the first version we had put together a year earlier. This time, I vowed to do a better job putting these words front and center.

Amplifying Our Values

Our values now come up constantly. Here are a few places we see them:

Public recognition: Perhaps most powerfully, our teammates recognize each other publicly when they exemplify one of our values. This recognition happens in emails, on Slack, at All Hands meetings, or simply in conversation.

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Interviews: "Culture fit" is one of our hiring criteria. Now we have specific values to consider in discussing whether someone aligns with our values.

Orientation: During the first hour of your first day as a DataFox employee, we talk about our values and why they’re important to us.

Feedback: In ongoing feedback as well as bi-annual performance reviews, our values often come up in highlighting areas where someone has been extraordinarily successful (or where they might want to focus more of their energy going forward).

On the wall: Our 5 values are on our kitchen wall, complete with anecdotes to highlight what they mean to us, for constant reference.

CEO: More than anyone else, it’s my job to ensure there’s a steady drumbeat around our values, so they stay top of mind for all of us, even as our team grows.

No Shortcuts

Of course, having values isn’t about buzzwords on a laminated poster. The hardest work is in building a team that actually has a deep set of shared values. That takes a constant and uncompromising emphasis on hiring great people who fit our culture.

If our values resonate with you and you’re looking for a place to do the best work of your career, we’d love to hear from you.

Check out our open positions here.