If All You See Are Toys Then You Don’t Understand Company Culture

We have all seen startups with full sized arcade games, climbing walls, a strong selection of craft beers, video games, free food, and at one company I was a part of…a full size conference room that was a ball pit.  Why do we do this?  It might be for a little variety, to thumb one’s nose at the buttoned up firms that came before, or possibly to provide a smile and relaxation for employees.  What it isn’t however, is a company’s culture.

Culture is not defined by the tangible things we see at companies whether they be climbing walls or ergonomic keyboards.  These are symptoms, and happy symptoms at that, of a company who has created and maintains a culture.  You see, a company culture really comes about from the values and ethos an organization espouses.

Some of my more favorite company values:

  • Focus on the user and all else will follow. –Google
  • Operating in an ethical way is the foundation of our business. –Samsung
  • Be CEO, own outcomes. –Zynga
  • Challenge yourself. –Ubisoft
  • Be passionate and determined.  Be humble. –Zappos
  • Stay hungry, stay foolish. –Steve Jobs (quoted)
  • Results first, substance over flash. –Rackspace
  • A will to win. –American Express
  • Responding with a sense of urgency is the ante to play. –Quicken
  • Recognize others. –LivingSocial

Values create the culture.  The results are far more robust than simple perks like those above.  Investment in company culture is the investment made to grow a well functioning organization.  When ingrained properly and truly made a part of the company these values drive outcomes and align decision making across large groups of people.  For example if I have a team member who is meeting with a stakeholder and a decision must be made as to whether to satisfy a vendor or satisfy the customers, a value like the first one above from Google can create consistency in the outcome.  Now, I am not saying you don’t side with a vendor for the right reasons.  I am saying however, that in the absence of being able to escalate such a situation there is comfort (through the values) that the decision will be in line with the greater company more often than not.

Values and the resulting culture also act as a strong signaling effect to partners and customers.  Is this a business that I respect?  Do they operate and prize the same things I do?  Will they act as I would act when the chips are down?  All of these things are at the heart of what a potential business partner will feel and how customers will see you.  Very much to Katie Szczepaniak Rice’s article “Raising Money Is Like Dating,” your culture will speak volumes about you and your company before you even walk into the room on your first proverbial date.

So no, I didn’t buy arcade games and free food because I love video games or I am foolish with money.  Quite the opposite actually.  I bought them because I value my team above all else, am grateful for their dedication (often measured in triple digits of hours worked per week and product ready to test ahead of schedule), and for their tireless pursuit of what makes the customer happy.  That is our culture.