Culture + Hiring: A Positive Feedback Loop of Buenoness

If you want to build a company that is going to endure for decades, start with culture and people.  Without these things nothing else matters

If you want to build a company that is going to endure for decades, start with culture and people. Without these things nothing else matters


For the remainder of 2013 I am dedicating the majority of my time at GiveForward to focus on just two things: culture and hiring.  In my view, culture and people are two of the most critical elements to a successful company, and often the elements that get overlooked when you are in be on fire mode and trying to go million miles an hour.  My goal over the next eight months is to slow down to go faster.

Culture Does Not = Ping Pong

I hear all the time these batshit crazy ideas as to what culture means. It drives me nuts. So let’s start with an anti-definition.  Culture is NOT ping pong.  It’s not about nerf guns. It’s not about having beers in the fridge. And god forbid if you’ve ever had employer tell you their company has a “work hard, play hard”  culture, they are a total asshat and haven’t the foggiest idea what culture actually means. I suggest you run away from this company.  And run away fast.


Nerf guns ≠ culture

So What Is Culture And Why Is It Important?

Culture is just a fancy word for giving people something to believe in.  It means clearly articulating what you stand for as a company (your purpose and your values) and then creating the infrastructure that empowers your team to believe in the same ideas.

One of the things I’ve come to realize in the five years since we launched GiveForward is that the key to building a strong culture is dependent upon understanding that people are attracted to ideas, not to things.  No one cares about what you do.  They care about why you do it. (H/T Simon Sinek). What’s under the hood?  What is your purpose? At your very core, what drives you to get up every morning and go to work?

The tangible result of giving people something to believe in ist that it creates the strongest and most enduring competitive advantage that’s ever existed: passion.  

Passion is the force that drives the world forward.  And once you have a tribe of passionate people all working for the same purpose , there is no limit to what your company can do.  Once you can articulate with clarity what your company’s purpose is, you’re well on your way to building a strong culture.

But having a clearly defined purpose is not enough.  It’s equally important to have clearly defined values.  Your values serve as the framework through which you and your team make decisions.  They inform your policies and procedures and make it easy for you to choose the right path when faced with difficult decisions.  The end result is strong organizational health and a team that all moves forward at a very fast pace because analysis paralysis no longer exists.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  At GiveForward, getting into the press is incredibly important to our business.  It creates brand awareness and helps us generate new customers.  The best way for us to get into the press is to share the stories of the people raising money on our site.  The challenge is that some of the stories are sensitive and people don’t always want to be in the spotlight.  In other words, what’s good for GiveForward isn’t always good for our customers.

So what do we do?  We rely on our values to lead us down the right path.

Our #1 value at GiveForward is compassion. This is how we treat our customers, our co-workers, our vendors and everyone we interact with. The policies we create must be in line with this value.  In this particular case, the policy we’ve created mandates that we will not push a story in the media unless we are certain that the customer whose story we are sharing will benefit more than we do.  GiveForward can benefit, but we cannot be the primary beneficiary.

Our rule is:  customer first; GiveForward second. Always.

Because of our value of compassion, creating a customer-first policy was a no-brainer.


The second item I am focusing on is hiring.  Hiring is one of the most visible externalities of culture.  If your culture sucks, it’s easy to tell.  You’ll have a high turnover rate and it will be impossibly difficult to attract great people who want to work at your company.  If your culture is great, you’ll have people lined up out the door trying to get in.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the reason hiring right is so critically important to your business is because the company with the best people wins.  ALWAYS*

*unless (a) you manage to screw it up through shitty office politics; or (b) you’re the Los Angeles Lakers, in which case refer back to point (a).

We’ve been lucky enough to recruit some incredible talent to our team over the last few years, so I thought it might be helpful to share a few guidelines we try to follow in hiring.

