How we bootstrapped our company culture

By Michael Argentini
Managing Partner, Technology and Design

In the spring of 2013 we set out to define our company culture. We found that companies tend to view their culture in a few distinct ways:

  1. something important which should be formalized,
  2. a consequence of who you hire and how you lead, or
  3. an afterthought.

For those who feel it's important and should be formalized, it often becomes the lowest priority; the can that is endlessly kicked down the road. The companies that feel it can be tacit eventually discover that their cultural focus becomes ambiguous, and many times will evolve on its own, in ways the company never intended. Sometimes there is an active focus on culture based on who is hired and how leadership runs the company, but it can also be a surrender to the inevitable. And then there are those who feel it is relatively unimportant. This is generally revealed by deed, not word. If you ask any company executive the leading question of "Is your company culture important?", arguably, most would respond with some degree of "yes" regardless of how they truly perceive its value.

I would say that in our case, it started as a view that we could control our culture based purely on who we hire, and how we lead; a foundational aspect of our company, certainly, but one which didn't need to be formalized. We'd lead by example, hire based on cultural fit as one aspect of the candidate's qualifications, and let our culture grow organically.

After some time, and with an impending website refresh looming, it was clear that formalizing who we are was really important to document, not only for ourselves, but for our clients, vendors, and prospects. We view our business relationships as personal ones. And we believe our culture is a differentiator for us. As such, it's important to let people know. We also know that it's important to be able to codify who we are so that we have a rudder to keep us focused on who we strive to be every day as we pursue our goals as a company.

We'd never done this before, so we started brainstorming. To get things started, the managing partners traveled to Washington D.C. that March to spend an extended weekend together focused on defining what makes us "us" and what we want to be. We visited museums and shared meals and drinks. The time away really gave us what we needed to think about Fynydd. After various brainstorming sessions over the course of a few days, we ended up with a list of value statements and ideas. It was a good start.

Many companies have implicit or explicit cultures that bisect their employees into "work self" and "home self". Forcing people to leave parts of themselves at home creates a significant creative and talent deficit. This was obvious to us. For this reason, when we formed Fynydd, one of our tentpole values was to embrace individuality. If everyone brought their whole selves to work each day, that needed to be reflected in our values. So when we returned, we included everyone else in the process. We explained why it was important, who it would affect, and for everyone to focus on questions like "Who are we?", "What makes us unique?", and "Who do we want to be?"

By August we ended up with a lot of value statements. We wanted to keep our core values list short and easy to communicate. So whittling it down was quite a chore. Some of the items we came up with as a group included:

  • celebrate diversity and individuality
  • never stop learning
  • promote work/life balance
  • put a premium on aptitude and attitude
  • be honest and accountable
  • improve peoples' lives
  • wow our clients and their clients
  • communicate better than most
  • communicate openly and honestly
  • embrace and drive positive change.
  • ...and many, many more

The list was just too long. So I set out to research the topic to gain insight into consolidation of these types of values, especially how other companies we respected defined their values. Coincidentally, I had been reading the book Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Like many companies, Zappos had gone through the same exercise. What set them apart was that they also offered their Culture Book to the general public, to help others create great companies focused on people and relationships. And as I looked through their ten core values, I was able to completely check off all of the values we had brainstormed. It was a near perfect fit. I recommended that we adopt these ten value statements as our consolidated list, and all agreed. So I reworked the verbiage that defined each value, as it pertained to Fynydd, and wrote a lead-in to help people understand what these core values are and why they're important to us.

The Result?

Here is our complete culture statement, including the list of our core values. We're really happy with it, and our employees are too.

At Fynydd, our company is defined by our culture. Our culture drives everything we do and how we do it. And it also defines us as people in the eyes of those we meet. We use these values as the rudder that will keep us true to our roots, focused on our goals, and virtuous in our aspirations. This is the key differentiator we offer to our clients, and our key to success and growth in the future.

1. Deliver WOW Through Products and Services

Everything we do is a reflection on Fynydd and our values.

To WOW someone you must differentiate yourself by exceeding their expectations, which often means doing something unconventional and innovative. What you do must have a positive emotional impact. We are not an average company. Our products and services are not average, and we don't want our people to be average. Consequently, we expect every employee to deliver WOW.

Whether internally with co-workers or externally with our clients and partners, delivering WOW results in word of mouth. It also creates and reinforces our reputation within every relationship we have, including our clients, our co-workers, our vendors, our partners, and in the long run, our investors.

2. Embrace and Drive Change

Change is constant in a growing company.

For some people, especially those who come from bigger companies, constant change can be somewhat unsettling at first. If you are not prepared to deal with constant change, then you probably are not a good fit for the company.

We must all learn to not fear change, and to embrace it enthusiastically, and perhaps even more importantly, to encourage and drive it. We must always plan for and be prepared for constant change.

Although change can and will come from all directions, it's important that most of the changes in the company are driven from the bottom up — from the people who are on the front lines and closest to the clients and production pipeline.

