Stanford continues its wildly popular course on building Internet empires. Every week, investor Sam Altman brings in new Silicon Valley celebrities to spill novel secrets. Recently, they held a special two-week series on how to build great culture.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann were among the guest lecturers. We’ve distilled their nuggets of wisdom below (and at the bottom, we’ve posted the full video lecture and links to a transcription).
“Don’t fuck up the culture.”
This subtle nugget of wisdom actually comes from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, after Chesky asked him for his single best piece of advice. It was a nice way of saying that he shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it is to create a workplace of passionate and loyal workers. Techies like to focus on product and promotion and under-appreciate the importance of building teams.
“Companies around for a really long time had a clear mission. A clear sense of values, and they had a shared way of doing something that was unique to them and was really special”
Chesky argues that having a mission is necessary for long-term survival. And the mission has to pervade everything about the company. At Apple, everything they do has beautiful design, from the phones to the product announcements.
Airbnb is all about bringing people together. So when they moved into their new offices in downtown San Francisco, it was natural for their new offices to double as a place to host events. (I’ve gone to a couple, and it’s pretty welcoming.)
Apple, meanwhile, doesn’t hold cocktail parties — it’s not part of their core mission.
“Every single person is meant to hire a person better than the previous people. You are constantly raising the bar.”
Chesky says that it’s easy to dilute the quality of the company as it grows. Instead, set the bar higher with each new person. And it is not just their technical abilities that matter, but whether they’re a cultural fit, too. Hire someone as though they will be with the company for a long time.
“I always made it a habit of mine to talk to people I knew de facto were world-class and just ask them: What are the traits you look for?”
Silbermann says that it’s important to invest time in a hiring strategy up front. Too often founders learn what they need for a role during the hiring process. Instead, find the best people on a given topic and pick their brain — then ask them for referrals and continue asking questions to those in the network of world-class workers.
“I looked for people who were creative, super curious — which meant they had all these interests…. We really want someone who wants to build something great. And they aren’t arrogant about it. They want to take a risk and build something bigger than themselves.”
Finding people with fascinating hobbies is a great way to diversify talent, argues Silbermann. Google, for instance, is famous for hiring people by advertising math problems on billboards. The goal isn’t necessarily to get someone who’s good at math, but to get people who are innately curious.
“I just wouldn’t discount how important it is to get to know the person as a person. What are their aspirations? What’s their working style? How do they like to be recognized? … Knowing those things, it just demonstrates that you care about them individually, and collectively, what your goals are.”
Investing time into each individual worker helps them mesh with the team and make them feel more a part of the company. Too often, workers are just plopped down in front of a machine. There are lots of strengths that never get tapped if no one ever bothers to truly get to know each worker.
“Conventional base, you only hire people who use your product religiously everyday. … For us, we screen for people who have vision and discovery online.”
Silbermann doesn’t want a team entirely of product zealots. He wants to hire people who are like the users Pinterest is yet to acquire. That way, the people designing the product are more like the audience they want to have, rather than what they currently have.
Watch the full lectures below and visit the class website for a transcript: