How to build a culture code that sticks

By Kevin Sproles, founder and CEO of Austin’s Volusion

“The best companies are deliberate about culture. They design it and defend it.”

The co-founder of Hubspot hit it on the head with this quote. When we started creating our own culture code, we dug far and wide, found vision from others who’ve walked the path and I suggest you do the same. What better way to understand your own culture by getting perspective from peers and other cultures around you?

The act of trying to define your culture is one way to be deliberate about it and I’d love to tell you how we defined, designed and defended ours so that you can take a few pointers of what worked and what didn’t when we went through the process of creating our culture code.

First, put in the time

Every important aspect of your business needs the appropriate amount of time and dedication. Like thinking on strategy for sales, or committing to deliver on good customer service, or putting in long hours to complete the next version of your product, creating a solid culture code that speaks to your company is just as important. And not only do you have to talk about it, be prepared to clear your calendar and devote time — a lot of it — to creating, shaping and reshaping it.

We believe in attracting and retaining the best talent and that culture is the operating system that powers our company here in Austin. Essentially, a great culture helps attract amazing people, and helps us do our best work.

So how do you go about it? Here’s what we did and I hope that you find inspiration in our process.

To give some quick context to where we were at as a company when we worked on our culture code, I’ll rewind a bit. I founded Volusion in 1999 out of my childhood bedroom, and stayed on as CEO until 2011, when I left for a few years to focus on my family. During that time, our company shifted product and focus from small/medium businesses to large enterprise ecommerce. It was a stark difference from where we started, and when you start a new company inside of an existing company, you divide the culture immediately. The enterprise sales culture is a lot different than SMB, and there was less authenticity and more concern over which got resources to grow. When I returned as CEO in late 2015, I realized that our executive team was missing one important thing: folks that had gone through the same startup struggles that our customers go through. The shift to enterprise was not a model that worked for us, both financially and culturally. And while we moved to change things financially (we sold off that part of the business) we started the cultural shift.

We asked ourselves, what is our current culture and what do we want it to be? We locked ourselves in a conference room each day for 2–4 hours for about a month so we could solely focus on this and only this. Yes, quite literally. I wasn’t joking when I said you have to devote a ton of time.

In fact, once you’ve completed your code, you may need to rinse and repeat at a later date because every company evolves. I have yet to see a company whose values stayed the same throughout its lifetime. That means even when you’re done with creating it and have it framed on the wall, you’ve got to be OK with taking it out of the frame to readjust when needed.

Core values vs. culture code — what’s the difference?

When we were left to our own devices in that conference room, our CTO and I wrote down our goals, our aspirations, our fears, and everything in between. We wrote things like what five traits a new hire should have, or values everyone in the company should act on. We must have talked about 100 different topics and descriptors, from integrity to ethics and autonomy to transparency, etc. But what we realized is that we were coming up with core values vs. a culture code. And I want to clarify this important differentiator.

Understanding your core values is an essential part of this process but it is not your culture code. Core values by themselves aren’t strong enough to hold on their own because they aren’t actionable. Once you come up with your core values, it’s essential you add a codification layer to it. What I mean by this is that a culture code shows you how to execute on those beliefs.

So again, core values are the beliefs. Culture code is execution of those beliefs.

Each word — and character — counts

Depending on team structure and how leadership works at your business, you want to get everyone on board and figure out a way to best pull people in for thoughts and feedback. I started by collaborating with our CTO and then brought in our People & Culture exec, and then others trickled in methodically until we got to a place where we felt good about every single line of our code.

And like writing technical code, each word counts. The wrong word can mean the rest of it doesn’t work. Be confident in every.single.line.every.single.word.

And to make sure it all sticks…

We map strategic objectives to each culture code. This means that if we create a new program internally, we always go back to our code and ask ourselves if it contradicts anything on the list.

For example, we have parts of our culture code that are customer-centric, so if we make a decision to raise prices with customers, we ask ourselves if our intended actions are a reflection of what our code says.

As I said earlier, it’s critical to understand how to put the code into practice. One helpful way to do this is to create a credo. Although this credo is specific to our company, they could very well be translated in many different companies in which the customer is a top priority.

We get to know our customers better — and made a promise to live by this every single day. Other tech startups and companies will probably agree that disrupting and challenging everything, including standards, is a critical practice. We make things better, then make them better again.

And while not more important than the other lines of our credo, I love when we put our minds to “be lean, be agile, and small teams kick ass. Never stop the hunt for product market fit.”

And…. scene.

I’ll leave you with Volusion’s culture code, which you will find throughout our Austin office, framed or painted on walls. Yours will undoubtedly be different but it may spark something with your company.

We help breed amazing founders

We keep it simple and move fast

We always solve for the customer

We share openly and are transparent

We favor autonomy and take ownership

We put people before everything else

See our culture code at (5 min read)

Since we started measuring our culture using OfficeVibe every week starting almost 1 year ago, we’ve had an amazing 93% participation rate of employees. They’ve answered 42,054 questions and the engagement/happiness score has gone from Bronze to Platinum. Everyone can feel the positive change in our culture, and this is only the beginning.

How to build a culture code that sticks was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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