The night before my first business had its first big meeting, we had a problem. We had a big potential client stopping by, and we didn't even have a conference room.
So we did what we often did in those days: pulled an all-nighter. The newly-fashioned room still smelled like paint as we made our presentation.
While that makes for a good story, it wasn't fun. In fact, the company itself wasn't much fun. My partners and I had thrown ourselves into a business without really knowing why we were doing it, or what we wanted out of it.
Like many people, we thought you just launched a startup. Then you went out, hired the best people you could, fought hard, crushed the competition, and that was all there was to business.
So we scrambled day after day to try to make it happen. We eventually sold the company, but we didn't consider it a big success.
Winning shouldn't be your goal
The problem with our approach has recently been outlined in an article by Freek Vermeulen in Harvard Business Review. Summarizing research on the matter, he found that hard-driving companies that use competitive language, especially around sports, often fail. Those that focus on getting people aligned to the same goals usually succeed.
It's not the best and the brightest who win, but the ones who know how to get people to gel and work together.
My partners and I, of course, learned this the hard way. So the second time around, we didn't make a hire before we spent some serious time laying out our principles.
Among other things, we wanted to be tolerant of others' lifestyle and choices, hardworking but also fun, and dedicated (to the degree possible in the pitch-and-deadline world of advertising) to have a positive work-life fit. We also wanted people to have greater autonomy to make decisions.
We wrote those principles down and tried to hire not merely smart people, but those we felt could align to our vision. And I consider that the most important factor in our subsequent success.
If you don't lay out your principles first, you'll find that your startup will quickly sink to the least common denominator--and stay there. It will likely become either an aimless, drifting place, or it will devolve into a counterproductive, hyper-competitive beast that grinds people away without getting better results.
In fairness, of course, our principles do not work for everyone. Some prefer a structured, formal environment, and that's fine. But--knock on wood--our formula has worked so far, and we've experienced steady growth for over a decade.
It turns out that if you focus on winning at all costs, you'll likely fail--or at least build a toxic organization that makes you miserable. If you outline a set of positive principles first, you'll set yourself up for longer term success.