I was recently asked to be on a panel about “the startup culture,” and it got me thinking about this concept that gets tossed around a great deal in our community.

The blogs love to write about it, unsatisfied workers yearn for it, and entrepreneurs love to harp on it as a defining characteristic of their companies.

The problem with “the startup culture” is that it’s a farce.

The symbols of startup culture that we’ve all heard boasted about — the ping pong tables, nap rooms, casual dress codes — are nice to have in a workplace, but they’re superficial. They look like culture from the outside, but none of these get to the heart of what culture really is.

Culture isn’t about whether you’re a startup or a Fortune 500 giant. It’s about values and mindset. It’s about what drives your team, and how you approach the decisions you make. It’s the why for your team’s commitment to come in and work their asses off every day, and it’d better go deeper than ping pong.

How do I know? Because talented people leave other startups every month to come work for MojoTech. And it’s almost never about the money; it’s about the culture. We work very hard to make sure that every single employee at MojoTech embodies our four main cultural values:

Challenge

Working for MojoTech is a tough job. It starts hard, and it doesn’t get any easier. The better you get, the tougher the problems we assign to you are. Everyone here has a burning desire to keep getting better, and that influences every aspect of our business. We turn away a lot of easy work (and money) in favor of projects that call on us to solve hard problems, and nobody on our team would have it any other way. That makes this an amazing place to work for the right people, but for those who would rather coast or do the same things over and over, we’re not the right fit.

Experimentation

Failure is always an option, but never taking risks is not. We expect our team to try new things, even when we’re not sure how they’ll turn out, because that’s how breakthroughs happen. This is a foreign concept to many new hires coming from larger companies where risk-taking is punished, but we can’t afford to operate that way. At MojoTech, permission to try creative experiments is implied, and while those experiments have failed occasionally, many have succeeded spectacularly.

Inspiration

Teams are organized by the client they’re assigned to, not by title or department. Ideas, pushback, leadership and mentorship are everyone’s responsibilities. Each team has a head coach, but it’s up to all of the players to lead, motivate and inspire each other and our clients.

Winning

We don’t goldplate anything, and we don’t build crap. We all know the tradeoffs between speed and quality, and hitting the right balance is the key to MojoTech’s success. It’s up to everyone to consider that balance in their work. Any of us can quickly hack up something crude or spend months polishing trivial elements, but neither approach delivers products that win, and that’s the only result we care about.

Defining the values at the root of your company’s existence takes a bit of effort, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Fortunately, there are a lot of incredible examples out there to get you thinking the right way about what your culture is, and what you want it to be.

For many successful companies, Patty McCord’s Netflix Culture Doc is the metric by which an effective company culture is judged. And reading the brilliant deck, it’s easy to see the many reasons why.


Twilio also expects great things from its employees, and the company’s culture codifies that expectation:

HubSpot’s culture asserts the organization’s commitment to radical transparency:

It’s easy to see that these companies aren’t going for cultural values that’ll sound nice to everyone. They’re specific, transparent and will instantly (and intentionally) deter the vast majority of prospective employees from viewing the company as a good fit.

That’s how companies like Netflix, Twilio and HubSpot continue to set themselves apart from their competitors and hire the best talent in their industries.

If you’re killing it and attracting top employees, it’s not because of startup culture. It’s because of your culture.

What are your company’s cultural values, and how do they set you apart?

—Nick Kishfy (@kishfy)