Learnings from a 15 years tech startup

Corporate culture

You must ALWAYS be talking about corporate culture.

I am always skeptical about the self-called Culture and Team experts that give advice based on theoretical knowledge, but have little-to-non real-life experience building and nurturing a corporate culture at a fast-growing company.

Two of my favourite books about the topic are “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility” by Patty McCord (former Chief People Officer at Netflix) and “What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture” by the legendary investor Ben Horowitz. Two masterpieces full of practical knowledge and real-life tested experience about the esoteric concept of building a great culture.

I can’t compare my experience building Adweb’s culture with those two emblematic influencers, but we learned a thing or two bootstrapping a tech company for 15 years until it was acquired in 2021.

Let’s start by defining what I mean by Corporate Culture.

In Adweb, culture was the sum of our company’s purpose, a set of core values and the behaviours that support those values.

Our culture was our essence, our company’s soul. It was what defined and differentiated us from other companies. It was the glue that held our business strategy and our people together.

It doesn’t matter if you have the best team in the world, the most talented people, the biggest customers, the best strategy and a killer technology. If you don’t have the right culture all of that eventually crumble.

As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast“.

All companies have a Corporate Culture, a way of behaving, whether intentional or flowing naturally. In general, the culture in a startup is defined by the values and behaviours of the founding leaders, who with their personality and example shape the behaviour of the rest of the team.

But when the company grows, and the founders are less personally involved and don’t know all the new team members, that’s when the culture really gets tested.

That was what happened to us at Adweb, and that’s why we decided to relentlessly emphasize and reinforce the values and desired behaviours, those that had kept our company thriving in the past, especially when the economic times were less than ideal and the pandemic challenged every business decision.

It is not enough to “have fun”, going for after-hours beers and weekend barbecues. All of those are momentary peaks that are “nice to haves” but do little to reinforce and perpetuate a healthy culture that endures for decades.

We learned that culture (purpose, values and desired behaviours) must be over-communicated in an almost fanatical way and defended tooth and nail so that each new member could absorb it and behave just as the founders and first employees did in our small-startup period.

That obsessive communication and reinforcement by leaders and most senior employees was what allowed us to generate a positive impact on the people we touched: our team (dozens of enthusiastic young people coming in search of opportunities and professional growth), our clients (thousands of entrepreneurs and small business owners looking to survive and move their business forward) and our suppliers, many of them freelancers whose income with ADWEB represented the illusion of a better future.

Fighting for 15 years to maintain that culture was an incredibly worthy endeavour…a meaningful journey.

And besides the short-term economic tradeoff, we had to do, it eventually paid off.

Aldrey Cabrera, Co-CEO Vixure