For founders, defining company culture is really an exercise in self-awareness.

Ask yourself: What are your strengths? What makes you different from everyone else ambitious enough to start a company? What are you terrible at?

This introspection is important because it will offer an almost exact preview of how your company will operate down the line. Founders have demonstrated time and time again that the essence of your grown-up company is going to reflect your own key traits.

For example at Amazon, CEO Jeff Bezos' competitive nature and his tendency to move fast has extended to almost every level of the 97,000-person company. Similarly, Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia hail from the Rhode Island School of Design, which explains why the company has stuck tightly to its design focus over the years.

"Eighty percent of your company's culture will be defined by its core leaders," says Molly Graham, head of business operations at word processor company Quip. Graham was previously Facebook's director of mobile, and was tasked with helping the company define its culture when she came on in 2008. 

In a recent talk at First Round Capital's CEO Summit, covered on First Round's blog, Graham spoke about how an early list of values laid down by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has guided the way the company has hired for years.

'One of Us'

In 2008, Facebook had 400 employees. As Graham tried to draft a company-culture description, which would help them acquire new like-minded hires, she was at a loss. She realized she was writing down the same boring and cliché descriptors--like "fast learners" and "team players"--that everyone else was using. 

Luckily, she found out that Zuckerberg had already captured a lot of what she really needed to say. When the company had first started to grow, Zuckerberg jotted down a list of what it meant to be "one of us." Deeply familiar with his own values, he was easily able to articulate the ones he wanted to see in the members of his company. Zuckerberg's list of desirable attributes:

  • A very high IQ
  • Strong sense of purpose
  • Relentless focus on success
  • Aggressive and competitive
  • High quality bar, bordering on perfectionism
  • Likes changing and disrupting things
  • New ideas on how to do things better
  • High integrity
  • Surrounds themselves with good people
  • Cares about building real value over perceived value

Graham said she was impressed by how honest--and even controversial--the list was. But the list, written in 2006, stuck. And it has continued to shape much of the philosophy behind Facebook ever since. 


Published on: Apr 17, 2014