(originally posted on Medium)

The importance of defining your company’s values early on

“If there’s one piece of advice I can give early stage founders, it is to take the time to write down who you are, and who you want to be.”

This quote is from a good post from Reece Pacheco (Shelby.tv) on “Surviving the [startup] climb.” One part that resonated with me is the importance of defining your company’s culture and values early on. Shelby’s can be found here. Some good examples from some other companies here: Amazon, Google, Whole Foods, and most famously, Zappos.

Going through a process like this can feel frivolous and counterintuitive to many young companies as you can count on everyone who’s there early to just get It (and early on, they will, which is why they’re the best equipped to help you codify what It is for your company). No one is saying you should shut everything down for weeks but taking some focused time to uncover and articulate what you all feel is most important will pay back tenfold down the road.

While any time not spent building the product might feel wrong at that stage, exercises like this are not about what they give you now but about building a strong foundation for your company to be successful as it grows, evolves and inevitably goes through both good and bad times. Most of the time you’ll find that your culture just is but the times you’ll find yourself most aware of it will be when times are either really great or really bad.

If there’s a company-wide shared understanding of the things that are most important, you create an environment where the team is better equipped to just know what the right call is in a given situation — whether that’s a strategic/product/design decision or determining whether an employee’s behavior is what you want as part of your team — both are things you’ll absolutely benefit from as your organization scales.

FWIW, this process is exactly what parents go through when raising children (the parallels between raising kids and building companies could fill a book, btw). They’re going to have to thrive on their own and you can’t predict the situations they’ll be faced with, nor can you always be there yourself, so you try to best equip them with the values and tools to do the right thing in any situation. You can tell the parents who feel completely confident in the values they’ve instilled in their children and I’ve seen that same confidence in CEOs with regards to their companies.

Articulating one’s values is only one part of what goes into shaping a company’s culture but it’s a big one. Even though it might not feel like you need to articulate them right now, trust that you don’t want to wait until you wish that you had back then. Once you hire your first employees you are officially building a company, not just a product, and you should plan accordingly.

Finally, thinking about all this stuff reminded me of a great old post from Ted Rheingold on the role a strong culture played for him and his team at Dogster when they went through tough times.