As the CEO of Getaway, I rarely get phone calls or texts after hours and rarely do people expect an answer from me late at night, on the weekend or on vacation. I guess, if you asked about the company, you would find that this is true not just for me but for most of us. You’ll find a lot of exceptions, but you’ll also find that off-time is generally respected. We have developed criteria that are very different from many other “always on” companies.
As you start a startup, it takes a lot to establish your vision, mission and core values early on if done correctly. I urge you to actively think about the behavioral norms you want to establish in your company. With those other basics, it’s increasingly easy to do when you’re at your youngest. It may sound silly to talk about how some people should negotiate, but what you’re really doing is establishing the implied contract that future coworkers choose and sowing seeds that will last year after year. Years produce powerful cultural crops. It’s like teaching young children about responsibility before they have any real effect: following the right path avoids difficult or impossible curriculum corrections later.
Norms are not rules by definition. They are generally the way people in your company should be treated. “Don’t spend company money on personal stuff” should be a rule. “Keep a written agenda for every meeting” might be a norm. Breaking the rules should result in discipline or dismissal; As long as the pattern remains intact, the norms should be expected to be broken. Like values, norms are powerful because they give people a good understanding of what to do without explicitly stating it.
Amazon is famous an ideal To write six pages of memos for every major decision and to read them silently at the start of the big meeting. In business school I was taught that differences in norms contributed to Time Warner and AOL’s “worst merger of all time”: Everyone at Time Warner missed phone calls, while AOL employees used email. Criteria dictate whether the “big boss” talks most or listens the most in any given conference room, who gets promoted, where the work actually happens, how fast or slow things go, and thousands of other things. Big and small are what we label “company culture.”
One reason to actively think about norms is that they become established whether you think about them or not, and some norms can be destructive. What started as a few beers after working for the co-founders could turn into a party culture (see WeCrashed). Long, collaborative work sessions in the early days can turn into a decision-by-consensus culture that is hard for those who think best alone. The initial “scrapiness” can set an example that it’s always good to cut a corner.
I would urge you to write down your criteria right after you have established your values. For each value, agree on what concrete behavior you believe will guide the team to live up to that value. For example, if like Getaway you have a value along the lines of “one team,” meaning transparency, you can have a criterion for taking time off for unrestricted Q+A in most meetings. The criteria should be measurable enough that at the end of any given time period you can ask your colleagues “are we continuing to do this” and they should be able to confidently answer yes or no.
One thing I learned the hard way is that it’s hard to write benchmarks in an environment where there are so many different types of roles: we have employees who are full-time, part-time, HQ, frontline, who work in-house. Laptops, and those who work outside in nature. It’s okay to have different criteria that are relevant to different groups, as long as they don’t conflict.
Remember that you won’t please everyone, and that’s actually a big part of the matter. By setting strong criteria, you will help your organization be clear about who you are and who you are not. If you are clear about this you will better attract people who will thrive in the environment you want to create and refuse those who might conflict. If you have your criteria clear from the jump and communicate honestly about them, you’ll save yourself the real pain of attracting people who prefer to work separately from your team. This clears the way for all of you to focus on the “real” task.