The kind of culture I wanted for HubSpot in our early days was one where we didn't have to think about it. I subscribed to the Fight Club credo: the first rule about culture is that you don't talk about culture.

We broke that rule.

The reward for that act of civil disobedience has been a powerful recruitment engine, an early warning dashboard, and a preventive maintenance system.

Documenting Culture

Over coffee one morning, Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, challenged me to think more intentionally about culture.

"Culture is the secret ingredient to scaling up a company," he said. "To scale hiring, you have to figure out culture. Without a great culture, retention will become an issue and building a recruiting funnel will become painfully difficult."

Wait. A recruiting funnel? Colin had just used the magic word.

In our offices, it's hard to find a whiteboard that does not have a funnel drawn on it -- HubSpot was all about the sales funnel, and we were evangelizing an inbound methodology to help small and medium sized companies attract more attention and supercharge the conversion of website visitors into leads.

That chat with Colin inspired me to reframe culture using an Inbound lens. Just as a great product is like a magnet that attracts customers, a vibrant and healthy culture is like a magnet that helps attract and retain employees who in turn recommend us to their network of talented professionals. All of a sudden, culture made perfect sense.

Back at the office, we kitted up a quick Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey to take the temperature of our 100 or so employees. "How likely are you to recommend HubSpot as an employer to someone you know?" 

I was shocked to read in the comments to this 1-question survey that the primary reason people liked working at HubSpot was that they loved the culture. Had none of them seen Fight Club?

Who were we to argue with Colin and our own employees?  So, we dove in, tried to fully understand the culture we already had, and we documented it. We posted The Culture Code publicly online, and which has since gathered more than 3 million views on SlideShare. Just about every new employee mentions the Culture Code as a key part of their decision to join our team.

Documenting culture gave it scale. 

Measuring Culture

We ran another eNPS a year later with 175 employees.

We sliced the numbers lots of way and identified a sore spot: employees with 1-2 years of tenure were disproportionately detractors, with a negative score. What? I can still recall how it felt to look at a minus sign in the report.

After quickly progressing through denial, anger and depression, I accepted the number and took a hard look at the comments from this cohort. It didn't take long to figure out that the 1-2 year folks had serious concerns about career advancement.

Over the next six months, we made sure to communicate specifically to "mid-life" employees about existing opportunities for development, and also came up with some new policies to create opportunities. By responding so directly, we saw a 50-point positive swing from those early eNPS numbers.

Measuring culture makes it actionable. 

Institutionalizing Culture

Fast forward to 2014. In the months ahead of taking HubSpot public, we frequently heard a disconcerting question: What is your plan to deal with the inevitable exodus of talent who will become much wealthier the day after the IPO?

An exodus? Could that happen to us? When you have 20 employees in a startup, and you lose 15 percent, it's just three people That's manageable. But, HubSpot had around 600 employees and was growing fast. Losing 90 people while trying to grow by another 120 headcount would be a body blow.

We did not want a plan to deal with an exodus. We wanted a plan to prevent it! 

It was time to start thinking of HR less as a back office function and more as an engine of our growth. We created a formal culture initiative and appointed a Chief People Officer. 

The chief people officer institutionalized our culture. For example, our Culture Code states that we highly value an individual contributor who gains mastery in their role, as well as anyone who spectacularly supports that individual in their effort to do so.

In our company of 150 or so employees, it was common for informal, supportive connections to occur naturally, partly by sheer proximity. Beyond that tipping point, with hundreds of employees, that dynamic needs a little hands-on engineering.

So, every month, our chief people officer reviews the list of employees who have worked in the same role in the same location for more than two years. That's a signal that an employee's environment and career at HubSpot may have become stagnant. We make sure we expand their opportunities for learning and advancement before they begin to think of expanding them somewhere else.  

By the way, HubSpot went public in October 2014, and we ended the year with a net increase of 117 employees.

Institutionalizing culture gives it endurance.