Ask a brand new startup founder what his or her company values are, and there's a good chance you'll get a blank stare. For most founders, it feels like there are 1,001 things to get done each and every day. They assume choosing the right values can wait until it's time to scale.
I understand the urge to put it off because I've been in that exact position. But I can also tell you I really wish we'd chosen our company values earlier, for several reasons:
Values ground everyone in the same strategies and goals.
They shape your team's behavior when it comes to accomplishing those goals.
They set a precedent for the people you hire.
Don't worry about the size or age of your company--your values aren't set in stone for eternity, and you're free to change them as your company grows. The trick is figuring out the right values for your team at it stands.
Here's how to go about it:
Choose values that ground everyone in the same strategies and goals.
At a bigger company, there are usually fewer instances where things go dramatically wrong. But things go wrong all the time at a startup. You're constantly making decisions with huge implications.
That's why we chose "Every day is a new day," as one of our values at ThirdLove. We thought it was important that people knew they could make a mistake, learn from it, and start fresh the next day.
Your values are there to signal to your team how to do their jobs and how to handle different situations. Make sure they're sending the messages you want to resonate with everyone.
Make your values aspirational without being basic.
You obviously want your team to live your values and embody them in their work, but you don't want to make them so basic that people just inherently act on them. That's uninteresting, and people won't respond to it.
For instance, you could always say, "work hard," but that doesn't have the same zing as "always be hustlin'" (one of Uber's former values).
Put your own spin on your values. Don't just copy and paste someone else's, or stick with vague phrases that don't really mean anything to anyone.
Use statements instead of single words.
The best way to craft meaningful values is by using short, impactful sentences.
When you just choose one or two words, the value seems vague--and it becomes difficult for someone to actually internalize it. "Action" is a great value, sure, but it doesn't exactly inspire action or help guide anyone in the same way "make it happen" does.
Using actionable sentences allows you to create statements that are unique to your organization and provide some context about who you are and how you want to operate.
Create sub-bullets to clarify and further explain your values.
Your values should be clear and unique catchphrases that can stick in your team's mind.
Unfortunately, a one-sentence phrase can often be open to interpretation. Take the example from Uber I used earlier--always be hustlin'. To some, that may mean you should always be working diligently and thinking proactively. But in some environments, it could also be taken as a not-so-subtle nudge to work 70 hours a week, or to step on people to achieve your goals.
That's why I'd encourage you to add sub-bullets to your values. Figure out that catchy value statement you want on people's minds, but then add several bullets for context. You want these sub-bullets to answer: what does a value actually look like in practice?
Set values early and iterate over time.
It took our team at least two years to put pen to paper and nail down our core values, and I wish we'd done it a little earlier.
Think of your values as your guiding light. You may have to pivot or make difficult decisions early on, but if you've figured out what's important to you, then you'll always have a sense of the way forward. That's why they're incredibly important when you're first starting out.
Naturally, your values will change as you grow and the company scales. That's perfectly fine. It doesn't mean your values were wrong or they weren't good enough, it simply shows you've found another one that fits your team better.
In a few years, your values may look a little different--and honestly, that's progress.