Behind the culture: 4 NYC startups share how to build it right

October 21, 2016

Companies put a lot into building culture and for good reason. It's what holds an organization together and propels a team to produce amazing work. But, a good company culture doesn’t just happen, and it certainly isn’t something you can expect to change or build in a day.

So, how do the pros do it? We thought we’d ask. Here's what the culture gurus at four NYC tech companies had to say.

 

Responses from Sally Bolig, Head of Talent Acquisition at Yotpo

What does a good company culture look like? 

A foundation of intelligent, hard-working people who want to conquer the world but are humble enough to know that the conquering never actually ends and is a continuous goal. A management team who genuinely cares. A clear career trajectory for growth as it's such a huge motivator. You spend so much of your life at the office that you need a collaborative, motivating environment. A strong company vision. A thoughtful way to recognize employees.

How do you build a company culture? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?

Building a company culture takes deliberate action combined with the organic results of continuing to bring the right people into your organization. Good people are the foundation of a good culture. 

Yotpo employees are people who come to work to learn, be challenged, contribute and be a part of something bigger than themselves. A good company culture's energy can be felt the moment you walk in the door. Communication and transparency are key. People need to know that they're a priority and they need to trust that you're only going to add great people to their team that they will want to grow with.

From the people hired and events planned to the perks provided and office environment created, every single one of those decisions affects a company's culture. Each one of those decisions impact how people interact and how often people interact, and from there, the culture builds upon itself. 

Has your strategy changed over time?

Yes, and we will continue to figure it out. Our company is changing constantly, and along with that, the needs of our employees change too. We're always figuring out new ways to keep teams challenged, fulfilled and happy! That involves seeing what is working, what is not working and how we are going to maintain the incredible culture we've created from the start as we grow in size. 

At 30 large, every single employee’s hard work made an impact on the business as a whole. At 230 large, every single employee’s hard work will still make an impact on the business as a whole. How do you make sure each employee still sees and believes in their personal impact? That’s what we continue to learn.

Are there any pitfalls you'd recommend other companies avoid? 

It's great to hire people that you know are going to be top producers, but it doesn't matter how much money they make for the business if they are going to bring down morale.

Something we've stood by from the very beginning is our 'no asshole policy.' Basically, you can be the best at what you do but if you're not a good person, then you aren't working at Yotpo. It takes just one person to create a toxic environment, so keeping hiring standards high is key, even if a company has big hiring goals. 

 

Responses from Hillary Mager, Head of Recruiting at Flatiron Health

What does a good company culture look like? 

We believe that a company's values are the heart of its culture. We created our 10 core values as a set of guiding principles to motivate and inspire employees. Our values were introduced in 2015 via a collaborative cross-functional task force; since rolling them out, we have strived to incorporate them into all aspects of our business and culture. Our 10 values can be found here. We believe that good company culture is meaningful, collaborative, motivated and transparent. 

How do you build a company culture? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?

Positive company culture is a mix of hiring the right people and having a plan to instill knowledge and values within employees in ways that scale as the organization grows. One practice that we’ve baked into our culture is weekly “Knowledge Infusions.” These are informal discussions about a range of topics hosted by experts in our organization. Flatiron is a melting pot of individuals with different backgrounds in medicine, data analytics, technology, business, and more. These sessions provide a way for employees to continually share, learn and better understand the different functions of our business and their impact. 

We truly are a company that lives by our values. Employees frequently refer to the company values during the interview process as something unique that attracted them to our culture, and we now teach all new hires about our values during a dedicated “Flatiron Values” onboarding session in their first month at the company.  

Has your strategy changed over time?

Flatiron learned early on that our biggest investment must be in our people. Our People Operations team has grown to 20 — rare for a 300-person company and unprecedented for a tech startup. We believe that our people are our ultimate competitive advantage as a company, and we are committed to investing significantly in their professional development and growth. We regularly provide company-wide professional skills training (via “Flatiron University”) as well as team-specific training and manager development programs. Additionally, we recently piloted an external coaching program for non-managers as well as an internal mentoring program, as part of our ongoing efforts to enhance career development opportunities at Flatiron.

Are there any pitfalls you'd recommend other companies avoid? 

We recommend building a team structure and plan for employee development early on.  

