They say nothing in life is guaranteed except death and taxes. I’m not sure who “they” are, but I’m sure they don’t work at startups, where uncertainty, emotional turbulence, and the difficulty of attracting amazing people for lower-than-corporate salaries is largely guaranteed.
At the same time, executing against these challenges can define whether your startup—which you’ve poured countless of hours into, have lowered your personal hygiene standards for, and have forgone a high salary for—lives or dies.
So, what tools do we have at our disposal? The answer: an intentionally designed company culture which provides an advantage in hiring talent, keeps our teams motivated, and aligns our team’s actions with our mission.
Enter Daniel Ha, the founder of Disqus, a networked community platform with 50 million monthly comments and 17 billion page views. Disqus has beenfeatured in countless “best company culture” lists on the internet, and their culture deck can be found almost everywhere.
In this interview, Ha tells us how he approached intentionally designing his company’s culture, how he got it to stick, and how it’s helped them to get their product on to hundreds of thousands of websites.
How he defines culture
Ha defines culture as the personality of the company. Just as a company’s brand determines the customer experience, a company’s culture determines the employee experience.
It also helps to set guidelines for what kind of behavior is encouraged and discouraged and helps to set the company spirit (what is it like to work here?).
From Ha’s experience, a strong company culture:
- Keeps people motivated and engaged through the highs and lows of a startup.
- Provides the team with guidelines that affect everything—from the company’s services and products to how customers are treated.
- Lives on when the founders are not in the room.
- Attracts like-minded employees and helps mitigate the initial shortcomings of a startup when hiring talent.
- Blends the values that the early team personally believes should persist over time with values that support the strategy and mission of the company.
Re-hauling their culture
Early on, Disqus had an informal, nonoperational value: “Be Disqusey.” Beingnon-actionable and platitudinal, it had little impact on how the employees operated.
At their weekly wind-down meetings, they started asking employees, “Do you know the values of this company?” They found that the team largely missedthe point. According to Ha, this led to one of their first insights: “People didn’t consistently remember our values, and could not name them definitively.”
So, Ha started by listing some of the actions that the staff could do on a regular basis that he felt created a better work environment, that supported their strategy and mission, and would benefit the community and, ultimately, the company.
He roped in other senior leaders before slowly rolling these values out over time.
Insight: Values must persist over time to support culture. You want them to permeate every fiber of your company. According to Ha, if values have to bepointed out explicitly, they lose their effectiveness.
Values and their impact
The values that they settled on were curiosity, impact, respectfulness, colorfulness, and generosity. These were a combination of what Ha and the rest of the team personally found to be important, and actions that would support the company’s strategy.
Curiosity was included, for example, because of Ha’s experience interviewing candidates. According to him:
“The people that I really just loved working with and the people that I felt had the greatest impact on the company are those who are just naturally curious to know something. They want to explore, they aren’t satisfied by kicking off and saying, ‘I don’t know about that.’”
To assess a candidate’s curiosity, Ha would ask, “What do you really enjoy?” or “What do you really need?”
Colorfulness is also one of their strategic values. Color is important to Disqus because it energizes the team around the company narrative and deepens empathy with the customer.
In its early days, Disqus adopted a marketing campaign and brand positioning around how diversity is embraced at the company:
“A lot of how we marketed the business was against the black and white nature of how online communities worked then or how publishing worked,” says Ha. “In the old days, newspapers were one-way communication. We brought a lot of colorfulness to our message boards and online communities. So, we were trying to build the value of colorfulness within the narrative of the company, in the things that we built and in the ways that we sold. We tried to tell that story, and we eventually tried to perpetuate it within the team […].”
Ha also shared different ways of how colorfulness is manifested in the company. For example, they have a map on the office wall that has pins showing where each employee is from. They also have a regular “color show,” a show-and-tell where each staff member presents something they care about—be it knitting or motorcycles.
Outside of making the company more marketable to employees, Ha believes this value had a direct impact on how new features were created and how the product evolved.
Insight: In a startup (or any company, for that matter) every employee shapes the customer journey—either directly or indirectly—and the more customers are kept in mind, the easier it is to give them a consistent level of value. By mirroring the sentiment of the user, Ha created companywide adoption of user empathy.
Getting company values to stick
However, putting values on walls and printing them on mugs won’t cement them into your team’s moment-to-moment working life.
To get Disqus’ company values to stick, Ha developed ways to reinforce them through expectations and activities. According to Ha, the company:
- Included “adherence to values” in quarterly performance reviews.
- Published the values on the website and blog and spoke about them at major events and conferences.
- Told interviewees and new recruits what the company values are.
Ha also reinforced the company’s values through regular office events and activities. For example:
“Throughout the week, people would nominate someone else in the company and assign one of the company values to what they did. And then on that Friday, they will come up in front of the company and talk through that.“
Ha shared that, initially, the exercise felt contrived. But the staff took it on and started having fun with it. They began looking for opportunities to live by the values and to point out when others were living by them as well.
As parting advice for founders, Ha says to reinforce your culture and be genuine about it. Draw a line between each value and associated action, list how you’ll reinforce it, and take your time doing so while avoiding the cliches.
Create values that you align with personally, but also those that will materialize in the systems of the business, how you interact with customers, and the ways in which your value proposition attracts new hires.