(1) Hire For Values First

This is the most important rule.  It doesn’t matter how great someone looks on paper, if they don’t share your company values, they’re either going to quit or you’re going to have to fire them.  This happened to us three times in 2012. And it stung.  We had never had anyone quit on us before and had never really had to fire anyone either so when this happened multiple times within a short period, it shook us. It made us look in the mirror and what we realized is we were not making culture fit our #1 priority in our hiring process.  We changed this, and now values are our #1 priority in hiring.

(2) Hire Entrepreneurs

When I was a kid, my soccer coach often used to say “good idea, poor execution” whenever we’d botch a set play or free kick.  The same thing can be said for most startups.  Startups are great at coming up with ideas, but inexperienced and fairly crappy when it comes to managing people.  The result is stressed out employees and unfinished products that never ship.

So how do you solve for this?  Well, I try to take the part we’re not good at (managing people) out of the equation.  For me, this means hiring entrepreneurs because you don’t have to manage entrepreneurs.  They are naturally self-starters who want to solve problems. You can bring them in and then get the hell out of their way.  Tell them what the goal is and then let them take the ball and run with it.  My advice is to find as many of entrepreneurs as you can and recruit them to your company.  These are the people that end up making you look good.

(3) Hire People Who Are Smarter Than You.

Your ultimate objective should be to become the dumbest person in the company.  If/when you can pull that off.  Game over.  You just won the game.

As a general rule of thumb, I always look to hire people who can do my job at least five times better than I can.  The beauty of hiring smart people is that smart people want to work with other smart people. So bringing one smart person often leads to attracting another.  The caveat here is don’t just hire smart people. Hire the smartest people you can find who also believe in what you are doing.

I Need Your Help. 

I wrote this blog post in part because I wanted to share these ideas and in part because I wanted to to publicly state these intentions and ask that you all hold me accountable.

I’m hoping that over the next eight months culture and hiring will go hand in hand.  As we continue to improve and refine our culture at GiveForward, we’ll continue to attract great people to our company.  And as we bring in more great people, they will bring with them new ideas that continually improve the culture.  Hopefully, this creates a positive feedback loop of buenoness.

The tricky part for me is always staying focused.  And that’s where you all can help.  If you see me around town over the next eight months, please ask me what we are doing to work on our culture and how our hiring is coming along.  This will keep me accountable for what I need to do.  Gracias

Culture + Hiring FTW!


10 thoughts on “Culture + Hiring: A Positive Feedback Loop of Buenoness

  1. Ben Kosinski says:

    When you’re interviewing someone, are there always a few questions that you make sure to ask? If so, what are they and what- or how- do you want them to respond?

  2. ethan austin says:

    well, I won’t reveal every interview question but one question I always ask people is “tell me about the last time you created unexpected joy for someone”. This question tends to reveal a lot about their personalities and helps us determine if their values are in line with ours (our #1 core value is compassion and our #2 value is fun)

  3. J says:

    “tell me about the last time you created unexpected joy for someone” – what a brilliant question! Finding a team that can share in your vision and core values is definitely a must!

  4. […] If you are interested in learning more about why I feel so strongly about culture and values, check out this blog post. […]

    • askoh says:

      I have been a couple of times helping start ups in their business development. I have to say you are in values and culture. But how about then when a company is lying about the basis of salary or owners are not themselves persons that opnely develop company visions and strategies. (two separate companies). What is that telling about the values and culture internally company Third case was a company that has a culture that is more pragmatic than in military troops (my training was in green barets) and suddenly I was fired and the company got money from angels. What is that telling about the values and culture. To me it looks like that employee should also be aware and study the company baclground, culture and management history before he is running to the interview.

  5. […] a blog post of yours from May you mentioned that culture is not equal to ping pong or Nerf guns, both stereotypical symbols of […]

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  8. […] compassion tops the list. Although media coverage is critical to the company’s success, cofounderEthan Austin notes, “We will not push a story in the media unless we are certain that the customer whose story we […]

  9. […] compassion tops the list. Although media coverage is critical to the company’s success, cofounder Ethan Austin notes, “We will not push a story in the media unless we are certain that the customer whose story we are […]

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