Scaling a Culture: The Business of People

As a job seeker, finding a business that’s a good cultural fit is becoming just as important as finding a position that matches your skill set. Work-life balance is becoming an outdated notion, and instead, work-life integration is becoming a cultural norm. It’s not asking people to change who they are when they walk in the door for work.

“Removing that is better for business,” says Robert Hatta, talent partner at Drive Capital, and one of three panelists that discussed how a business can scale their culture during a Startup Week event.

Hatta’s role at Drive is to help their portfolio companies invest in and grow their teams, generally at a scale most companies haven’t experienced before. When it comes to defining that culture that a company will epitomize as they scale, that’s the job of the founders and the CEO.

“It’s not, ‘Hey when are we going to hire somebody to define what our culture is?’,” Hatta says.

A company starts to deliberately define and build their culture with those first few hires outside the founding team.

“Figure out what those things are that you as a group or as a management team or as founders really believe are the core ways you want to do business and the reasons why you do what you do, and then hire more people that have those same things,” says panelist Michelle Brown, VP of customer relations at CoverMyMeds.

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CoverMyMeds is a prime example of a company that is scaling quickly, and experiencing the finer points of developing their culture with it. One thing is for sure. Culture is hard to write down. It’s generally something that has to be experienced.

Brown says individuals will interview with CMM and say they love this or that about the culture, mostly citing physical things.

“It’s not the stuff,” Brown says. “It’s really not the what. It’s the why behind it.” Defining that why has been a challenge as they scale, so CMM often turns to storytelling as a way to propagate their culture.

Knowing your culture is one part of the scaling equation. Hiring the right people that fit within it is the other.

Developing good interview practices is a hard skill set to acquire. Hatta says interviewers can’t be afraid to ask challenging and uncomfortable questions, and to scale, everybody needs to be good at it. Everybody has to be recruiting purposefully.

“When you’re scaling a company you absolutely have to be purposeful about how you’re going to scale your culture,” Hatta says. “At that early stage of a company, one bad apple can crush a business.”

Alan Gilbert, VP of engineering at CMM says that means getting really specific about hiring and screening.

“It’s just about  having a really good process that you trust,” Gilbert says. However he advises to be careful about not creating a mono-culture. Interviewers have to realize when they are screening out potentially positive diversity. Brown adds that the best chance of finding those individuals that fit the culture is hiring people that innately do things in a similar way to the business.

Once that pefect team is in place, businesses are often worried about losing their talent. Gilbert says that fear is just the way it goes. An individual might want to do something that isn’t available at the company. The only thing a business really can do is provide lots of opportunity for growth within the organization.

Much of this advice is best heeded with a small founding team, but what about solopreneurs? Hatta says really early, it’s less about culture and more about functional skill sets. For example, if an individual is hiring a sales person, they should only do it when they have mastered selling themselves. If not, they won’t know how to train that person, nor hold their hires accountable.

“Carve off parts of your job that you’re pretty good at…fire yourself from that job, hire and train somebody who will eventually be way, way better than you,” Hatta says.