In many growth stage technology companies, HR and people operations are often one of the last teams assembled. Product innovation and development are, of course, crucial but should never sacrifice team building, hiring the best possible people and employee development. 

We also give new hires, and employees at all levels of the company, substantial autonomy and ownership. When you hire the right employees you can distribute the authority of decision-making as opposed to running all decisions through layers of people. This sense of autonomy really empowers our employees and enables them to learn and grow more quickly.

 

Responses from Matt Hoffman, VP of People at DigitalOcean

What does a good company culture look like? 

A good company culture is authentic. That means the words on the walls match the actions and behaviors of the leaders and employees. For DigitalOcean, we believe in a culture that supports growth, development, innovation and learning through honest, transparent conversations and by supporting and trusting in one another to do our best work every day. And most importantly, we believe in showing love — to our customers and to each other. 

How do you build a company culture? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?

A strong culture is built incredibly deliberately. It needs to be embedded in how you hire, the way you manage and reward performance, and the behavioral norms that are tolerated and accepted. It's only in the decisions a company makes in the edge cases where culture is challenged; where it gets truly shaped, refined and reinforced. But that's why it's important to have that strong culture that everyone understands. Because it provides the roadmap to help guide everyone in how to handle those tough decisions — and that lets a culture scale organically.  

Has your strategy changed over time?

Our business strategy has absolutely evolved over time.  We're now not just focused on serving the needs of the developer, but also teams of developers. But that's come as our customers' needs have evolved as well. What's important is the core beliefs we have as a company around what we do, why and how we do it, have remained constant. That's an important part of us rapidly scaling and growing as successfully as I think we have. 

Are there any pitfalls you'd recommend other companies avoid? 

All companies are going to have to change. It's a natural part of business evolution. One pitfall to avoid is to try to run from the change, rather than embracing it.  It can be scary but also exciting and energizing! And, it's so important to be transparent with employees about what's going on and why the changes are happening. You want them to feel like an integral part of the growth and evolution of the company and recognize that they are an important part of the journey. It is impossible to overcommunicate. Helping your teams understand where the company is going and why they will be the reason you get there is absolutely critical to success.

 

Responses from Nurit Shiber, Head of Human Resources at Sisense

What does a good company culture look like?

A good company culture is one where everyone is sharing the same operating principles and committed to making the overall success of the organization and one another. Company culture boils down to the energy you feel when you enter the office – the way people interact with each other, the way people do their work and the overall attitude of people around you.

How do you build a company culture? Is it deliberate or does it just happen?

It is absolutely deliberate. It all starts from the founding team’s behaviors and then as the company grows, the leadership team must continue to evolve and role model that culture. If a company declares values and they are not modeled by the top, the declared values will not be achieved, cynicism and lack of trust will emerge. 

Has your strategy changed over time?

We decided that we will not publish our core values despite people’s requests to do so because we did not want them posted as just words on walls as we have seen in other organizations. We take it upon ourselves as the leadership team to actually model our core values by the way we behave and hold one another accountable for keeping the behavioral standards we want to see in the company. For example, if team oriented execution is important for us – we will make sure this is something we role model in how we interact with each other and by building platforms that will facilitate people working together while enjoying each other’s company.

If constant improvement is something that is important for us we will ensure that we give people constant feedback while showing our commitment to their personal growth as a professional at Sisense and beyond. Recently a candidate told me she was happy to get feedback from one of our VPs during an interview. She commented that it was refreshing feedback that helped her get better in other meetings as well as helped her decide that Sisense is the place for her. Listening to these examples (whether good or bad), and sharing them constantly with the team helps us understand if we are doing an effective job in modeling what we committed to or if we need to further improve. 

Are there any pitfalls you'd recommend other companies avoid?

Mainly avoid using cultural slogans without having people feel it in everything that happens in the company. Consistency is the key to success here. Also if you happen to hire someone who is not a good fit for the company culture, (which you should avoid but it may happen…) correct your mistakes quickly and help him/her find a place that is probably a better fit. Lastly, recognize and strengthen cultural role models in all areas of the company and have an open communication channel with them to hear feedback real time – good or bad and constantly.

 

Images via Built In & DigitalOcean & Sisense

Know of a company that deserves coverage? Let us know or tweet us @builtinnewyork.

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