Why Culture Needs to be the Fifth Element of any Company


originally published here 

P. Thiel’s single most important piece of advice for Airbnb is ‘Don’t fuck up the culture’. Other executives and venture capitalists like Brian CheskyBen Horowitz, and Steve Jobs have expanded on why culture is important for a startup company, and Marc Andreessen’s tweet ‘…Ruin Culture -> Destroy Company’ summarizes the point neatly. No doubt, culture is crucial for success.

The Fifth Element in the eponymous movie contains four stones with the classical elements. It combines them all into a divine light capable of defeating the evil . Company culture combines the power of other four elements: vision, mission, strategy and priorities.

Ten employees at a now large software company described the key values when they joined this company as a startup 30 years ago. These values were critical in turning the small startup into the highly successful market leader that it is today. They should be applicable to any budding startup team:

1. We are pioneers. We are not afraid to do what has not been done before. We are pioneers fighting for the survival of our young company. We are battling to turn this startup into a bigger company.

2. We work together. We know we are going to grow this company even bigger, and we can only do it together.

3. We are one with our customers. If a customer has a problem and we have other things we are working on, we set everything else aside – the customer always, always comes first! We have a new idea – we talk with customers first!

4. We ask for help. It’s okay to come by and ask for help. Give and take! People and the network are what keep the company running.

5. We think positively. We don’t discourage, instead we support the intrinsic motivation! We seek out the positive – ‘even if we don’t exactly agree, the underlying idea is good, so let’s work on that together’. We develop each other through apprenticeship and mentoring.

6. We are the company. Our thinking is ‘we are the company’ and this is how we feel, and we are proud of it. When something breaks down which is not in our area: we feel responsible. We work together to fix it even if isn’t our job.

7. We have the power to contest. We do not say ‘yes’ all the time. This is how innovation works. We are passionate and pursue the ideas that we believe in.

As Thiel writes in Zero to One: ‘Company culture doesn’t exist apart from the company itself; no company has a culture, every company is a culture’. The culture will change as a company grows up and everything needs to be done to ensure the core culture is being lived. The alternative is described by Ben Horowitz ‘after you and your people go through the inhuman amount of work that it will take to build a successful company, it will be an epic tragedy if your company culture is such that even you don’t want to work there’. Similar to the Fifth Element as the only way to save humanity from the Ultimate Evil, culture is the only way to save a company from eventual obsolescence and self-destruction. Budding entrepreneurs and CEOs of fast growing companies alike should pay close attention.

Thanks to Christian Dahlen for reading drafts of this.

 Photo credit:  https://girlsdofilm.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/gaultier-and-the-fifth-element/

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