Building a Successful Company Culture, From the Inside Out
Why culture matters, and how to preserve it when you scale up.
Jeff Bezos was famously quoted as saying, "Your brand is what other people say about you when you're not in the room." That might ring true for a giant brand like Amazon, with millions of faceless customers, but for a startup like ours, things hit a lot closer to home. The way we see it at Halla — a "taste intelligence company" that harnesses application programming interface (API) tech to enable retailers to predict the preferences of shoppers in real-time (which drives both retailer sales and customer retention) — our small company culture is our "brand," and that culture is reflected by what our employees think, say and do, whether we are in the room or not.
My two co-founders and I essentially began with a brand already in place. The three of us have been close friends since we were young teenagers, and brought our own personal culture to the table the moment we started Halla. It is one aspect of what one of our advisors, the legendary James McCann, describes as, "just the way we do things around here."
From the beginning, it was important for us to define what kind of place this company would be to work in, and for. And as we've looked back at what got us to where we are today, it turns out that understanding and articulating our own culture made a big difference — I dare say one even worth sharing with readers.
We are big on human connection
Human connection, the occasional hug included, is built into our ethos; each of us takes a genuine interest in the lives of colleagues. We are tireless in connecting people in network, which helps create both internal and external communities that have both proved beneficial. Perhaps this culture came from we three founders being so close for such a long time now, but focusing on connecting emotionally and socially every day has helped make this business an amazing place.
Another organically-developed characteristic that has served us well is the practice of being expansive in expression. We will always spend another minute to be sure that a plan of action is clear or to resolve a conflict that might otherwise fester. When it comes to work performance, we are ebullient and specific in our praise, and when work misses the mark, we communicate exactly where one of us goofed and precisely what the right move would have been. And if it isn't clear what should have been done, we brainstorm and make sure everyone knows how to handle things next time.
We are humble learners
When the three of us started this journey, we were no more than 20 years old, and only knew that we knew next to nothing. That also meant that we had few baked-in expectations. Rather than slowing us down, this admission created a culture of humility. Because our employees and other associates are often more experienced than we are, we began with no ego attachment to what had been done before. This has allowed us to remain open to team input — a lack of internal competition that turned out to be fertile ground for creativity.
How our culture has paid off
When I look at how this culture of "being ourselves" has worked for Halla, I'm amazed at how the benefits have stacked up. First, I am supremely proud to say that we are an organization in which each and every member of the team demonstrates extraordinary dedication and support. This passion started with three people in a garage, and is equally apparent today in employees who cheerfully put in extra hours, in investors and advisors who return phone calls promptly and passionately and in the vendors who put us first, though we are rarely their biggest customer. We sometimes say that, "You can taste the love in the food being cooked here." Our culture has allowed us to recruit and retain truly extraordinary talent. The best I can make of it is that it simply feels good to work here.
Making the most of company culture
Despite the extraordinary benefits that this unique environment has brought to our enterprise, I don't think it makes any sense to artificially create company culture. If we'd set out to create one, we would have failed. However, we have found that it is possible to leverage established culture in three important ways:
1. Embrace your unique identity
We are big connectors because our company was founded on friendship. We are flexible because we started it as college students, and are humble because we didn't know anything when we started and had no choice but to be open-minded. In every imaginable way, our culture is an authentic reflection of who we actually are.
2. Keep thinking bigger
Not knowing anything never stopped us from believing that we can change how people think about food forever. For whatever values that are authentically "us" as individuals (being connectors, communicators and learners), we are shameless about making our company a bigger and better reflection of them. Articulating culture requires exaggerating who you are until everyone who comes into contact with you can see it quickly and clearly.
3. Be willing to change
We've discovered one more trait about ourselves that we think is pivotally important in building a successful business culture: flexibility. While structure, accountability and deadlines are vital to any growing enterprise, circumstances will always emerge that bend original expectations. A hallmark of our working culture is to set elastic boundaries for plans and job roles, inviting new voices, new solutions and new opportunities to shine.
As we scale up, we know that the startup culture we enjoy today will not remain exactly the same, and that's okay. We will always seek to make Halla a positive and supportive place to work, but its culture must be allowed to evolve as our team grows in size and diversity. What our employees think, say and do will then become an even more important reflection of the brand than it is today, whether we are in the room or not.
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