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What's the best process for defining company values?

My team and I are launching a two sided marketplace platform. We are growing quickly. How would you suggest we define Company Values so as we grow and hire we create a great culture?

17 Replies

Linda Marshall-Smith
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Linda Marshall-Smith Entrepreneur
Marketing Consultant, Ambassador, Silicon Beach at CoFoundersLab
It starts with your value proposition. If you can zero in on that, you can build your whole company and its values around it. For example, the value proposition for Whole Foods was the CEO wanted to found a company that sold healthy foods in a fun way. The value prop for Tom's Shoes was for every pair of shoes sold, another pair was given away. I help start ups zero in on both their value proposition and their company values. Reach out if I can be of any assistance.
Scott San Filippo
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Board Member and Advisor to CEO at Red Mind
You should gather the founders and leaders of the company, preferably at some type of retreat, or meeting, away from the daily operation. Discuss your ethical values and philosophies, what type of company you want to build, how you want to treat your employees, what kind of products you want to build, what you want people to think of your products, how you want your employees to feel about working at your company, what your goals are for the company. How do you treat your customers, vendors? What type of company do you want to be like? What do your products say about you? What do you want your customers to think about you and your products? The result should be "big" philosophical foundations - not just "we want to have great snacks." At the end of the discussion, you should know what each of you value and what the company should value. What kind of environment do you want for your employees? What kind of employees do you want to attract? The outcome should not be pithy statements or slogans but solid, foundational principles on which you can base important decisions about HR, recruiting, hiring, product direction, and investor choices. I'd be happy to share the process we used at Incredible Labs!
Anton Yakovlev
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Anton Yakovlev Entrepreneur
Founder of four successful businesses on two continents who can help you do the same
That cannot be an easy question. Otherwise all two-sided marketplaces on Earth had the same VP and Company Values )
John Seiffer
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John Seiffer Advisor
Business Advisor to growing companies
Values are not something you define as much as something you describe, or perhaps discover. It's about who you are and how you operate - not how you want to be - any more than your personality is how you want to be. It's who you are.

The reason to describe them is so they stay constant as your team brings on new people who don't have the history the rest of you do AND so you can keep reminding each other to be true to yourselves and not have that essence get lost in the hubbub of building a company.

As mentioned, a retreat is good for this - but it should be one of describing who you are not setting aspirations. I think the book Rockefeller Habits by Vern Harnish has some good exercises for this - or maybe it's his online info I'm thinking of.
Michael Jay Moon
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Co-Founder at StartupReady.Net
Emergence of a culture within the startup reflects the personal values of the cofounders and executive leadership.

As a startup begins to grow, the recruitment and selection process will often reinforce the personal values of cofounders and executive leadership.

Generally, great cofounders hire individuals on the basis of the the individual's fit with the mission, vision, and core values of the firm. However, this can go quickly astray if cofounders outsource or assign recruitment to HR professionals or worse, agencies.

The business model of the agency often trumps culture alignment: getting a "good enough candidate" pays the bills.

So your question, how does a cofounder begin defining the emergent core values of the company?

I propose that you start with an end in mind and work backwards from that end: what kind of culture will best serve your ideal, most profitable customer?

So as mentioned above, that will relate to your value proposition and its larger expression: satisfied customers.

In our work with cofounders of high-growth startups, we have found one surefire way of defining core values of a company culture.

We start with an essential question: "In the individual and collective response to how we attract and serve customers, what really pisses you off?"

Each instance represents a core value violation: pure gold! You just have to mine the pure gold nuggets sitting in the stream at your feet.

For example, in one of our discovery sessions the following came up: "It really, really pisses me off that we lie to customers about when we will have something done, especially if the customer would accept a longer date if week simply explained why."

Core values? Truth. Clarity. Certainty. Collaborative discovery of what works for both the customer and us. Sincerity (making promises that we intend to keep). Fair exchanges of value.

