If, as I once did, you see culture as fluffy nonsense, then you’ll end up with a default culture that you didn’t choose and don’t want. In practice, this is about as good as giving up control over day-to-day operations of your company.
Default cultures vary, but the quality of urgency/busyness is always present. Although busyness hurts the business, it’s fiercely contagious since the infected (aka busy people) are visibly suffering and thus seem to have the moral high-ground. Without active opposite pressure, their long hours and off-handed comments (“well, back to the old grindstone”, “you guys go on home, I’m going to get a little more done”) will eventually swing the team. It’s impossible to unwind properly while you’ve got a martyr in the corner.
I caught a bad case of overworking from a martyr on my first team. The symptoms involved endless hours sitting at my desk with a vacant expression, too tired to work and too proud to go home. We had one founder who valiantly resisted, but in the end we all just begrudged him for it and told him to either get with the program or leave. Whoops.
Another common bit of default culture is a tendency toward getting bigger. Growth-orientation isn’t naturally contagious, but benefits from the transmission vector of the tech press and other big influencers. You can tell growth is a default because guys like 37s/Basecamp work so actively to oppose it. It’s not a “bad” default in quite the same way busyness/urgency is. More customers is usually harmless, but adding more people/offices/locations/funding/management all have a significant effect on the lifestyle and exits of the team and founders. Maybe good, maybe bad, but certainly a big change and not necessarily one to undergo without consideration.
So by default you get an overworked company that wants to get bigger. If you’re lucky, it also builds great products, since the glow of launching stuff you’re proud of can spread quickly within a team from a starting point of just one craftsperson. The same can be true for closing sales or anything with a clear “I did this and did it well” moment.
While the team is super small (ie. all in the same room and all having the same conversations), culture doesn’t really matter because the leading founder is exerting a direct influence on everything that happens. When that’s no longer the case, either because the team is too big, the founder is too busy, or you’ve got multiple founders with differing views, then you’ve got a problem and default culture will quickly take root.
Patrick from Stripe gave the most practical definition of culture when he said it’s a way to scale the founder’s decision-making process. Culture acts as a set of guidelines to help everyone on the team behave in the “right” way without having to run every minor decision through the bottleneck of the founder (eg. when is the appropriate time to go home, how to react to an unhappy customer, or what to do when a new employee screws up). When you accept a default culture instead of intentionally building one, you’re essentially handing over the reins and reign of your business to an evil loaded dice. Most founders would cut off their legs before allowing a VC to take control of day-to-day operations, yet they’ll happily give it away to default culture without so much as a thought for its passing.
PS. I’m blogging again, as you can see, but after my multi-year hiatus I’m not sure who’s still out there. A few folks have been emailing to say hello, which I always enjoy and appreciate. If you have questions, comments, or requests, you can find me at email@example.com
 Elon Musk and various others intentionally build a culture of extreme working hours and seem to be thriving, so I’m not saying it’s always bad in every scenario. But I do think it’s probably always bad if it hits you unawares and you don’t have the recruiting/incentives/training/leadership in place to support it. Especially the recruiting.
 If you think of a startup like a fledgling nation, then culture is like ethics/morals and processes are like laws. As a leader, once you grow past the tribe stage and can no longer influence everyone’s behaviour directly, you hope to instill the ethics that will get everyone to act “rightly” (whatever that means for your nation). Where that falls short, you can use the more heavy-handed laws (but hopefully no more than strictly necessary since they carry a big overhead cost of military/management and everyone hates them).Read More »