How to Set Up Company Culture and Core Values At Your Early-stage Startup

Originally published in hackernoon.

At Tara AI, we just went through a company core values exercise at our 2020 kick-off. In the last year, we’ve grown from 4 to 20 folks and we decided it was high time to set up our company values and culture. Here’s my quick take on setting core values to steer company culture at a startup, specifically when less than 40 in headcount:

1) Values are who we are today – they should not be aspirational. To start, everyone in the company (15 ppl at the time) used a few words to describe the team and what values we admire on post-its. Once we mapped the words, patterns started to emerge.

2) Our core values are the things that we are going to work harder on than nearly every other company in the world. Once we had the team’s feedback, my co-founder and I started to think about the journey so far and the values that would enable the company to make a dent. We wanted the company values to be a clear reflection of our goals. One really good example of this is Airbnb. They work harder than anyone on the “Be a Host” core value, which is a significant persona for their entire business. Airbnb has carefully developed their culture around hosting, which also enables teams to be thoughtful about a “sense of belonging”.

Airbnb Core Values:

3) Core values will guide the product, the company and our brand. Good core values should outlast the founders. We thought about what would we want Tara to embody 5, 10, 20 years from now.

4) Core values should contribute to and be a key driver of company success. If we are to embody our company values daily, does that lead to significant success for the company in the long run?

5) We do not hire people that do not embody our company values. Questions to ask were related to “what are we not”? A few words that came to mind through this exercise were hierarchical, egotistical, fearing change, vanity metrics, complexity and doing things for the sake of doing them.

6) Most companies at early product market fit, usually had 3-4 core values that were easy to remember, and evolved to 5 or 7 over time.

7) Through this exercise, we came up with the following core values:

1. Team-First Mindset

Keeping teams first. We build software for product teams. We prioritize the team and their experience with the platform. The team is seen as the most important decision-making unit in the company (whether internal or external).

2. Ambitious, Never Arrogant

We continue to push boundaries while remaining humble and true to our mission. We do not rest on our laurels.

3. Real Value Over Perceived Value

We build real value for our users and for ourselves. We continue to ask ourselves if we’re building what teams truly want.

4. Artisans In Everything We Do

Care and craftsmanship in our work. We are thoughtful with design in every pixel, and we ship production code with quality over quantity.

And spoiler alert: the values correlate to TARA. This makes them easy to remember, and enables our org to see how embodying these values is now built into our name.

Now for the hard part, operationalizing the core values and embodying them day to day. We announced our company values at our 2020 kick-off, and since then we’ve also added them to our “welcome pack” for on-boarding.

As a team, we are now working through internalizing these core values. It will be interesting to see how we start to rely on our values as a decision-making matrix, and continue to evaluate how we embody these company values as we grow.

We’ll keep you updated…