Every founder understands the importance of culture in the long-term success of their company. Yet rather than valuing and supporting all employees, organizations like Uber still manage to build a toxic, poisonous one. How does this happen, and what can you as a founder do to prevent it?
We’re still in the early days of understanding how to build great culture. However, the barriers to doing so are surprisingly similar to another area where we’ve come leaps and bounds in the last decade: Creating great products. The similarities in their problems mean the tactics for solving them should be portable, too. In both cases, the barrier is essentially:
You’re creating for someone else, and they get to decide whether you succeeded.
Your opinion matters, but only as part of the feedback loop between your work and the outside world. Eric Reis and Steve Blank have done a great job of teaching us that facts live outside the building, and the real test is to go find them. You can’t rely on your own perspective, because you’re not the ones deciding whether to buy.
A product solves a specific problem for a specific customer, whose perfect solution might fail the very same problem on another person. When it comes to testing your product, the only experience that matters is that of your target customer. Failing them is failing full stop.
Your culture has the same need to dial into your audience. As the founder, it doesn’t matter what you think of the company’s culture. It’s not for you. But for better or worse, you do get to decide who your culture is for. A lot of these failures of culture are actually the CEO making bad decisions about who the culture is for.
For example, we all know stories of toxic employees driving other people out of the company. The excuse we hear is that this person is “too important to fire.” It’s presented as a choice between firing this person or making some people uncomfortable, in which case it’s easy to keep this high performer around. But that’s not actually the choice you’re making.
When you choose not to fire someone who harasses women, what you’re really saying is, “This person is more important to my company than women are.”
You’d rather your organization and leadership discriminate against women, have them leave your company, and have your people and teams suffer all the psychological damage that results from choosing to protect one person over a whole class of people.
It’s the same for an employee who discriminates against minorities, veterans, disabled people, or any other group. You can keep that one person, or keep the ability to hire from that entire labor pool.
Of course, that toxic person won’t actually prevent you from hiring from a whole group. That would actually be better in the long run. Instead, you’ll hire a few, but they’ll only stick around long enough to be almost valuable to you. People who stick around for one to two years are incredibly expensive - but your toxic employee will cause them to leave. You get to pay to recruit and replace them, to train them up, to watch teams form, and then to watch them fall apart again. And again. All because you couldn’t make a hard call on one person.
Conveniently, you’ll then be able to look back after a couple of years and say that these people who left just didn’t fit in, as though it’s somehow their fault that you’ve designed an organization that excludes them as target users.
I think there’s a strong moral case to made for inclusion, but you don’t need it. All you need is basic economics. Great people are scarce, and every group you exclude reduces that pool even further. Your investors want you to have the biggest possible user base to increase your addressable market; don’t you also want the largest possible employee base? Women are 51% of the population, and in the US, whites make up 72% of the population. If you only hire white men, with maybe trifling exceptions, then your target market is only 36% of the country. Reduce to just the working age population, and you’re at 22% of the pool. And that’s before you slice for experience, location, etc., much less silly requirements like a degree from an elite school and experience working at Google or Facebook. Every demographic you exclude reduces your possible employee base, and with it your chance for building a great business.
Let’s say I’ve convinced you. You have to design your organization to include other groups. Now what do you do to ensure it’s working for them?
Again, the facts live outside the building. Even worse, as the founder you don’t get the truth. Most people do not speak truth to power because they either feel unsafe, or actually are. Even worse, most powerful people don’t want to hear it. This attitude helps explain why a lot of cultures are so broken. You have to fight your instincts, your comfort, and often, your happiness to get the truth from those who own it.
In the fall of 2014, I had dinner with eight women who worked at my company. This was my most difficult experience as CEO. They were pissed off. Their experience was very different from what I thought was happening, and hearing it directly from them hurt.
I realized in hindsight that I’d made the tactical mistake of collecting the most upset women in the company - getting together with everyone who was having the worst experience- but that didn’t make their experiences any less valid or their feedback any less important.
Thankfully, I was aware of some aspects of what they were struggling with, and I was able to point to three separate projects I was working on, all with defined goals, owners, and deadlines, that would target what I thought were the biggest issues. But I had not realized how bad it was for them, and I was far from achieving my own goals in this area.
My behavior as a result of that dinner would make an explicit statement about who my company was for. I could have taken that deep pain, that searing discomfort, and run from it. I mean, I didn’t experience any of that, and all I had was these whiny women who had this problem. Right?
Would you accept that with your product? Would you dismiss the feedback of eight customers who were on the verge of dumping your product? Would you look at their feedback and say, well, it’s just eight whiny users, I can ignore them?
Many founders choose this path in culture. They keep around the bad managers, the toxic star player, or the oppressive HR policy. But like with your modern software, you have the opportunity - and I say the obligation - to do better.
So go, build your best culture, set high standards for your team. But be very clear about whose feedback you rely on to test whether you’re meeting those standards. If your goal is inclusion and diversity, which it absolutely should be, then you need to listen, really listen to diverse voices, and to those who are systematically excluded from most organizations.
If you can do this, you can emulate the Dodgers hiring Jackie Robinson and the Sorbonne University promoting Marie Curie as the first woman professor of general physics. If not, you will find yourself competing with them instead.
When I was 23, I was hired as a system administrator for the first time. I joined BlueStar Communications, which was a young but well-funded company stupid enough to take on the incumbent telecom carriers. Their CEO was a maverick, especially in staid telecom in Nashville, Tennessee. He was bringing always-on internet to small businesses in the southeast (yes, there was a time when this innovative), and blended in about as well as a hockey player in a three piece suit. I was excited to work with someone who I could identify with, and learn from.
He was fired the week I started.
Like the founder of BlueStar, I’d had my own struggles with long tenures. I was fired from a cabinet company after only a week. I lasted a full three month contract at Adidas before having it ended the day I left to visit family. I also lasted only three months in QA and Mac administration jobs.
For all of these firings - except maybe the cabinet shop, which bored me to tears - I wasn’t bad at the work, I just didn’t fit in. You could say I wasn’t really housebroken, that I didn’t know the rules of how people acted in American corporate environments.
All of my prior work experience was remodeling houses with my family, after growing up on a commune. I had no idea what made people normal, I just knew I was missing it.
These failures inspired me to work harder at being worth keeping around, but in parallel I started learning to look like I knew what the rules were and was at least trying to follow them. For someone who only a few years earlier walked around campus with knee-high boots, a spiked leather jacket and a mohawk, this was no mean feat.
This experience with firings was a huge influence when I started Puppet in 2005, six years after I met the CEO of BlueStar. I bootstrapped the company for more than four years, partially because I failed to find an investor I trusted to keep me in the CEO role. The first term sheet I ever received was on the condition that I accept a friend of the investor’s as CEO. (I declined.)
As I grew the team, things got more difficult. One of the first people I hired immediately declared his greater fitness for the CEO role, with zero relevant experience, and tried to convince others to oust me from the company I’d built and they’d just joined.
Yes, I was paranoid, but they really were out to get me.
From my first hire through raising $87m in funding and growing to nearly 500 employees, I could never get comfortable. Everyone I worked with reminded me - unintentionally - that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t behave as they expected. As I grew into my role, I excelled in areas, but continued stepping in holes that everyone else could see.
The suspicion that I wasn’t faking things well enough was confirmed as I was raising a later round of funding.
Before a pitch meeting, an investor said to me “Now try to be more like a Valley guy, not so much a Portland guy.”
Infuriatingly, I knew what he meant, but also that I’d never be able to pinpoint what I was doing wrong. I worked every day on my “Valley guy” pantomime, from the clothes to the books to the words. This pointed statement told me in stark terms that my efforts were obvious failures to even the casual observer.
Knowing the world saw me as an imposter caused me to hold back. I don’t mean I had imposter syndrome; I suffered from it like most high performers do, but that’s not what this was. The world around me constantly pushed back against what made me “me”, making me worse at just about everything.
