It seems we are all hyper aware of culture these days. Political culture. Corporate culture. Tech culture. Culture and how it relates to women. Culture and ageism. Racism. Etc. It’s a defining time for America in regards to culture and clearly a time to raise the bar(n).
It is easy to see what is wrong with a culture when you are in it. But creating a culture and leading it is something completely different, and something that great entrepreneurs think about day in and out. Nothing shapes your company more than culture which is built from the inside out. And thinking of these lofty ideas when you are in the early process of building a company is both critical and weird. Critical because if you don’t define your culture early, it will create and define itself - if you like it or not. And weird because you are one person (or one of several people) thinking of what it will be like in the future when there are more of you. It’s a vision exercise to say the least, but it is becoming inherently more important as we see news of the Zenefits employee memo denouncing sex in stairwells at work and Uber employees crossing hugely ethical lines both in terms of the Waymo breach and also covering up their own data breach.
Needless to say, I am thinking a lot about culture - particularly in regards to the culture I want to build for Traction Hero. With innovation and social movement comes the need to make something complex succinct. This is not always true for pure technology innovation - a new technology can create something completely new, eliminating complexity. But for Traction Hero, it is the former, making a pain point easier by managing the complexity within the business model and building a community around the cause.
I won’t go into too much detail about Traction Hero yet. That is coming over the next few months. But to make it more tangible, Traction Hero is an innovative Silicon Valley marketing agency that provides Fortune 1000 and tech companies with the marketing talent they need however they need it - on demand, part-time, full-time, temp to hire. All of our talent is insured, under client non disclosure, and trained to agency best practices. Best of all, our clients only pay for the level of talent they need. We have a pool of stay at home parents who are trained to support marketing initiatives and marketing specialists of all kinds. (We are launching our pilot in March - email me at kate[at]tractionhero.com if you are interested.)
You can see why culture is so important for Traction Hero. We want to give marketers a solid landing place to build the lifestyle they want. We want our clients to have the talent, flexibility, and pricing they need to produce agency level marketing on every project.
All of this is a very complex way of getting to the heart of my story.
A great way to gain perspective on your culture is to immerse yourself in another.
Over Thanksgiving, I went to Ohio to meet my boyfriend Tim’s Amish family. They are technically Old Order Mennonite, but we often refer to them as Amish - to an outsider the differences are minor: Amish men wear straw hats and beards; Old Order Mennonite men wear black hats and no beards. Amish women wear solid patterns, while Old Order Mennonite women also wear floral patterns.
Most people in Tim’s family’s community have electricity from the grid. They use horse and buggy for transportation - no cars unless they are part of a less conservative church. They have no TVs or dishwashers. There are no computers, cell phones, Internet, or email unless it is needed to conduct business - and in that case, they have flip phones and community-created Internet filters that block most websites. Meals are made from scratch at home, and dishes are washed by hand after each meal. Clothes are washed and hung out on lines on Mondays. Children attend a one room schoolhouse from ages 5-14 where one teacher is in charge of all grade levels and older children help the younger ones. (All children are extremely well behaved.) At age 14, every child works for their family until they are 21 years old, when it is time to marry and establish your own trade.
The entire community runs like clockwork. If you have a farm, you are up at 4:30a to milk the cows and back at it by 6p. On Sundays from 7p to midnight, single men visit the parlor room of the girl they are dating for their weekly visit. (The single women get to decorate the room to their taste when they are of dating age.) Women tend to the cooking, cleaning, making clothes (mostly for the women, men’s clothes are often purchased), and children (they typically have many of them!). Men tend to their trade or farm. Everyone is entrepreneurial and fully invested in the work they do, becoming an expert in their trade and doing all they can to help their industry succeed and do a better job in the world.
When crisis hits, the entire community joins in to help immediately. A tornado took off a very large barn roof one evening around 5:30p the week before our visit. A new barn roof was fully installed by the community by 10:30p the same night. Only five hours down time, and none of the hundreds of livestock were affected!
Along the same lines, the community holds huge auctions a couple times of year where 100% of the profit goes to a cause. I was lucky to attend one while I was there. There were three hundred people in attendance - a huge event - yet there was no event organizer running around stressed out and gesturing people in their places. Everyone understood all the work involved and just filled in where it was needed. It was truly incredible to watch.
- Everyone is entrepreneurial. In the Amish community, everyone has a trade and becomes an expert in that trade. They experience the challenges and perfect every process to create a final product of superior quality. They do this without being asked, helping each other (and accepting help) at every turn, and with the customer always in mind.Everyone is entrepreneurial.
- Everyone knows how to behave. The Amish community passes little judgement on their people or on outsiders. They have little political dynamics in their culture. They use their beliefs, faith, and practices to guide them, always believing in the good of one another.
- Everyone understands the mission and does their part. In our culture, we often feel like someone is doing more or less work than us. There are people who are more or less ambitious than others. Some are very polite and obey rules, others are rebellious and do it their way. They do not have these issues in the Amish community. Everyone understands what needs to be done, how to do it, and takes up the slack where they see there is a need.Everyone understands the mission and does their part.
- When crisis strikes, everyone chips in. Everyone in the Amish community understands priorities and helps one another, knowing that someday they will need help too. And they understand the urgency of situations. By having everyone join in to help, crises are fixed way faster than in our world, there is much less loss, and everyone moves back to normal life as quickly as possible.
- Being fully invested in the industry and pushing it forward. It’s important to hire people who care about your cause and will put themselves forward to think of solutions to push the industry forward. I witnessed this in talking to an innovative Amish farmer who has been pushing the way for organic farming since before it was a trend - and now inventing products and ways to take the industry further.Being fully invested in the industry and pushing it forward.
- Choosing your leaders. When it is time for a new leader In the Amish community, there is no vote by the people. Instead, leaders are nominated by the people and chosen “by lot” - a process similar to drawing straws. They believe that God is choosing their leader through this process. And no matter how prepared or skilled the leader chosen is, they always rise to the responsibility of the role because there is such great respect for the role and a high level of respect given from the community to their new leaders. I do not believe in drawing straws for corporate roles, but I believe that managers and leadership have to be held more accountable to the people they lead, making sure that their experience in the company is good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end - even when things do not work out.
All of these components of the Amish culture that I have listed have one very beneficial result that is very noticeable: a much less stressed out population. Everyone has faith that others in the community have their back, that they are not alone, and that others will do the right thing and help out without being asked. I think we all could use a little less stress in life.
I am not sure yet how we will instill all of these values into our budding company. Of course simply identifying and aspiring to these traits won’t magically incorporate them into our company’s culture. One great advantage to startup founders is that when they start out knowing what they want, they can hire against these ideals right from the start.
Thank you for reading a long post, and many thanks to Tim for the incredible experience and to the Old Order Mennonite community in Ohio for being such an important example for the rest of us.