A few months after launching our startup, Zenjob, we found out that things were falling apart: We were about to close a round of funding, but our investors pulled out at the last minute — on the day of our Christmas party. As our financial situation worsened, one of our C-level members left.
Our business case was fragile, our exec team had taken a hit, customers were churning, our burn rate was through the roof, and our company was about to tank. I had to lay off team members over the holidays and cancel future hires I had been flirting with for years to join. It was the worst Christmas of my life.
Today I firmly believe our core values are the only reason we survived. They were values we’d put into place three months before the calamity hit: be honest, be hungry, be helpful, be humble.
At the beginning of January we called our remaining few employees into a room and I was 100 percent honest with them: “We have still six weeks to live and fix things,” I said. “If you want to leave, now is the moment and I fully understand.” Everyone stayed and we worked day and night. We were hungry to prove ourselves and to everyone else that we could do it. That hunger pushed us 24/7.
We also managed to be humble. We accepted we had failed big time and tried to learn why investors pulled out and why clients left. We reminded each other of this value again and again, and it helped to keep going.
Then we went back to truly being customer focused and customer-driven. No compromises allowed, being truly helpful replaced efficiency KPI or costs-calculations like length of a customer call.
How to establish a company culture with core values successfully
A true culture needs investment, trust, and authenticity first. Otherwise you can’t build or count on it. A good culture is like a real friend: when you are going down and everyone leaves, they stay and they are there for you. Here’s how we keep our culture part of our everyday work and communication:
Hiring and firing: Whenever we hire someone, we check if people match our four values. It isn’t easy to find hungry people who are super smart but still very humble and down to earth. It is rare to find managers who are super honest but still share their honest and direct feedback in a helpful way. A senior engineer who isn’t humble gets rejected, even though it might hurt not to staff the vacancy.
Feedback and meetings: We use the four values for our work together. Quarterly feedback talks, discussions between departments, or even strategic decisions around the company are based on our values. We named our meeting rooms according to the values, and they appear in every calendar invite. We invented slack icons for each value.
Business decisions: The same goes for customers and users of our products. If there is a conflict with one of our values, we end the relationship. This is easier said than done. I remember when we were about to raise our first round and decided to kick out our best-paying customer. This client was the leading player in event catering and our biggest customer at the time. But they were the opposite of helpful with the temp workers we sent them, stopped the workers from taking their regular breaks, and made them work extra hours. So we had to sever the relationship.
Once you’ve defined your values and vision, you have to do much more than just print them out and stick them on the wall. The magic sauce for having a vivid culture is authenticity. If you talk the talk, you need to walk the walk. No compromises allowed. And that gets challenging. If you take it seriously, culture is not a result or part of your strategy, it is your strategy.
Today we have over 160 employees, a revenue growth of 1,000 percent, and more than 1,100 paying customers. Within six weeks of our Christmas meltdown, we managed to fix things; and a few weeks later, VC companies queued up to invest.
In every organization there is a culture from day one, whether it’s the one you want or not. A culture starts by itself with the first people who join your team. To change it takes serious investment and management attention. And since your culture is anyways evolving, it’s best to cultivate it. It lays the foundation for great people to join, for the best ones to stay, and for customers and investors to trust in you and use your product.
Fritz Trott is cofounder and CEO of Zenjob.