I had put myself in a box. I wasn’t even willing to consider ideas that I didn’t think the people around me would accept. I was brave, within that window. I was daring, but not too much. I could do anything I wanted, as long I still kind of looked the part. This box excluded many great options, and notably, excluded a lot of what I most wanted. My weirdness isn’t skin-deep, and a lot of what I wanted just didn’t fit, so I tried to do something that did. Thankfully a lot of it worked out, but I think it could have better, and I know it would have been more pleasant, if I had been more brave, more willing to own my lack of belonging.
It’s worth noting, this was all as someone who did theoretically look the part. I’m a medium-sized white male with a degree from a great school.
I can’t imagine how much worse it would have gone for someone who literally looked different - wrong skin color, wrong gender, wrong accent, disabled, too short, etc. Maybe that was my real problem - people let me in the door thinking I was like everyone else, and only once they started talking to me did they realize how weird I was.
Finally, after almost ten years of running Puppet, I found a way to escape this box I had put myself in. I would quit.
It’s not fair to say this was the only driver for my decision, or even that I was thinking of it this way at the time. What can’t be denied, though, is how much it changed me. I lost my fear of being fired for not fitting in, because I was working to leave anyway.
I couldn’t see the box when I was in it, but when freed, unavailable actions suddenly became doable. I could trust myself for the first time since that first hire, so my cost of decision-making plummeted. I didn’t need to look to society as some sort of arbiter of what’s reasonable.
I had been preventing myself from using my now-highly trained instincts, which reduced me to tackling easy problems or making slow, bad decisions. Or sitting there and doing nothing, which is generally an even worse decision.
Outside the box, my inductive reasoning center could operate without all the second-guessing. I was able to hire a product leader based on instinctive conviction that we were aligned on how to work. I made an incredibly tough call on hiring for Business Development, by following my thread of fear that maybe I was being pulled toward too easy of an answer elsewhere. Most importantly to me, though, I was able to develop and begin rolling out what I think is a truly great product strategy.
I did some of the best work of my life.
This experience has an interestingly conflicting lesson.
On the one hand, the cost of trying to fit in is often too high. No matter how much you want it, you might have to choose between failing at what you want and succeeding at what you can authentically do. If you’re building a team, the choice may come down to those who are great at the job and those you can work with.
On the other hand, I somehow fooled people into thinking I was normal (well, normal enough) for long enough to become a successful CEO in a field where I seemed like an alien to everyone involved. That pantomime was critical in developing the instincts I was able to apply so well as my tenure wound down, and now I have opportunities I never could have dreamed of.
I think the duality of this lesson is important in the conversation around diversity. Puppet couldn’t have existed without some tolerance for my weirdness, but it was also much harder because of it.
I’ll never know if getting out of that box earlier would have caused me to do even better as CEO, gotten me fired ignominiously years earlier, or even maybe caused the company to fail early on. What I do know is that I was deeply hurt by not facing and acknowledging my fear of being fired.
I am privileged to have no idea what is in store for me, and no fear at the prospect. I feel no need to fit in anymore, both because I have nothing to prove and because the cost of not fitting in is now one I can afford to pay. If anything, I’m now considered more valuable because I don’t fit the mold.
The lack of pressure to conform brings incredible freedom. Freedom that everyone deserves.
I am not a technologist. This surprises many, including a CEO I was on the phone with recently. I explained that I had no pet software projects I was working on at home, and thus couldn’t demo her software. She paused for a second, like, “Uh, why are we on the phone, then?”
It’s true that I have worked on tech since graduating from college, and that I wrote Puppet essentially alone while I bootstrapped the company for years by myself. I enjoyed the work, but those were all a means to an end, not the goal. This became more and more clear to me as I hired large teams who really were technologists. I was able to do the work, but they loved it. I naturally fell into different, complementary areas.
So no, I can’t really help your company in sorting out its software stack. Or rather, I could, but you really shouldn’t want my help there. There are better people. Far better. People have found my advice really helpful in the past, but not in this area.