Never accept or be too comfortable with the status quo because, historically, the companies that get into trouble are the ones that aren't able to respond quickly enough and adapt to change.

We are ever-evolving. If we want to continue to stay ahead of our competition, we must continually change and keep them guessing. They can copy many aspects of our company and our marketing approach, but they cannot copy our people, our culture, or our products and services. As long as embracing constant change is a part of our culture, they will not be able to evolve as fast as we can.

3. Be Fun. Be Goofy. Be Yourself.

At Fynydd, we’re always creating fun and a little weirdness.

One of the things that make Fynydd different from a lot of other companies is that we value being fun and being a little weird. We don't want to become one of those big companies that feel corporate and boring. We want to be able to laugh at ourselves. We look for both fun and humor in our daily work.

This means that many things we do might be a little unconventional — or else it wouldn't be a little weird. We're not looking for crazy or extreme weirdness, though. We want just a touch of weirdness to make life more interesting and fun for everyone. We want the company to have a unique and memorable personality.

Our company culture is what makes us successful, and in our culture, we celebrate and embrace our diversity and each person's individuality. We want people to express their personality in their work. To outsiders, that might come across as inconsistent or unprofessional, but the consistency is in our belief that we function best when we can be ourselves. We want the weirdness in each of us to be expressed in our interactions with each other and in our work.

One of the side effects of encouraging weirdness is that it encourages people to think outside the box and be more innovative. When you combine a little weirdness with making sure everyone is also having fun at work, it ends up being a win-win for everyone: employees are more engaged in the work that they do, and the company as a whole becomes more innovative.

4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded

At Fynydd, we think it's important for people and the company as a whole to be bold and daring (but not reckless).

We do not want people to be afraid to take risks and make mistakes. We believe if people aren't making mistakes they're not taking enough risks. Over time, we want everyone to develop his/her gut regarding business decisions. We want people to develop and improve their decision-making skills. We encourage people to make mistakes as long as they learn from them.

We never want to become complacent and accept the status quo just because that's the way things have always been done. We should always be seeking adventure and having fun exploring new possibilities. By having the freedom to be creative in our solutions, we end up making our own luck. We approach situations and challenges with an open mind.

Sometimes our sense of adventure and creativity causes us to be unconventional in our solutions (because we have the freedom to think outside the box), but that's what allows us to rise above and stay ahead of the competition.

5. Always Pursue Growth and Learning

At Fynydd, we think it's important for employees to grow both personally and professionally.

It's important to constantly challenge and stretch yourself and not be stuck in a job where you don't feel like you are growing or learning.

We believe that inside every employee is more potential than even the employee himself/herself realizes. Our goal is to help employees unlock that potential. But it has to be a joint effort: you have to want to challenge and stretch yourself in order for it to happen.

If you've been at Fynydd for more than a few months, one thing is clear: Fynydd is growing. We grow because we take on new challenges, and we face even more new challenges because we're growing. It's an endless cycle, and it's a good thing: it's the only way for a company to survive. But it can also feel risky, stressful, and confusing at times.

Sometimes, it may seem that new problems crop up as fast as we solve the old ones (sometimes faster!), but that just means that we're moving — that we're getting better and stronger. Anyone who wants to compete with us has to learn the same things, so problems are just mile markers. Each one we pass means we've grown and gotten better.

Yet no matter how much better we get, we'll always have hard work to do, we'll never be done, and we'll never "get it right." That may seem negative, but it's not: we'll do our best to "get it right," and then do it again when we find out that things have changed. That is the cycle of growth, and like it or not, that cycle won't stop.

It's hard... but if we weren't doing something hard, then we'd have no business. The only reason we’re growing is because what we do is hard, and we do it better than most. If it ever gets too easy, then start looking for a tidal wave of competition to wash us away.

It may seem sometimes like we don't know what we're doing. And it's true: we don't. That's a bit scary, but you can take comfort in knowing that others in our situation don’t know either. If they did, then we’d be struggling to stay in business alongside them. We do things others refuse to do because all they care about is the bottom line: they take any work they can get, they outsource most of their labor overseas to unproven resources, they don’t advocate for their people and their culture when necessary, and they don’t care about their clients like we do. This is where we break new ground in our industry.

We are becoming experts as we do this. And for anyone we bring on board, the best expertise they can bring is expertise at learning and adapting and figuring out new things — helping the company grow, and in the process, they will also be growing themselves.

6. Build Open and Honest Relationships Through Communication

We believe that openness and honesty make for the best relationships because that leads to trust and confidence.

We value strong relationships in all areas: with managers, direct reports, clients (internal and external), vendors, business partners, team members, and co-workers. Strong, positive relationships that are open and honest are a big part of what differentiates Fynydd from most other companies. Strong relationships allow us to accomplish much more than we would be able to otherwise.

A key ingredient in strong relationships is to develop emotional connections. It's important to always act with integrity in your relationships, to be compassionate, friendly, loyal, and to make sure that you do the right thing and treat your relationships well. The hardest thing to do is to build trust and confidence. But if the trust and confidence exists, you can accomplish so much more.

