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Disqus is on countless ‘best company culture’ lists. Its founder shares his insights.

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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:

  1. Keeps people motivated and engaged through the highs and lows of a startup.
  2. Provides the team with guidelines that affect everything—from the company’s services and products to how customers are treated.
  3. Lives on when the founders are not in the room.
  4. Attracts like-minded employees and helps mitigate the initial shortcomings of a startup when hiring talent.
  5. 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 companyAccording 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 curiosityHa 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.

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$1.9 billion big data company Talend is acquiring a Philadelphia-based startup for $60 million to give it leverage in the cloud wars

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$1.9 billion big data company Talend is acquiring a Philadelphia-based startup for $60 million to give it leverage in the cloud wars
Rosalie Chan 12h
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Talend, a $1.9 billion big data company, announced Wednesday it plans to acquire the data startup Stitch for $60 million.
Talend believes this acquisition — its largest to date — will speed up its cloud momentum, as Stitch makes it easier for users to move data.
Talend also believes this acquisition will make it a stronger partner to data warehousing services from the likes of AWS, Azure, Google, and Snowflake.
Big data company Talend announced Wednesday that it will acquire the two-year-old data startup Stitch for $60 million in its largest acquisition to date, in hopes that this acquisition will help it land new cloud customers.

“It brings an exciting new capability to us,” Mike Tuchen, CEO of Talend, told Business Insider. “It has really lined up with how customers are choosing to buy in today’s cloud-central world.”

Stitch, based in Philadelphia, makes it easy for customers to move data to cloud data warehouse platforms. Often, small businesses don’t have the bandwidth to quickly load this data, or they don’t have the expertise to do it, as it can be a complicated task and may require the help of data integration specialists.

“We’re a world right now where every company is trying to figure out how they can unlock the power of their data,” Tuchen said. “Until they solve those types of problems, they can’t unlock the power of their data.”

Essentially, Stitch aims to provide a simple, point-and-click tool that lets any of its users easily move data to cloud warehouses. Under Talend, Stitch will be rebranded as the Stitch Data Loader.

The origins of Stitch go back to another company called RJMetrics, which sold itself to ecommerce company Magento in 2016. At the time that acquisition was announced, RJMetrics announced that it would rebrand its Pipeline tool as Stitch and spin it out as its own company. Earlier this year, Adobe bought Magento for $1.7 billion.

Read more:Big data tech company Talend sees its stock soar over 50% for its IPO

This acquisition will give Talend leverage in the cloud wars and make it a stronger partner to data warehouses like AWS, Azure, Google, and Snowflake, the two companies say.

“Talend is an ideal fit for Stitch. Their products complement ours, and they share a similar culture and market vision,” Jake Stein, co-founder and CEO of Stitch said in a statement.

“The move to the cloud and data-driven business is changing the integration market, bringing new users with different needs. With the combination of Talend and Stitch, we will become the only vendor that can we believe serves all levels of the market and all users of cloud analytics.”

When Talend first went public in 2016, its stock soared over 50 percent in the first day of trading. It is now valued at $1.9 billion.

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Madrona Venture Labs picks clinical management startup Invio as first company in new accelerator

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Invio, a Seattle startup that helps speed up clinical trials for biotech and pharmaceutical companies, announced this week that it is the first company to join the new accelerator created by Madrona Venture Labs, the “startup studio” backed by Madrona Venture Group.

Founded in 2016, Invio develops FDA-compliant cloud-based software that automates clinical trial workflows, replacing the traditional paper and binder method of recording data. The company is working with three U.S. research sites and plans to add another 20 clients in the coming months.

Invio has raised more than $800,000 from Seattle Angel Conference, Pipeline Angels, Techstars, and Madrona Venture Labs. Invio was also part of the Cedars-Sinai Techstars Healthcare accelerator in late 2017, and won Episode 5 of GeekWire’s Elevator Pitch show earlier this year. The 4-person company has three co-founders: Dema Poppa, CEO; Brian Caruso, CTO; and Cassie Wallender, CPO.

 

Poppa helped come up with the idea for Invio after he was running a clinical trial at 40 different hospitals for another Seattle-area company. He had to fly team members to each hospital every six weeks to review data in 3-ring binders.

Invio aims to make that process more efficient.

“We have a vision for not just digital and remote trial management, but a mission to automate the busy work out of clinical trials,” said Wallender, who pitched at the GeekWire Summit last month. “Trials are offering us the best scientific advances humanity can muster — they should be supported by the latest and greatest technology in machine learning and AI to drive not just efficiencies like cost and time savings, but also patient safety.”

Launched in 2014, Madrona Venture Labs takes ideas and turns them into startups by way of recruiting, product development, financial investment, and more. Earlier this year, it announced the 3-month accelerator, which will mimic the studio but with a focus on already-established teams that align with its core focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence.

 

Mike Fridgen, CEO of Madrona Venture Labs, said his team has picked two other companies for the accelerator, in addition to Invio. He said there were more 200 applications.

“Invio’s mission to revolutionize the clinical trials process by automating workflows and by providing intelligent insights through data and machine learning was a great fit,” he said. “And, by doing this, Invio improves the safety of trials and decreases the time to market for important life-saving treatments. We believe in the founding team and the impact their product will have on patients.”

 

Accelerator companies receive a $100,000 investment and office space at Create33, the new “founder center” underneath Madrona Venture Group’s downtown Seattle office where Labs is based. There will be two cohorts per year. Labs is accepting applications for another set of companies that will start early next year.

 

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Ikea wants you for its start-up bootcamp

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Got a big idea? The world’s largest furniture manufacturer wants to help.

 

Ikea is more than the world’s largest furniture company these days. It has ventured into everything from fashion to electronics (and all things in between).

Now, Ikea will be inviting 20 startups to its campus for a three-month-long Ikea Bootcamp, hoping to incubate the next big breakthrough product right inside its Älmhult campus. Companies need to apply by December 31 to take part in the program, which starts in March 2019.

“Ikea is hoping to find partners that can help with the big challenges in creating a better everyday life at home for people all around the world, now and in the future,” writes Ikea representative Janice Simonsen in an email to Co.Design. “These challenges include ensuring affordability for the many people, connecting with and being accessible for people across the world, and enabling a positive impact on the planet, the people and society.”

Ikea first announced a similar bootcamp in 2017, but in that inaugural year, partner companies collaborated remotely. Participants represented a wide range of interests, from the Israeli startup Flying Spark, which makes protein from fruit fly larvae, to the Swedish company Mimbly, which makes a water-recycling add-on for washing machines, to the U.K. paint-on-sensor company Bare Conductive, which is currently negotiating a product development deal with Ikea.

For its second Bootcamp, Ikea seems to be investing more into the program all around after learning from the pilot program. It will invite double the partner startups to be mentored in Bootcamp. And it will provide office space and living accommodations for the companies in Älmhult–as well as cover a majority of travel costs to get there. On top of all that, Ikea is promising not to waste anyone’s time if the program is a bad fit. “The participants will get a first indication of collaboration potential with Ikea after two weeks, meaning they will only dedicate a full three months if there’s a likelihood of partnering with Ikea,” says Simonsen.

In other words, participating startups better pile all the free meatballs onto their plates as fast as they can–which when you think about it, is important life advice whether you’re visiting Ikea or not.

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