I was employee 16 when I first started at Viam. We were a ragtag, pre-Series A team working in a co-working space with robots everywhere.
When I met with my manager Eliot Horowitz in my first week, the CEO and Founder of Viam, he shared with me the growth plans for the next year. I learned quickly that we were going to go from ragtag to a structured organization in a short period of time. He wanted us to grow from 16 to 100 people in 2.5 years. Wow, I had to get to work! I made a 30-60-90 day plan and started implementing the fundamental HR and Recruiting processes that I thought were essential for my first three months.
I also met with one of our investors and board member, Albert Wenger early on in my time at Viam. Albert has an incredible track record of successful companies that he invested in including MongoDB, Twilio, Foursquare, to name a few. When we connected, I asked him what I should be focusing on right now, highlighting key elements from my 30-60-90 plan. He said the biggest thing I need to work on, and an obvious missing piece in my plan, was values.
The culture was already there, and I knew I needed to help capture that lightning in a bottle.
He was right. While I had great experience in hyper-growth with my previous company, MongoDB, I also learned a lot about what not to do. We didn’t have values when I joined MongoDB when it was a 450 person company, and wouldn’t for about another year. Even then, we had to add an extra value a year later (I had a role in its creation). I think the lack of values hurt MongoDB as a company early on, and I did not want to make that mistake twice. I looked around Viam and saw such incredible talent, collaborative teams, fun projects; the culture was already there, and I knew I needed to help capture that lightning in a bottle.
When I set out to do my research to kick off our values creation process, I couldn’t find a playbook or guide anywhere. I found a lot of great resources, which I will share with you in this playbook, but struggled to find anything that consolidated resources, workshops, processes, and a rollout guide.
So, if you are in the same boat and looking for a tangible guide to building values for your company, this is the place for you! In this playbook, I will talk about my background in creating values, why values are important early on, and the steps I took to create them for my company.
I am writing this from the lens of a company with less than 100 people in the tech space, but the information here should be helpful for anyone building values, no matter how large or small your organization may be.
Why values early on are important
Some people may think that Series A is too early for values. I disagree. Startups are the lifeblood for tech innovation, but most startups do not see huge levels of success. There are a million reasons for that; poor market conditions, bad ideas, competition, etc. As Head of People, I believe an often overlooked reason for start-up failure is a lack of values. Let’s break this down.
When you don’t have clear values, you run into an unlimited number of problems. You do not hire the right people because your plan is unclear. You excuse poor behavior in lieu of performance, which negatively affects employees, leading to higher rates of attrition. Communication is a mess. If you value moving fast but do not state that explicitly, people will move slow. If you value consensus but nobody knows, people are left out of decision making.
When you have clear values, you have a much easier time reaching success. Values lay the foundation of what a company cares about most, gives employees a shared sense of purpose, and creates shared language for them to use in their daily work lives. So, given all of this, what are the steps of building your unique and scalable values for your company?
Values lay the foundation of what a company cares about most, gives employees a shared sense of purpose, and creates shared language for them to use in their daily work lives.
Step One: Research
After my call with Albert, I immediately went into research mode. I approached this by reading books and articles, and investigating other companies.
Books & Articles
Before I began any internal research or competitive analysis, I wanted to get my bearings. Understanding the fundamentals of company culture from an organizational psychology perspective was the clear first step for getting into the right mindset for my approach. Based on recommendations from peers, searching around, and gut instinct, I started with three books.
The first book was No Rules Rules: Netflix and Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. This was a fantastic start. Many people already know that Netflix has an intense, but successful culture. Hastings and Meyers talk about how that culture was developed and how it continues to be upheld through both the lens of academia and in-company practicality. For me, this book was a helpful insight as to a different type of culture that could be created, and I had a few interesting takeaways. I generally enjoyed the book, but realized that it wasn’t the culture I wanted to bring to the table. I knew instinctively that Netflix’s culture was not something that we would copy. Part of research is not just finding what you think would work, but examples of what you think would not work.
I then read The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. What do Pixar and the Navy Seals have in common? Strong cultures. I was able to get a sense of various cultures spanning different industries and groups, and the thread behind the successful ones.
Last, I read Grit by Angela Duckworth. This one was actually recommended to me when I was speaking with Albert about our values. The book talks about the study of grit and how some succeed while others fail. We already knew that we wanted to shape our culture with drive and passion, and this helped define that through science and case studies.
There were a few other articles that I found useful, two of which I have linked here:
- How to Write (And Live) Your Company’s Core Values - by Indeed
- How to Develop and Use Core Values - by The Management Center
Once I had a good mindset around the landscape thinking around culture and values, I started to research other companies. I compiled a list of companies that I respected, and looked up their values. Some values came up again and again in so many words, such as the theme of collaboration. Other values were totally unique to specific companies, such as Zappos’ “do more with less” or Airbnb’s “be a host.”
What became clear to me during this process is that I did not want a laundry list of cultural traits. I wanted 5-7 core values (we landed on 6) that were scalable, but not so broad that they left too much latitude in their interpretation. I also wanted our values to be actions rather than descriptors. For example, Collaborate Openly (one of our values) rather than “Collaborative”. Another being Succeed through Diversity rather than “Diverse Teams”. By writing our values as actions, the intention showcases that we as employees live them and aspire to them actively.