Strategy is where I’ve had the biggest effect as an advisor. You are already deeply committed to your goals - you don’t need my help figuring out what to do. You are just as committed to how you’re going to achieve them, but probably haven’t spent as much energy thinking about it and expressing it. This ‘how’ is your strategy, and key aspects are decided early on, whether you mean to or not.
Do you want a big field sales force, or a self-service model? Either way, why? How does that choice affect your product price point and service attach rate? There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, but a choice will be made, and it has massive consequences on the life of your company. My great ability is pestering you with questions until you’re forced to put your opinions on the table and really examine them. As a leader, your job isn’t just to be opinionated - it’s to be able to usefully express that opinion to your team.
Product is the second major area I will push you. Again, this isn’t about the tech, or the code. I don’t care how it’s built. The first step is being clear about what problem you want users to hire you for. I bet you have a decent grasp of this, but you have to go down a layer into which users you’re going to start with, how you’re going to parlay them into a larger group, and how all of that relates to adoption within a single organization and across a market. The path of a product’s adoption is as critical to plan out as the features you build.
All of that ties into how you price. How does it drive user behavior? What do you want to incentivize through low or free pricing, and what must you charge for to make your business work? How does charging per seat vs consumption vs features change their behavior and affect your business?
All of this must come together into a coherent system that pushes you, your team, your customers, and the market to focus on the right problems at the right time. You should seek my help in seeing the whole system, and especially the gaps in it. I hate software, but oh boy, do I love systems. My brain is so optimized for managing, storing, and assessing systems that I lose nouns constantly. It’s worth it, for me and for you.
I can also help you.
You’re not a coincidence. You have to understand, it’s not an accident that you’re here. Even if the only thing that makes you special is that you were the first one to raise your hand… it’s been a few years now. Because of that one little action, you’re different than everyone else. It’s up to you to demonstrate whether that difference is good, or useful, but it’s definitely there.
I don’t mean to say that you’re better, or that only certain people can be entrepreneurs. History shows the exact opposite, and I’m a huge believer in empowering ever more. What I mean is, the mere act of taking the step permanently changed you. One of the hardest acts for most founders, especially those from underrepresented groups, is believing that they belong, that they deserve to be out front. I can help you see how just sitting in the seat has led you to be a different person than you were before, led you to special insight and special opportunity.
It’s up to you, now, to make the most of the opportunity, to believe in it and to deliver on it. You have to learn how to extract that difference, to bottle it, to share it. And when to dump it down the sink.
Founders are so full of dreams that they have a hard time letting go. “It’s true we can’t do this today, but I’m going to keep talking about it in hopes we can do it tomorrow.” Your business is on death’s door and the wrong success gets you all fired, but sure, go ahead and distract your team with something you know you can’t and shouldn’t build, and that your customers would never buy.
Everyone knows founders have to make hard decisions, but most don’t seem to realize the hardest ones are about their own dreams. To build something great, you have to give up on other dreams. You can’t build it all at once. You can still hold it, treasure it. But you don’t get to talk about it. You can’t distract people with it.
You haven’t earned it yet. When your company is a massive success, and throwing off more cash than you know what to do with, that’s when you pull out your other great ideas and turn your success into a platform for experimentation. Until then, you have to focus. Let go.
Beyond all that, I enjoy working through demos and user experiences, helping people see your work through new but educated eyes, asking a thousand questions that you might not have answers to. This teaches us both a lot about you, your product, and your company. The differences between the easy and hard answers teach you a lot, too.
What I don’t like to do is tell people what to do. At most, I will share frameworks I’ve used for decision-making in the past and recommend some of them for you, but preferably, I will focus on pulling from you what you really believe, and then make you really confront it. It’s not about me. I can’t live your life. I don’t know your customers. I can’t run your company.
But maybe, with the right prompting, I can help you look at it in a new light, help you make the right decisions faster, and help you avoid some of the worst parts of this insane decision you’ve made.
