When to Establish Values at your Startup

Most startup founders recognize the need to build a strong culture within the company. This can often be a prerequisite for a startup to grow and succeed. More often than not, that culture is a reflection of the founders. If nothing else, culture is heavily influenced by the values the founder has tried to establish and represent as the head of the startup.

These values are what will hold the startup together over the long haul. Startups will inevitably go through periods of great change and employees will inevitably come and go. But the values and culture of a startup will remain. This is why many of the founders I’ve spoken to over the years - and rightly so - have put great thought into the values they want to establish.

For some founders, establishing the right values is one of the first things the co-founder team does. This was the case with Joe Martin, the CMO and one of four co-founders of CloudApp. His co-founder team established values early and reviews them often.

“We hashed out what we wanted the company to be and wrote it all down and documented it and then shared that with everybody,” Joe told me about the early days of CloudApp. “And we review it in our hands every couple of weeks, so everyone knows what the goals are and knows what we are as a company.”

CloudApp is far from the only startup that is doing this. Many startups make early hires based on how a candidate fits their values as much as their CV. This can actually prevent founders from making hires based on their intuition and relying on their gut. For first-time founders, in particular, they are probably better off basing hires on values rather than intuition, which could be lacking given their lack of experience.

The only thing I would caution against is seating aspiration values. Establishing the right values is just as much about discovering those values as it is about implementing those values. Too many startups set aspirational values that they can’t possibly reach. Instead, conduct an exercise the way the CloudApp founder team did that can help a startup discover its values during the early stages.

Once those values have been discovered and established among the founders, everything else can start falling into place. On the other hand, not having values established can be hugely problematic. That’s the advice of Jerrod Engelberg, one of three co-founders leading CodeCov. Jerrod once told me that: “mission, principles, and values (are) an early point of failure if not done well.”

One of Jerrod’s CodeCov co-founders, Eli Hooten, explained to me some of the obvious benefits of having values and principles established early. He said that when there is a decision to be made, you can look back and say “Hey, let’s go back and look at these principles. Are you sure we’re on brand here? Is this really the right way to be trying to solve this problem?”

Eli even said that for every new vertical or new hire that’s considered, a recommendation is made based on how it fits the company’s values. This is how profound a startup’s values can be, even during the early stages of the company. In fact, they are perhaps most profound during the early stages.

Finally, I should also mention that these values are not always permanent. They can be revisited and changed throughout the life of a startup. However, that will be a lesson for another day. It’s important to know that establishing the right values at a startup is critical during the early stages and can be the difference between success and failure.

If you want to hear the thoughts of more founders like Joe, Jerrod, and Eli, read the book Midstage Momentum. The book contains wisdom from dozens of startup founders who have learned from first-hand experience and have lessons to pass down to younger founders.