Company values: stop trying to dictate who you are

Two weeks ago, the Equisense team spent a couple days together near the ocean in northern France. The goal was to get to know each other better and sit down to (re)think on the way we work, where we are heading and try to put some words on who we are and how we plan on moving forward.

You named it, we tried to define one of the obsessions in the startup culture: company values. There are many pitfalls to avoid while doing so and any of them can make the company look as a cliché, under-ambitious or reject some of the stakeholders. Keep in mind that these values are publicly displayed or at least talked about, which means your employees, investors and clients could all feel disconnected from them. At best, their reaction would be “whatever, I guess everybody says so” and see you as another cliché.

At worst, they can reject the way you define yourself and consider the advantages of working with you are not worth it. But is the second scenario really worse? The scope of such problem is a lot wider than your external communication and the “values” tab of your website.

Using Paul Graham’s definition, a startup is all about growth, hence moving fast. Quick decisions and executions cannot come without breaking things and building tension on the way. Trying to define values because they make you sound confident while being agreeable by everyone cannot yield any outcome. No great result comes out of willing to please everyone, and the corollary is that every successful person and organization has haters. Given this statement, the best any entity can do is to choose who is likely not to stick with them and why.

Why values anyway?

This question is totally legit, especially in countries like France where the startup culture is still not familiar to a significant part of the population or like Germany where pragmatism is king in both what you do and how you communicate it. Traditional organizations have always had a simple deal on the recruitment side: lend me your skills and I’ll pay you decently. On the clients’ side, the “values” displayed were traditionally associated with product differentiation (“at XYZ, our obsession is to bring the best product to [insert target] at unbeatable prices”). The shareholders’ side did not even need big words, a couple KPIs from the last quarter would do. As Nicolas Colin phrases in several Medium posts, keeping what is being said to each of these stakeholders completely separated is not possible anymore in the digital age. That’s partly why company’s culture and values became central topics.

I’ve seen two cases at traditional companies. The first situation is ignorance or non-existence of company values, maybe some of these will sound familiar: “Values? No this is the communication staff’s business” “We’re not here to dream, we’re paid to get the job done”

The second attitude is picking up “values” corresponding to trends but completely disconnected from the organization’s reality. Just visit the Corporate bullshit generator and you will know what I’m referring to: We’ve all seen extremely conservative companies call themselves “innovators” or some historical monopolists call themselves “disruptive”.

So what changed with startups? Simple, you can redefine the way your market works (and sometimes create it in the process) and become the central element for it. That’s an idea you can genuinely believe in, work for and something you can promise employees, shareholders and clients. Now where are your values in this? Simply where you want the market to go and the path you’re ready to take to go there.

There are obviously other factors at stake here, the fact that millennials need to define themselves through what they do for instance and cannot just work for a decent paycheck in the same polite colleague relation for 40+ years. More than ever, our generation needs some sense in what we do at the moment and not in a 40-year projection.

Writing down values is about choosing a path and sticking to it

I’d say this is the main highlight I got from hours of thoughts about the topic of company values. Choosing values is not about sounding cool, not about the image you want for the organization’s recruitments.

Something concrete? Don’t define yourself as hackers if you spend at least as much time planning as actually trying and building stuff. Don’t pretend to disrupt anything if you’re playing the old rules within a known and stable market. Don’t define yourself as transparent if you’re not obsessed with everyone knowing both how you think and operate.

Defining yourself through the most trendy terms of the year has lead to a feeling of emptiness in the messages carried in the startup ecosystems and has even become one of its clichés or even jokes.

How to define your company in a non-cliché way

I won’t have the pretension to set the rules on this point, simply to match some great frameworks from people smarter than me who gave this point years of thoughts (conference in French by Oussama Ammar) with the annoying points we discussed.

  • Start with the hard way: define the cool things you are not. This goes with a conclusion drawn earlier, every successful organization has haters, but don’t get the cause-effect relation wrong: your company is not going to reach its goals once it has haters. It should have haters because it defined a clear path to success which induced not satisfying every stakeholder on the way. The corollary is even a stronger conclusion: trying to please every potential target and stakeholder is the safest way to getting stuck and unable to make any decision. This is a luxury startups cannot afford by definition. Immobility can only be explainable in traditional and established businesses.

  • Define your values on the fly: just like you don’t decide as a child that you are a nice person, you don’t decide as a company that you are disrupters before living it. Discover your organization as you are working together and reaching the first painful milestones, these key steps in your development when you have to decide where priorities are being set and who is not going to remain supportive afterwards. These tough experiences and the retrospective understanding of your reaction as a team will make you more confident in what you are doing and help cut the fluff on things you are not meant to do. This is the focus everyone needs to move faster and sharper than the competition, the market and the context.

Mathieu Besançon
Mathieu Besançon
Researcher in mathematical optimization

Mathematical optimization, scientific programming and related.