Ping Pong Tables Don’t Make A Culture

How To Build A Truely World Class Startup Culture

Colin Keeley: How do you focus on building the right culture?

Stu Grubbs: It’s a constant effort. It’s so easy to get upset when things aren’t going right, but you also can’t just assume that it’ll come to be. You can’t assume that just because you and I are friends that that means culture. Ping pong tables don’t make a culture. It’s often what gets confused.

When we started we were four founders, we all looked at each other and said okay we tip toe around each other too much. We all know we love each other. We all know that there’s only one reason each of us is a founder and it’s because we each bring a particular skill-set to the table. So now let’s throw up every idea we have on the board about features or marketing or whatever it might be and nobody gets offended when we just cross things off. We call it “Strong Opinions Loosely Held”. You are not allowed to say I don’t care, you have to defend it vehemently and then at some point in the conversation you have to be willing to just let it go.

So we constantly try to say get your ego out of it. That was one way we started and then we started to define integrity and support. For instance, we said we want a culture of learning. We don’t have enough money to do what some companies do like paying for guitar lessons, but we started a book program. Once a month every employee can request one professional and one non-work related book to just have and keep learning. We paid for a few courses here and there, but nothing crazy.

Our one-on-ones once a week are also important. They are non-tactical meetings where you are not allowed to talk about a to do list. They are more like: How are you? Are you getting what you need out of it? Are you really learning? Are you doing things that you feel are impactful? and if not what’s holding you up.

Colin Keeley: And that’s all with you? You take one-on-one meetings with everyone?

Stu Grubbs: Yeah once a week. It eats up about a day and a half, but I think with the hours that we work and our pay it’s worth it. We don’t pay market rate. We pay good money. No one is suffering, but it’s not $140,000 a year. I’m one of the lower paid employees and so are some of my team at around the $40,000 range. Even though we raised all that money, we really focus on building out the product and giving ourselves as much runway as possible. Other non-founder employees make more than me.

The one on ones are important. Each of our leaders, like Dan, takes one-on-ones with each of the engineers. That’s a little different than me because Dan acts as a mentor to each of those guys. Dan being the tremendous engineer that he is is kind of automatically their mentor in some ways, but those are all things that you have to put in from the beginning because otherwise all of sudden you’re freaking 40 people, 50 people, and half the team is frustrated with the other half.

We did a company retreat in April where we just brought everyone to Chicago and said okay now that we are out of build-build-build mode what is most important to build in the next six months.

We did an entire day on culture, an entire day on engineering, and an entire day around how we’re going to tell the story around what engineering is going to build. That really helped everyone get on the same page. We defined our company values for the first time. What was great about it is that the number one thing that came out started as a joke. I wrote up “Good Vibes” on the top of the board and we all decided that’s it. That’s number one. The goals to be happy, healthy individuals and to be excited to build at a frenzied pace.

This is an excerpt from a Tech In Chicago podcast episode. To listen to the whole episode and catch up with all Tech In Chicago episodes, click here.

This transcript has been lightly condensed and edited.

About Tech In Chicago:

Tech In Chicago takes you inside the Chicago tech world. Each week Colin Keeley is joined by Chicago’s top founders and investors to talk about the amazing companies being built right here. If you want to learn more about Tech In Chicago, head to TechInChicago.co

I would love to hear your thoughts on the show and any guests I should have on. Please reach out @TechInChicago. You can also find me @ColinKeeley

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