How to Build a Culture-First Company
When we learned that UpBuild, CultureIQ’s SEO agency, considers itself a culture-first organization, we knew it was the start of a great partnership. And so we asked UpBuild’s founder and CEO Mike Arnesen to share what it means to put culture first, every step of the way. Here is his story:
I was recently asked an interesting question:
“If you had to start your business over from scratch, what’s one thing you’d want in place from Day One?”
I’m glad that I didn’t need to answer with, “a positive and intentional culture”. We’ve always had that, yet it was no accident — UpBuild was a culture-first company.
In this post, I’d like to share my experiences in building a company starting with its culture and provide takeaways that others can use to do the same.
There are a few interpretations about what “Culture-First” means.
- The first is “an organization that puts culture first”.
- The second, which is what this post focuses on, is “a company that was founded with a defined vision for its future culture already in place”.
Either of those definitions can be applied to UpBuild, but this post really focuses on the latter.
When I founded UpBuild in 2015, The pursuit of positive company culture was the most important thing in my professional life. I had just ended a five-year stint at another marketing agency that saw its story end with an acquisition. To sum up my reasons for leaving in as few words as possible — the company underwent a complete “company culture 180.” After this experience, to say that culture was top of mind for me would be an understatement.
At this time, back in early 2015, the “what” of this soon-to-be-company was a foregone conclusion. Technical marketing (which describes the intersection of marketing savvy and web development chops (think technical SEO, web analytics, CRO, and the like)), was my one marketable skill, so the “what” of UpBuild was a non-decision — technical marketing agency.
Photo courtesy of Jan Kahánek
The next most important decision, which became the first decision I made, was regarding the “how” and “why” of UpBuild. Specifically, what company culture did I want to find myself a part of five, ten, or twenty years from now? So the first thing I started working on was setting and defining a vision for what UpBuild’s culture would look like.
Of course there were other parts to the question of “how” the company would work and succeed, notably how we’d get clients, deliver value, and get the best talent the industry had to offer. However, it was (and still is) my belief that we could do that based largely on setting and building intentional and thoughtful culture. If we started with a great culture, and provided we had a bit of luck on our side, everything else would fall into place.
Setting a Vision for Culture
So, on what was effectively Day 0, I began setting a vision for culture. The key question was:
“What values and guiding principles would be the most useful in fostering a remarkable work culture, especially as this company scales from a single person to dozens (or hundreds) of people?”
To help keep my eyes on the prize, I wrote these words on my home office whiteboard.
Build the life that you love; love the life that you build.
At that time, I was looking to make a big bet — a bet that I wanted to put the next five or ten years of my life behind. I wanted to go all in and I wanted to be sure that the payoff wasn’t just an “exit event at any expense,” “hitting X dollars in revenue,” or “X employees;” I wanted the payoff to be that I’d built the life I wanted to live.
That original question and those two lines on my whiteboard soon gave rise to more specific and helpful questions:
- How could I ensure that I prioritized happiness (my own and that of my future team’s) each day and with every decision?
- How could I ensure I was engaged in right-livelihood?
- Right-livelihood is a Buddhist concept. Essentially, that one should engage in a profession that is ethically positive, does no harm, and, ideally, benefits others.
- How could I do the best work I could do without making compromises in quality?
- How could I make sure that I’d avoid all-too-common culture mistakes I’d suffered through in the past?
Keep in mind that these questions will be different for everyone engaged in setting a cultural vision. It’s not the easiest thing to come up with questions like these, and to then spend the time it takes to uncover effective answers, but if this doesn’t warrant considerable time and attention, what does?
Establish Values as Guideposts
Everyone reading this knows that culture doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just decide “this is the culture I want” and then watch it manifest out of thin air. You need to set guideposts that will guide you over the years-long journey to your ideal culture.
Ultimately, I settled on the following six values that would serve as cultural guideposts on our journey.
I dive into the details for each of them on our website, so won’t rehash the same here, but these six words were intended to serve as a rough guide to our culture in our formative years. As a culture-first professional, I felt it was my responsibility to have this vision and guide for culture in place before I asked anyone to come into my company.
To state what may be obvious, it’s much more effective to shape and guide culture from the beginning compared to changing workplace culture once you realize that it’s lacking. I think this may have been the single greatest investment I’ve made in the company to date (but hiring awesome people is pretty high up on the list, too).
How Culture Happens
A publically-displayed list of “company values” does not a healthy culture make. It must be tended to and fostered constantly — when times are good and when times are bad. Founders must live and breathe the culture.
It’s been said before that you need to hire and fire based on culture. I think that’s pretty on point. Relatedly, I believe that any time a decision is made that’s out of line with what you believe your culture is, that needs to be a wake up call. Either the culture isn’t what you thought it was or you made a mistake as a leader (and in the case of the latter, it’s up to you to own up to that and uncover why that decision was made out of line with your cultural values).
When You Know It’s Working
Culture doesn’t come from a mandate, a manifesto, a fancy sign, or a bullet point list of values on your website. Culture doesn’t require that it be put front and center every day from 9-5 ; it doesn’t need to be given lip service in every meeting; it doesn’t even need a Chief Culture Officer.
Photo courtesy of Jordan Whitfield
While I used specific values as my guide and kept my ideal culture in my mind almost constantly, the UpBuild team couldn’t even name all of our values when we sent out our company culture survey one month. This was after a year of working together. The great thing is, that wasn’t a problem.
Easy to remember values and mission statements can be great, but that’s not what culture is. Culture is the way in which a team makes progress toward an organization’s goals. So despite not being able to recite our values, I knew that we’d nailed what was most important — that everyone felt the culture.
The people on the team, or “builders,” could feel when a situation was out of alignment; they would instinctively know if a decision was or wasn’t the right one. My team has coined the term “UpBuildy” to describe a situation, person, action, or solution that aligns with our culture. Something can feel UpBuildy or non-UpBuildy. With that internal compass calibrated, we can go out of our way to do more UpBuildy things and reduce or eliminate ways of working, acting, or making decisions that don’t feel UpBuildy. Through during the hard work to make sure everything we did in the first few years was contributing to the culture goal, the culture came into being even when people couldn’t recite the guidepost values.
At the end of the day, the fact that my team will call out what does and doesn’t feel UpBuildy is one of the things I’m most proud of in my career. I’d like to think that my decision to define UpBuild as a truly culture-first company had a hand in that.
Whether you define the term “culture-first” as “a company who puts culture before all else” or whether you interpret it very literally, as I have, as “a company who sets the culture before evening opening a bank account,” making culture-first work in your organization is going to take a lot of work. Nonetheless, it’s probably the most important and effective investments you can make.