Yes, you can do this as an off-site retreat. However, I have found it's much more practical, effective and powerful to ask the question at the end of each day, "Hey guys, what sucked today? Where did we not come through for a customer? Let's start with just a no-drama description of what happened: who, what, how much, where, when and, possibly, why.

Again, in our work with scaling startups, we have found that core values as surfaced through a structured violation assessment works.

However, when you alloy core values with your genius talents and God-given gifts, you have the foundation for a sustainable high performance culture based on accountability and self-expression.

So, you might ask, how does one discover gene's talents and God-given gifts of an organization?

In a manner similar to deconstructing core value violations, you start journaling things that went well. Things that just fell into place. What small miracles and gentle graces did we experience today?

This reflects the individual and collective experience of "flow", being in the zone and, more importantly, following hunches and impulses as they all arrived in kind of a jazz-like improvisational response to a situation.

I submit, that establishing flow, being in the zone, and high-tone improvisation defines the real entrepreneurial work of building a high-performance culture.

This starts with a presupposition that being in the flow is the baseline setpoint or mood of the firm.

So that then begs the question how does one is an entrepreneur and leader get and stay in the flow, demonstrating to the "kids" that papa bear got it headed in the right direction?

Well as our uncle Walt used to say, that's a story for another day!
Thomas Sutrina
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Thomas Sutrina Entrepreneur
Inventor at Retired Pursue Personal interrests and family
How many companies have been around for multiple centuries- very few? I worked for Dow Chemical that completed its first century. It was different then any other company I have ever worked for. They had a plan for growth and purposely held down growth to a point that it could retain the culture and availability of manager that lived in that culture. They had a plan for developing managers including the CEO. And they had standards that did not bend. They also had a goal for its relationship to its workers, customers, and society. As a start up Dow Chemical almost failed but changed is understanding of the business that turned into what I just presented above.
Dow and a few other companies should be studied to learn what is important for a startup.
Bob Bridge
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Bob Bridge Entrepreneur • Advisor
Executive Director of Southwest Angel Network for Social Impact (SWAN Impact)
Simply said, the personal values of the CEO, as demonstrated by her or his behavior, define the culture and values of the team. The CEO needs to model the behaviors she or he wants the team to exhibit. This isn't rocket science; its basic human behavior. The process can benefit from some introspection on the part of the CEO.
Mark Wing
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Mark Wing Advisor
Client Engagement Director at Small Back Room
Understand why you get out of bed and come to work. What will you defend at the risk of loosing money? Identify the authentic truths within the business. Then link what you have discovered to your corporate vision. Complete a SWOT. And invite an independent facilitator to lead you through a brainstorm to help you isolate the things that matter most to the key stakeholders... Through a process of taxonomy you will define your core values.
Alan Clayton
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Alan Clayton Advisor
Roaming Mentor @ SOSV
Culture is simply the 'shared values and beliefs' of everyone in the company, whether a startup or grown up.
Values are (by design or by default) defined simply as "what is important" around here. They can and should have associated metrics to keep them in the spotlight.
A great model to help establish a set of aspirational values is the NLP (neuro linguistic programing) framework of Neurological Levels. From bottom up and then top down, an extended offsite, facilitated, process can clarify and align the 'vision', 'identity', 'values', 'skills/competences', 'behaviors/to-dos', and 'environment'. This can be done for individuals/teams/entire membership. With thanks to the work of Robert Dilts, I've done this with small groups over 2 days in Dublin, and with a board of directors over 6 days in Morocco.
Becky Flint
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Becky Flint Advisor
Product & Program Executive | Scaffold Consulting
Your company value should reflect what you truly believe in as essential. They are very much in alignment with your own value.

Value and culture can't be forced. Nicely printed and posted value does not materialize. My experience has been that - you demonstrate your value by who you hire and promote and who you fire. When a company has a set of value but promote a different type of people, the culture will start deteriorate very quickly.
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