How to think about culture from Day 1

A company is only as strong as its culture. You can develop a great product, but if your people are unhappy, unproductive, or misaligned with your vision and values, you're going to stunt your company growth, or worse, run it into the ground.

You have to understand your DNA first

When establishing a culture code, a lot of nascent founders look to the established greats for inspiration. While it makes sense to take pages of inspiration from successful companies, it's critical to understand your DNA first

While it might make sense for one company to offer yoga classes, monthly "Fun Days", or Macs for all, those things might be totally misaligned with your culture. The perks, benefits, and tools you offer as part of culture should be a reflection of your values

If one of your company values is personal growth, for example, you might give your teammates Amazon credits so they can stock pile their libraries. If you value fitness, you might host in-house exercise classes, or offer a fitness stipend. If you value well-rested employees, you might give them a Jawbone UP to track their sleep. If you value peace of mind, you might offer guided meditations, or a monthly massage budget. If you value freedom and happiness, you might give employees the opportunity to work from anywhere in the world. 

The formula for your culture should look something like this: Because we value x, we offer y

Culture isn't the snack bar, Friday happy hour, or the foosball table 

Too many people confuse perks and culture. While perks are part of culture, culture is something much, much larger. Culture is the values, DNA, and personality of your company, which transcends things like pingpong tables and Beer Fridays. 

Think about it. Culture can exist even in a remote company, where it's physically impossible to rally with another person, yet the company can still have a very strong culture. (Case in point, Basecamp and Buffer.) 

Culture often starts with the founders' DNA 

Almost every culture, in the beginning, is a reflection of the founder's (or co-founders') DNA. This is perfect. After all, it's their unique vision come to life, and they need to be able to rally likeminded people to help them build out their dream

That's part of the reason the early days in a company seem so magical. Those first few hires are crucial, and because a fledgling startup can't offer all the cushy benefits of an established company, they attract talent much more honestly. 

For the love of craft beer, just keep it real

If you're introverted, and your founding team is introverted, and your first employees are introverted, but you have a really good thing going -- you're proud of your product, your people are happy -- then don't try to force fun. By that I mean, don't rally everyone for an afternoon of improv if it's painful (even for you) just because you think you should do it. 

Same advice applies if you have an extraverted culture: don't force people to work in silos. Encourage collaboration. Ensure you do weekly activities where people can socialize.  

Whatever you are, own it. If you can own your ID from the start, you'll attract people who vibe with you, and keeping a healthy culture will feel effortless. 

Now, don't mess it up

I cannot share this quote from Peter Thiel to Airbnb's founders enough: "Don't fuck up the culture." Thiel had just invested $150M into the company when CEO Brian Chesky asked him what his number one piece of advice was, and that was it. 

As a former co-founder of PayPal, and very active VC (he was an early investor in companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp, Asana, Quora, and Stripe), he has seen a lot, so if his number one piece of advise is not to fuck up the culture, you should probably listen. 

"He said one of the reasons he invested in us was our culture," Chesky wrong on Medium. "But he had a somewhat cynical view that it was practically inevitable once a company gets to a certain size to 'fuck it up.'"

That's why, from the early days, you need to make a commitment to keep it real. To stay true to your roots. To stick to your values. 

Airbnb has done it. Basecamp has done itNetflix has done it. If you're truly committed, maybe you can too. 

Understand who you are early. Don't emulate another company if it doesn't resonate. And don't publicly adopt values that you don't personally subscribe to.