In today's world, brands are defined by the culture of the company. It's your impact in the world - good or bad - that becomes your company's essence. In a transparent marketplace, your internal culture is your external brand.
As such it is as important to invest time and dollars in building the right culture, as it is to build the right product or marketing campaign. Fail to make that cultural investment, and whatever success you are having today can easily be taken away tomorrow.
Now culture is fragile, especially in a fast-growing startup where every day and every person brings something new. While you obsess over product and getting the business launched, what's always growing (or withering) is the culture you are building.
We all hear stories about great company cultures, Zappo's anyone? But those examples are usually backward looking, and describe years of refinement and development. The opposite also true, bad culture is formed over years of neglect. But what if you just launched your company? What if you don't have an existing culture to refine?
Let's talk about establishing the tenets of a lasting and thriving culture from Day One through the first few crazy years of growing and building a company.
1. Light the beacon through mission and vision
At Habit our mission is to feed everyone's potential through the power of personalized nutrition. To help people tap into the best version of themselves at a cellular level.
For the people who decided to join our startup, our mission was like lighting a beacon they could run to. Without exception, the people who come to Habit deeply and personally connect with it.
What that means is the Habit team is a collection of people who either aspire to transform their heath and well being, or are already passionately living what I call "extreme well being." We are a collection of CrossFit junkies, marathon runners, yogis and food nerds. In other words, we are truly into it.
Most importantly, at Habit we walk (or run) the talk.
2. Get personal fast
Getting to know your co-workers as people, not just performers, creates the bonds and the confidence in each other to power through everything that gets thrown at you in those early months and years. And if you are a startup, everything does.
Before we officially launched Habit, the first nine employees (myself included) went up into the Sierras for a two-night retreat. I gave everyone an assignment to find and present five images that represented their past, present, and future. I set the expectation that it was going be very personal, and highly vulnerable. These weren't images of families or pets, but representations of our aspirations, wildest dreams, successes, and struggles. If you weren't close to shedding a tear, or your voice didn't waver as you described an image, you weren't digging deep enough.
And we all dug deep.
After each person finished, we'd welcome them to Habit with some ritualistic swag - our version of a motorcycle club jacket -- and then it was hugs all around. It was an arrival into the company, but more pointedly, into our own tribe.
The next day we continued to get to know each other over the course of a four-hour hike that covered some 2,500 vertical feet at altitude.
That soul-baring exercise, and that time gasping for oxygen together were what brought our leadership team together. We got to know each other as people -- our strengths and weaknesses -- and then we began the work of building a company truly together.
Corporate bonding is cheesy, no doubt. But bringing the right amount of intensity and vulnerability can transcend the cheesiness and taps into what I think all that team-building claptrap is designed to do: forge enduring and fundamental bonds with people. That's what truly turns a team into a tribe. For young companies especially it is important to bond, to create one tribe, but you have to spend the time and physical and emotional effort to make it happen.
But the essential element to transcending the trust fall is to bring enough intensity and vulnerability to the experience and to one another. If you get that right, you tap into what I think all that team-building claptrap is designed to do: forge enduring and fundamental bonds with people. That's what truly turns a team into a tribe. For young companies especially it is important to bond, to create one tribe, but you have to spend the time and physical and emotional effort to make it happen.
You as a leader have to set the tone, so be vulnerable, be all-in, and know the investment you make in one another will pay off in spades.
3. Always keep feeding the culture fire
As a leader it is your job to tend to the health of company culture. Without constant care and feeding it will start slipping away. Worse yet, it will become damaging to your brand. Everything you do either builds or chips away at your culture. As we said, you must embody it, and live it every day. But that alone is not enough. You also need to keep it front and center for everyone at the company. That means as a group finding the time in the usual frenetic pace of a startup to pause, reconnect, and reengage - to get back into the "tribe."
Investing in happy hours, company retreats, cool swag, and a communal office space with an abundance of food that always brings people together. These all make a difference, but the highest impact thing we do is a company-wide weekly huddle that ends with a "love bomb" - a letter read aloud from a customer whose life we have impacted. There is nothing more powerful for a company culture than to know you are changing people's lives.