These are prerequisites that I didn't realize were important to me until I looked at what other folks were doing. I’m not saying that this is the “right” way to write values, but rather what was right for us given my gut instincts about what was true of our culture already. However, I needed to engage with our own employees before I could really be assured of any final decisions about the core values.
Step Two: Employee Engagement
Values are not going to be successful if you tell people what you want the culture to be. Yes, having a lighthouse as a beacon to aspire to is an important aspect of this process, but you also need to define what current culture is. Combined, you can create the core tenants of your values. I did this in two steps, 1:1 sessions with each employee (or a survey) and breakout sessions.
Values are not going to be successful if you tell people what you want the culture to be.
Employee 1:1s or Company Survey
We were a small enough company when we started, that I was able to meet with each employee in a 1:1 setting to get a sense of how they defined the culture at Viam. The advantage of individual meetings is that it allows a safe space that is uninfluenced by other employees and groupthink. (Of course the disadvantage is that it took a lot of time!)
If you can’t meet with all employees, consider doing a random selection from various teams. You can also ask employees who have strong opinions about the culture or who are simply interested in participating or elect to have a 1:1 session.
Alternatively, you could send out a company wide survey instead of meeting with each individual. This definitely would save you time, but you don’t get to dig into answers, which I found very helpful.
Here are the questions that I found useful in these conversations:
- What was your reason for joining Viam?
- Where were you before Viam? What is your story on how you came here?
- What are your career goals in the next 6 months, year, two years?
- How would you describe the culture here?
- How does the culture differ from your other experiences and companies?
- What are the things you love about Viam?
- Are there things you don’t love or want to change?
Regardless of whether you meet with employees face to face, or send out a survey to gather data, this step certainly helps you understand at an individual level what is valued at the company. It sets the tone for your breakout sessions and gives you an idea on where to focus.
The breakout sessions were the most impactful part of the process. Not only was it informative to the shaping of the values, but it also allowed for the entire process to be interactive and engaging. Our employees feel more tied to the values because they were active participants. Remember, values don’t work if you are simply telling people what to value.
I held several sessions over the course of three weeks with our employees. Each session was randomized so that we could understand the culture of the entire company rather than from a specific team or the lens of a particular group of people. The sessions had around 10 people in them each.
After a few warm-ups and icebreakers, we began our work. There were two tasks. The first was for everyone to individually write down on a yellow post-it note what they thought our company currently valued and to write down on a blue post-it note what they would like our values to be. I had them think about the values in the context of several categories based on the feedback I had received from the employee 1:1s.
For us, those categories were:
- Our Products
- Our Users
I lined the walls of the conference room with poster boards, one for each of the categories. When everyone was finished writing on their post-it notes, I asked them to place the post-it note on the wall to the corresponding poster board.
The next activity was about upvoting and downvoting values. I gave everyone five green stickers and one red sticker, and asked participants to walk around the room and place green stickers on values they wanted to upvote and a red sticker on something they disagreed with.
As a wrap up, we discussed any findings, and I took notes.
Our employees feel more tied to the values because they were active participants.
Step Three: Leadership Involvement
After I synthesized all the data from the employee sessions, I met with our leadership team. I presented them with an information packet from my employee sessions, both individual and breakout, and shared my findings.
I then asked our leaders to write down the six big categories and/or values that they felt were represented and should be important to us moving forward. We then had a lengthy conversation to see if there were any major themes or similarities, and fortunately, there were.
From there, I worked with a much smaller team, for us it was three people, to wordsmith the values. In this phase I believe that when you have too many cooks in the kitchen, you won’t make any progress. Paring down the team to actually create the specific language allowed for us to work much more efficiently.
Once the smaller team felt good about what we had created, we shared with leadership for approval. There was some back and forth, but we were able to agree quite quickly.
Step Four: Values Rollout
Congratulations, you have company values! It was no easy feat to get here, but you made it, and so it’s time to celebrate!
Depending on your company’s communication style, size, location, etc, this could all look very different. Regardless of what you choose to do, what is key is to be clear, consistent, and keep the momentum going. Values are supposed to be a living organ in your company, not a fashion trend that goes out of style.
Day 1 of the values rollout included a company wide email, an All-Hands, an after All-Hands champagne toast, and value stickers that we shared with everyone. Never underestimate the power of swag!
The email outlined the values and their bullet points, but in the All-Hands we covered more depth. I reviewed how we got to the values so that the process was very transparent. I also gave examples of each of the values so that it contextualized them in day-to-day life.
There were also a few other key areas where we implemented the values. First, we updated all of our Recruiting scorecards in our Applicant Tracking System to include values as a part of the assessment of candidates. We also created a values based interview question bank for our interviewers.
We added our values to our onboarding process so that employees were familiar with them prior to stepping foot in the office, as well as adding them to our orientation presentation.
Lastly, we added values as a part of our performance review process and in a peer-to-peer recognition program.
Values are supposed to be a living organ in your company, not a fashion trend that goes out of style.
Shaping your company culture
We all have had experiences with company values. Maybe the values were amazing and amplified the culture, or maybe they were rarely used. My hope is that we all can strive for the former. That we can create a shared sense of purpose and community by defining the core values of the company.
The process I outlined worked really well for us, and perhaps it could work well for you. Or maybe inspire you to build something greater. Creating values is not easy, but the effort is worth it when the result is a positive company culture.
Emily, our Head of People, originally shared this guide here. If you're in the process of creating your company values, we hope this playbook gives you a strong start!