Anderson’s knife can cut anything, taking a chunk from everything in the land.
Master Terrence’s strokes remove less with each cut.
Greg LeMond once said, “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” This quote has been a rosary for me, a source of contemplation and meditation over the years. I think of it every time a new problem reveals itself as an echo of something I thought I already solved.
When I started Puppet, everyone I worked with stressed the need for me to recognize my position as founder and CEO, to bring people with me. The summer before I stepped down, more than a decade into practicing this skill, it still showed up in every coaching session. Not because I haven’t improved - but because it is a life skill that I can improve at every year and still die with more work in front of me than behind.
I found it incredibly hard to hire those first few people. I second-guessed myself, was slow, looked like a fool, felt an even bigger one, and finally made bets based on too little information. When I rebuilt the executive team in my last year, I second guessed myself, went too slowly, made what looked like basic mistakes, and felt incompetent the whole time.
This isn’t a coincidence. It’s not a sign of my incompetence. It’s the exact opposite: It shows that I never let things get easier, instead I kept my intensity up and always focused on going faster.
LeMond knew how to win. You train, you work, you focus, and all that effort delivers leverage. What you did yesterday when giving 100%, you can do today giving only 97%. What do you do with that 3%?
If you want to win, you reinvest it. In what? Counter-intuitively, exactly what got you that leverage in the first place.
For each and every one of us, there are two kinds of skills: Those it’s worth devoting our lives to, and those it’s not. A given pursuit can be less important because it doesn’t matter to you, because you’ll never be good enough at it, or because you just don’t like it. Those that matter, though, are a perfect intersection of your love, your abilities, and your values. They will reward any amount of investment by making you better at what you care most about, and are best at.
You have to love it because you really can’t devote the time and energy needed to dominate unless you like the work. You need at least some ability. You don’t need to start with a natural talent, but you are most likely to be rewarded for investing in areas that come easier than when you’re starting at the bottom. And your investments have to match your values. Some people care most about skills that earn them money, others about having an impact on people’s lives, and yet others want to build. You have to believe that what you’re investing in will help you spiritually, not just materially. It’s the only way you can convince yourself to work as hard as you need to.
Yes, there absolutely are things you will never be good at that you have to invest in. When I started Puppet, I was an outright liability in some areas, such as business operations. I had to get better at those. But I was never confused into thinking I would be great at them. That’s what team building is for.
Given two skills, one where you’re 8/10 and the other where you’re 3/10, where do you invest? Some might recommend the skill you suck at.
Not me. If that skill mattered, you would never have gotten hired in the first place. The reason you have a job is because of your 8/10 skill. Get 10% better at your weakness, and wow, you’re at 3.3/10. Big whoop. Get 10% better at your strength? You’re at 8.8/10. That’s a huge difference.
But getting 10% better in your area of expertise is fantastically difficult. It’s your life’s work.
I am suspicious of people who say the hard things are easy. What I hear is not that it’s easy, but that they’re not trying very hard. Or they’re too embarrassed to be honest.
Greg LeMond was the fastest cyclist in the world, but never stopped trying to ride faster.
Miyamoto Musashi won more than 200 individual duels with a sword, but never stopped trying to cut faster.
Excellence requires perpetual intensity. You should be confident enough in your strengths to admit that it’s hard. It should be hard. It’s the only way to get better.
Reese’s keyboard produces truth of complexity and beauty, admired from a distance by all.
With a violent strike of Master Aaliyah’s pen, Jorge is enlightened.
I set out in January to study the realms of finance, software, and my own desire, but found myself adrift with no laboratory for experimentation. Programming was my testing ground for the hypotheses that led to Puppet, but my new questions cannot be answered in silicon. Clumsy studies provided two conclusions: Writing itself can and should be how I express and test my beliefs, but only if I get much better at it.
I started Puppet with core hypotheses, considered stupid by the experts around me. There was no point in talking about them; anyone can talk, and listeners similarly get to pick their conclusions. Only those I could prove had merit.
