For this month’s Startup Parenthood post, I wanted to delve into how a startup goes about creating the kind of culture that supports a healthy work-life balance. What do you need to get right from day one, and how do you keep it going as the company evolves?
I’ve written before about how RJMetrics has a really special culture, so for this post I caught up with the creators of that culture, our founders Bob Moore and Jake Stein, to find out how they did it.
Anita: At the very beginning of RJMetrics, when you hired those first few employees, were you purposeful about culture creation, or did it happen more by accident?
Bob: We were just looking for people who were motivated by the same things as us: making an impact on the world, solving complex problems, and being passionate about entrepreneurship. These things would eventually become tenets of the RJMetrics culture, but back then it was less deliberate and more a reflection of our personal values. Over time the values of the company emerged and earned a more formal place in our hiring process.
Anita: Had you had experience in your previous work-lives with people or types of interactions that were particularly good or particularly bad that influenced your thinking?
Jake: The one example I saw elsewhere — which would make me want to burn the place down if I saw it happening here at RJMetrics — was when people would fight for something they thought was a bad idea. They thought they needed to make a stink over a bad idea to get a chip for the next round of the office politics game. This is one of a handful of things that I want to make sure we never let happen here.
Anita: Why is focusing on the attraction and retention of parents to RJMetrics so important to you?
Bob: We are focused on the attraction and retention of amazing people, and a lot of amazing people are parents or want to be parents. It would be foolish for us to do anything that might make those amazing people less likely to achieve success here. Parents and future parents represent a meaningful percentage of our most valued teammates and potential hires, and providing them with the ability to find a healthy work-life balance is table stakes.
Anita: In my first blog post, I put forth a hypothesis that what makes our culture really work for people who want to lead full lives is that it has flexibility at its core. Was flexibility an end goal, or was it a byproduct of the things you cared about when you were first building the core team of the company?
Jake: Flexibility is a byproduct. If you have a 100% focus on outputs like results, effectiveness, and impact, then you naturally won’t spend time focusing on inputs that are easy to monitor but ultimately inconsequential- like number of hours on the job or vacation days used.
Anita: Over the past year, we’ve gone from 40 to over 120 employees. How do you ensure that our core values as a company stay alive when you no longer have direct one-to-one contact with each team member?
Bob: I think it’s two things: first, it’s being thoughtful about new hires: by hiring people who understand and share our core values, we create a virtuous cycle that ensures they are perpetuated; second, it’s being thoughtful about our leadership: we only put people into leadership roles after they have proven their ability to serve as good stewards of our culture.
Jake: To follow up on Bob’s second point — we put a lot of trust on our team leads and VPs to alter or customize the rules to fit the needs of their team, as long as they stay true to the core principles. The optimal way to run a sales is not necessarily the optimal way to run engineering, customer success, or another team. It doesn’t make sense for rules to be followed blindly.
Anita: Jake, are there things you specifically hear about in the debate around women/diversity/parents in tech that you think are particularly relevant or irrelevant to the company that we’re building here?
Jake: The way that some people talk about policies like working from home or time off are a little bit like a cargo cult. The rules are so much less important than the principles behind them. Would you not let someone run home to take care of their puppy, because they don’t have any more sick days? That just doesn’t make sense. The bottom line is that these are smart people that we trust, and they have other things in their lives in addition to work. As long as they’re succeeding in their work, the rules are made to support them, not to block them.
Anita: Bob, often in conversations with the entire company, particularly when introducing new abilities or perks that are being rolled out, you usually end that introduction with the phrase “do the right thing.” And I’m curious because “do the right thing” can be seen as a way to avoid giving more details around policies, but it can also be seen as a general guiding statement. What does DTRT mean to you and why do you feel it’s better to err on the side of defining policies this way as opposed to getting really specific?
Bob: DTRT is more about taking the right ethical stance than “not sweating the small stuff.” Interestingly, because we also have specific values and policies about how we all conduct ourselves, DTRT can seem a bit redundant sometimes. It’s important, though, because it reminds us to walk the talk and actually embody the beliefs we’re always talking about. DTRT reminds us that goals are only worth achieving if we can sleep well at night knowing how we achieved them.
Jake: Dan Ariely did an amazing study where MIT students were given the ability to cheat in an experiment. One group had to sign a piece of paper that said “I will abide by the MIT honor code” and the group of students that did that, before the test, was much less likely to cheat than the other group. MIT does not have an honor code. It’s an incredibly powerful thing to be reminded that morality exists. DTRT is the most simplified version of that.
Anita: How do you see our culture and or policies changing and or expanding (if at all) as our team member size and business grows, especially since we have many team members who are likely going to be entering parenthood in the next few years?
Jake: The rules and policies get more complex as the company gets bigger and more complex. For example, when we were just four single guys in our early 20s, it never occurred to us that we would need a maternity or paternity policy. As we continue to diversify the team, we’ll identify similar situations that aren’t well covered by the existing policies.
While the policies will almost certainly continue to develop, I expect that our core values and beliefs are not going to change substantially, if at all.
Bob: I agree. We want to be able to offer the same level of fairness to our team today as we did to the team of four young guys that we started out with. This will inevitably result in changes to the way we run things, and trying to predict those changes is challenging. That’s one of the reasons that our team guidebook is a Google Doc and not a PDF. It’s important that everyone on our team appreciates that RJMetrics will always be a living, evolving thing that they are helping to shape.