In any relationship, it's important to be a good listener as well as a good communicator. Open, honest communication is the best foundation for any relationship, but remember that at the end of the day it's not what you say or what you do, but how you make people feel that matters the most. In order for someone to feel good about a relationship, he or she must know that the other person truly cares about him or her, both personally and professionally.

At Fynydd, we embrace diversity in thoughts, opinions, and backgrounds. The more widespread and diverse your relationships are, the bigger the positive impact you can make on the company, and the more valuable you will be to the company. It is critical for relationship building to have effective, open, and honest communication.

As the company grows, communication becomes more and more important because everyone needs to understand how his/her team connects to the big picture of what we're trying to accomplish. Ironically, communication is always one of the weakest aspects of any organization. We want everyone to always try to go the extra mile in encouraging thorough, complete, and effective communication.

7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

At Fynydd, we place a lot of emphasis on our culture because we are both a team and a family.

We want to create an environment that is friendly, warm, and exciting. We encourage diversity in ideas, opinions, and points of view.

The best leaders are those who lead by example and are both team followers as well as team leaders. We believe that, in general, the best ideas and decisions are made from the bottom up; by those who are on the front lines and closest to the production pipeline and/or the clients. The role of a manager is to remove obstacles and enable his/her direct reports to succeed. This means the best leaders are servant-leaders. They serve those they lead.

The best team members take initiative when they notice issues so that the team and the company can succeed. The best team members take ownership of issues and collaborate with other team members whenever challenges arise.

The best team members have a positive influence on one another and everyone they encounter. They strive to eliminate any kind of cynicism and negative interactions. They strive to create harmony with each other and everyone else with which they come into contact.

We believe that the best teams are those that not only work with each other but also interact with each other outside the work environment. Many of the company's best ideas have been the direct result of informal interactions outside of work.

We are more than just a team though — we are a family. We watch out for each other, care for each other, and go above and beyond for each other because we believe in and trust each other. We work together, but we also play together. Our bonds go far beyond the typical "co-worker" relationships found at most other companies.

8. Do More With Less

Fynydd has always been about being able to do more with less.

While we may be casual in our interactions with each other, we are focused and serious about the operations of our business. We believe in working hard and putting in the extra effort to get things done. One example of this mantra is the fact that we are self-funded, debt-free, and growing.

We believe in operational excellence and realize that there is always room for improvement in everything we do. This means that our work is never done. In order to stay ahead of the competition (or would-be competition), we need to continuously innovate as well as make incremental improvements to our operations, always striving to make ourselves more efficient, always trying to figure out how to do something better. We use mistakes as learning opportunities.

We must never lose our sense of urgency in making improvements. We must never settle for "good enough" because good is the enemy of great. While our goal is to become a great company, we also want to become the greatest products and services company in the world. We set and exceed our own high standards, constantly raising the bar for competitors and for ourselves.

9. Be Passionate and Determined

Passion is the fuel that drives us and our company forward.

We value passion, determination, perseverance, and the sense of urgency.

We are inspired because we believe in what we are doing and where we are going. We don't take "no" or "that'll never work" for an answer because if we had, then Fynydd would have never started in the first place.

Passion and determination are contagious. We believe in having a positive and optimistic (but realistic) attitude about everything we do because we realize that this inspires others to have the same attitude.

There is excitement in knowing that everyone you work with has a tremendous impact on a larger dream and vision, and you can see that impact day in and day out.

10. Be Humble

While we have grown quickly in the past, we recognize that there are always challenges ahead.

We believe that no matter the situation, we should always be respectful of everyone.

While we celebrate our individual and team successes, we are not arrogant nor do we treat others differently from how we would want to be treated. Instead, we carry ourselves with a quiet confidence because we believe that, in the long run, our character will speak for itself.

And as we always seek to learn and grow personally and professionally, we’re provided a firm reminder that there is always someone more knowledgeable, a company more successful, a problem to overcome, and a higher mountain to climb.

So Far, So Good.

After meeting with the team to discuss these values, we had large foam core posters made and hung them up at our fall picnic for employees and their families to see. Later, at our holiday party, we gave out small laminated posters for everyone to display in their home workspaces. I took the foam core versions and hung them next to my desk. I see them every day as I work.

Our website features these values prominently on our About page, though in an abridged format. I'd like to add a way for site visitors to read the full definitions of these values through a disclosure mechanism of some kind. So you might see that in the future. But the meat of it is there for all to see.

I encourage all companies who haven't yet done so to really think about who they are and who they want to be, formalize these aspirations as core value statements, and communicate them to everyone; employees and clients alike. It helps in so many ways, from acquiring new clients, to hiring your next superstar developer. People want to know who you are without an elevator pitch. It's really important to stay focused on who you are, and who you want to be, independent of corporate goals. Companies are collections of people who help other people. Never forget that.

Article last updated on 4/21/2018