Proof is complicated. Few of us live in the world of math, where there’s enough overlap between objective reality and our language for discussing it that we can be truly sure. Computer science is itself lacking the unsentimental judge that the natural world provides to actual science. In truth, I should not discuss proofs, but rather disproofs. My real challenge with Puppet was to get rid of my false beliefs and let the remainders shine through, and there, programming was the perfect foil.
The best product idea in the world is worthless if it can’t be expressed in software in a sufficient timeframe. Merely building Puppet forced me to discard many convictions, and early rejects often became critical axioms undergirding the whole system. Of course, in the world of software, the compiler is only the first test. The real arbiter is your user, your customer. Once you’ve expressed your belief in a form someone can use, do they? I remember arguing for hours with a customer against a feature he requested, but the cold hard reality of his problem had me spending that night in my hotel room fixing it.
I am often asked if I miss programming. I do not.
What I miss is the laboratory it provided me, and the complete world that enveloped me, pressing in on me with its constraints, requirements, and complexities. I miss the hours I spent focused on one problem, and the complex systems needed to turn my ideas into a form usable by others.
I am thrilled and relieved to see that writing can be a new and even better laboratory for me. When I was programming full time, problems would haunt me, refusing to leave. I wore holes in my shoes walking back and forth between my keyboard and the local coffee shop, trying to line things up so they made sense. I’d scrunch up my face while drinking the coffee, drawing enqueries as to my wellbeing.
Writing is harder than that. The problems are bigger, and yet deeper inside, and harder to extract. I was never afraid of programming, but every idea I fail to write frightens me at least a little. On the far side, successfully expressing something is cathartic, a release, and it washes everything out with it.
It’s a better laboratory, because I have far more opinions about the real world than about the software world. Like those hypotheses that led to Puppet, I don’t know if they’re good. But I do know they’re different. I’ve bounced off reality enough times, asking for help from the crowd of onlookers and then getting back up, that I have a good sense of which of my beliefs are widely shared, and which are rare. For better or worse, little of what I believe, of what I think is important, is widely shared.
I’m excited by disagreement. Alignment is critical to execution, but diversity is needed for learning.
More than anything, I look forward to sharing my ideas, and as I did with Puppet, either finding them useful to other people, or having them cut to shreds to reveal new constraints, insights, opportunities. To do that successfully, though, writing is not enough: People must be able to read it.
Writing is no easier than coding, and in both, it’s ten times harder to write for others as for oneself.
One of my earliest optimizations in building Puppet was to prioritize my own productivity wherever possible. I explicitly chose to program in Ruby because I was faster there, even if it was slow and unpopular (Puppet was started before Rails was released). It took years for my programming style to reveal itself as an implicit personal optimization, highly effective for me but inscrutable to others.
My writing turns out to have a similarly mixed legacy.
All of the great shifts I initiated at Puppet began life as an essay, some extruded in a single sitting but more often sculpted over months and years. Once a hypothesis could defend itself, I then spent months and (more often) years translating it, turning it into something people could execute.
I’m proud of that work - how can I not be, when it helped build Puppet into what it is today?
But it’s fair to define good writing as something that doesn’t need a translator into its own tongue. By that measure, I’d failed.
Like a young programmer, I used to see people’s confusion as a sign of my genius and the value of my work. Now I look back with my designer’s eye and see it as a missed opportunity. We could have been there years faster if my beliefs had come with a better user experience. Kanies’s Razor is as applicable in prose as it is in code: Never attribute to genius that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.
I sit at the keyboard today as thrilled and scared as I was at the shiny benches of my science classes in college. Today I smell tea instead of banana oil and denatured ethanol, and I have no lab tech to stonewall me when I ask for easy answers, but the feeling of hope, of optimism, of a world to be discovered, understood, and fought through lifts me up just the same. I believe I can enjoy writing as much as I ever enjoyed programming, I can develop and test a wider range of hypotheses with a greater impact on those around me, and I can even learn get those ideas across to other people.