«Even rotting corpses have culture»

A recent example of how culture is itself not the solution is, of course, the troubles of Uber and its CEO Travis Kalanick. So, what went wrong?

April 3, 2017

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«Even rotting corpses have culture». This now one-year-old quote from our own VP of Engineering is as graphic as it is true.

A key pillar in the startup construction is the importance of culture. Culture is to be the fabric that binds a team so close together that they can navigate and weather any storm, firmly tied together to the mast of the ship. Without it, a company aimlessly drifts around - unprotected to the environment.

The point our VP of Engineering wanted to make was that culture in the form described above is easy to claim, but hard to attain.

For culture is not one thing or even a binary thing. Culture is never itself good or bad, and it is never in itself the solution.

A recent example of how culture is itself not the solution is, of course, the troubles of Uber and its CEO Travis Kalanick, where questionable ethics and "broculture" are being displayed by none other than the very person both running and representing the company. At the same time Uber prides itself on values like “Top talent, high standards”, “Take bold steps”, and “Shape the world you want”Case in point - «even rotting corpses have culture».

Read more on "broculture" and how jerks ruin startups in this article by the The New York Times

So, what are the components of a company culture? Let me introduce to you to some of the building blocks here at Unacast.

Is this culture?

Perhaps the below can also be an inspiration for what you can focus on in your company, or perhaps a reminder of what you don’t want to do. Either way, this is us:

We value values

Version 1.0 of our values was set a bit early and didn’t fully encompass all that we were and all that we hoped to be, and perhaps also the recent version 2.0 at some point will need adjustments. That said, behold the Unacast values as of today

  • Be your own CEO (“do stuff, be independent”)
  • Every day counts (“don’t wait for tomorrow”)
  • Trust through transparency (“share and you shall receive”)
  • Keep the wheels turning (“help others progress by your progression”)
  • Have fun. Seriously! (“you’re on this planet for 80 years - no need to be miserable”)
Read more on our values in this recent post from Unacast CEO Thomas Walle

Our offices are Unacastles

Our ambition is that our offices is a place to feel safe and to feel creative, and therefore resembles a modern apartment with all the comforts that come with it - a home

  • As you enter the door in the morning your personal soundtrack plays, triggered by a beacon at the entrance. My song is “My heart will go on” with Celine Dion (don’t ask me why)
  • At the entrance, we have a “wall of memory” made of cork boards where we take polaroid pictures of our guests and pin interesting pieces of memories and info relating to Unacast
  • We have multiple walls for creative thinking, ranging from entire walls that are coated with magnetic whiteboard paint equipped with magnetic letters, to lego walls one can build on
  • All our screens are connected to Google’s Chromecast, and when we are not displaying presentations, they show pictures taken on company events and travels from our shared photo folder
  • Free drinks and free food is always available, and we eat lunch together every day - taking turns on who is responsible each week
  • And of course - shoes off!
Drawing on the wall is for all ages

Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more

Unacast is currently in two countries (US and Norway) and more will come, so we have thought quite a lot about of how we can build culture across and how we optimize for asynchronized work

  • At regular intervals (currently each second month) everyone in the company, from interns to contractors to the CEO, physically meets for Round Tables to solve real problems and build real relations. Our last Round Table was a product hackathon unleashing the creative forces in the company where groups of employees sat together to scope, build and validate new products
  • We digitally meet every Monday on video calls to share status and actions, and to educate on new stuff. We constantly experimenting on the best form for these calls.
  • On the screen at the office entrance we have our company stats, also showing latest Twitter and Instagram feeds, in addition to:
  • Our best Unaquotes. Whenever a notable something (or something funny) is said by someone in the company it is inputted into the quote channel in Slack and ends up on all Unaboards (my favorite quote is: “I was just joining the weekly meeting, and suddenly there was brown cheese all over”, again by our VP of Engineering. Note, brown cheese is a Norwegian delicacy)
Hackathon groups hacking (and meditating while walking?)

Flexibility builds robustness

Flexibility is important in supporting a culture where people can become and remain “whole people”, with family and friends to complement their work persona. In addition, that’s how the smartest people want to work, and they are well equipped to manage their own time

  • We don’t have fixed work hours, and you come and go as you see fit and according to the promises and projects you are currently bound to
  • The same as above goes for work locations
  • We also have unlimited vacation. Again we trust people to manage their own time the best
Engineers working from a cabin in Sweden

Being social, because we want to

We like spending time together, and so we make sure to arrange events to make it possible to share experiences and learn new stuff

  • We mentioned Round Tables above, and at all Round Tables we make sure also do something social, like paddling on the Hudson River or going to a comedy club
  • Each month we take turns arranging monthly events, ranging from dinners at home, to going to museums, seeing a movie, visiting a trampoline park, learn how to brew beer, or simply just hanging out on an island in the summertime after a boat trip in the fjord of Oslo
Kayaking on the Hudson - after a long day of Round Table meetings

Striving for something better

As a company, we always strive to become better on technology and product, and this is true also when taking about company values and our actions

  • We have not succeeded in becoming the diverse company we want and need to be, and we view this as a core task for 2017. Read more here
  • Before Christmas we jointly decided to give the money allocated to Christmas presents and all future similar gifts to charity. It’s a humble start, but something we are committed to expanding on as we grow. We chose http://www.givewell.org/ due to their data-driven approach to finding charity causes where the donation gives maximum effect
  • We do travel a lot, and we do understand the strain that puts on our environment. Unfortunately, we deem it crucial to travel in this phase of the company, and we have therefore started a project on how to remedy this with climate offsets

It’s a long list, right? And there is much more I haven't mentioned. So, is this culture? The culture of Unacast?

I would argue, no.

This is culture

The above are all important, but they wouldn’t alone have saved Uber and Travis Kalanick. I’m sure they have similar bullets points and more.

Culture is more than bullet points.

Although we take pride in the above, remember that this is not how you would typically relate to family or friends. The bond to family and friends is strong at core, because you share fundamental life perspective, beliefs, and history, and are on a journey together. Through life.

As with friends and family, we strive to discover the culture of Unacast first and foremost in ourselves as individuals, and how we each day relate to other people. How do you see others? Do you treat them with respect, with dignity, with openness, and with kindness? What do you want to give and what do you need to receive? And how do you pair that with drive and ambition? These are the important questions.

This is true for all employees at Unacast, as we are all role models for ourselves and for others, but especially true for the founders - and that includes yours truly.

It’s simple, and complicated: The companies that aspire to fundamentally change processes and technology (and some even our way of life) are more than work and so work culture must be tackled differently than you would historically - differently than the bullets above. You have to root it in decency. And you have to find and display the whole you - only that can scale. I’ll repeat that: You have to find and display the whole you - only that can scale.

«Even rotting corpses have culture»

At Unacast we are however very much alive and won’t settle with culture as a startup construct only. We strive to be decent people. And we work hard to hire people that are decent too.

It’s that simple, and that complicated. Over time we hope to become wiser on this topic, and also hopefully get closer to some universal truths and guidelines. For now, we have to settle with doing our very best at being decent people, and remember that culture is not bullet points on a list. Sometimes, that’s a good a start as any. That said, in a later blog post, we’ll share some of our thoughts on hiring. Something we have spent quite a lot of time on becoming better at.

We want our individual 80 years on this planet to be spent with people we respect and learn from. We want our individual 80 years on this planet to mean something.

That’s not asking for too much. That’s what we call culture.

That is the fabric that binds a team so close together that they can navigate and weather any storm, firmly tied together to the mast of the ship

My mother knitted these socks as a gift when one of our Knights of Unacastle recently had a son