May 19, 2014
It’s not all just IKEA furniture, ping pong, and denim.
As one who has spent the entirety of her career in the East Coast startup world (FYI West Coast, we do exist!), as well as Tresata’s self-ordained ‘Chief Culture Officer,’ I wanted to share with you a bit about our culture- what works and the tenets that we are trying to collectively reinforce going forward. Obviously there is no set mold for the “right” startup culture, as most of the innovative companies in this scene are exceptionally unique. That being said, the importance of dedicating time and energy to establishing an appropriate culture that fosters innovation, productivity and unity is even more critical for the survival of startups. As with any business process, this too should be something built to scale. My hope is that imparting to you what has been successful for our team will provide other companies with some ideas that might work for them in this arena.
So, why does Tresata’s culture rock?
Although it may seem simple, the use of “we” and “our” when it comes to the company you work for (and spend most of your time with) can go a long way. Working on a lean team at a startup typically entails long hours during the week (and more often than not the weekends, if we’re being totally honest). It’s too easy for founders to believe that money is enough of an incentive to motivate their team, especially in the early stages when startups can’t afford to compete with the salaries of more established companies and aren’t willing to simply shell out equity. Something that our CEO, Abhi, has always pushed for our team to do is utilize these possessive pronouns when we are talking about Tresata. This not only serves as a constant reminder that we are working together towards a common goal- the success of our company- but it enables each team member to take accountability and ownership over their individual contributions in making that happen.
One of my favorite aspects of our culture is the emphasis on education. Tresata endeavors to invest in our people by identifying the gaps in individual skill sets and filling them. We have recently become more aggressive in applying for grants to supplement on-the-job training and ongoing workforce education. Again, since our team members are investing so much in Tresata, we want to invest right back in them so as to make it even more mutually beneficial. The stronger each link in our chain is, the stronger we are a whole, right?
Additionally, each Friday one of our team members holds a “Lunch and Learn,” during which we all sit in on a team member’s presentation on any (relevant) subject matter of their choice. This gives us the opportunity to learn more about that individual’s specific role, software/processes that we use, and topics of interest amongst our group. Oh, and the lunch paid for by Tresata doesn’t exactly hurt either.
Outside of these two more structured initiatives, our team demonstrates a willingness to teach each other on a daily basis. Here, the “team before self” mantra is in full effect and it is so cool to see. It’s not simply about getting your own individual items crossed off the “To Do” list- it’s about helping to propel your teammates forward and collectively strengthening our team as a unit.
Even those who have elected to be a part of the startup ecosystem DO have lives outside of their jobs. In order to maintain some semblance of order in those personal lives, it requires some flexibility (i.e. for doctor’s appointments, to pick up your kid, etc.) in the work place. We don’t punch a time card at Tresata; however, we do make sure that we employ very conscientious individuals who get their *stuff* done. This flexibility extends to working remotely when need be and taking time off when you need to refresh and recharge- “accrued time off” be damned. No one on our team is tied to his or her desk- if you need to get up to go for a walk, get a coffee, play some ping pong- what have you- then so be it. All in all, it benefits no one if you are sitting at your desk staring blankly at a screen, counting down the minutes until it’s time to leave.
Our work attire is also flexible – most days we wear jeans, although we do dress up for client visits and “Formal Fridays.” Oh, and have I also mentioned that we have awesome swag for our team members to rock on “Tresata Tuesdays?” C’mon…who doesn’t love swag?
The occasional happy hour out with the team is not enough create a meaningful bond between team members. For the 2014-year, we have committed to holding a team outing once a month. Thus far we have gone go carting, indoor rock-climbing, laser tagging, gone to dinner at the movies (one of the theaters that serves food and beverages to your seat), and had a month-long “Buddy-Fit” competition at a local gym. These don’t have to be something that breaks the bank- having less of a budget only requires more creativity. These activities are important to break up the workload and allow you to get to know your co-workers in different arenas. These outings also primarily take place during standard work hours, so it becomes less of an obligation and more like a field trip. While there aren’t necessarily any ‘key takeaways’ from these activities, they allow for our members to get to know each other outside of our roles and responsibilities in the workplace. Note: There is nothing wrong with happy hours, we enjoy them just as much as the next bunch, but it’s nice to engage in activities not centered on alcohol (particularly with those with whom you are trying to build a professional relationship).
I’ve lumped these two together deliberately because they directly related. The office space that we’ve recently built is primarily open, as our lean team and business requires a lot of cross-functional interaction across several business units. There are only about 15 of us, so to refer to our individual teams as “business units” feels weird right now, but again, we are building to scale. We’ve ensured that there is an appropriate mix of open office space and places to escape that open office space, as we all work differently (and on certain days just need our space to dive in to our own stuff). The overall design of the space is intended to keep everyone comfortable and happy, offer the opportunity to take breaks when necessary, and help with recruiting (be on the lookout for a video of the new space in the near future!).
All in all, constructing the appropriate culture for a startup is no easy feat. It requires a keen eye for adding individuals with a strong enough understanding of your company’s vision to promote it going forward. This also implies clear, succinct messaging as to what that vision is, both internally and externally.