Company Culture


“No company has a culture; every company is a culture.” - Zero to One

Company culture is an invisible, but essential undercurrent. Yet, understanding it is ever elusive. I don’t pay much attention to company values or “company culture” documents. Those artifacts are usually just manifestations of how management or “team culture” thinks people should behave.

Real culture forms far from and is often counter to authority. Dropbox’s “Mandatory Meetings at the Mint” or Sentry’s Dog Day are clear examples of this. They aren’t the meticulously curated Instagram feed and they are dubious recruiting tools (likely driving away as many candidates as they attract).

Litmus Test for Fake Culture

Detecting fake versus true culture is critical. Here’s some litmus questions I use to disqualify.

Is is possible to believe the opposite and still be a good person?

Valuing “human life” is not a value. True values are choices, just as true cultures are specific to their communities (and inherently not for everyone). For most companies, it’s in fact better not to have culture. Companies are money machines; being honest about this is fine. Morgan Stanley doesn’t trumpet its culture when attracting employees; it just pays them better.

Here’s some aspects of Dropbox culture I observed while there:

It was exclusive not inclusive. Early recruiters attest to how annoying it was to have good candidates rejected because they were not great. It was homogenous instead of diverse. MIT, Stanford. It was critical over accepting. Early Dropboxers always called out bullshit. It focused on impact over perfection. Dropbox’s Shared Folders were a hack (hence not being able ship read-only shared folders until years later), but consumers loved it. They were 80% of what was needed today, instead of 100% a year hence.

Finding True Culture

This isn’t easy: unlike the candidates, hiring companies have professionals whose job it is to hide their flaws from candidates (much like HR for employees). You’ll need to ask the right questions and carefully think through the answers. How would a happy, productive employee answer? How would a miserable one that’s still trying to toe the party line answer?

Why do you work here?

If the answer is some version of: “smart people working on hard problems,” that’s a bad sign. To be fair, that’s the default answer, so push them for more detail. A good answer has little to do with the company and more to do with the team and particularly the manager.

When you need help or have a question, how do you get help?

I’ve always loved the tale of Baucis and Philemon, a flood story where Zeus judges a couple treated their friends, but someone in need.

What’s a thankless task that vital to the company but is invisible to the business?

Bezos talks about the importance of culture in doing “invisible work” his 2017 Letter to Shareholders.

Finally, keep track of their answers. I loved this advice on how to tell a movie will suck from its trailer. My favorite is “You’ve seen five trailers for the same movie, and you’ve noticed there are only three cool bits, repeated over and over.” Totally applicable to companies: if everyone in your interview loop has the same answers…be suspicious. Once you’re sure the answer is true and not scripted, then you’ve finally arrived at the true decision:

Is this the kind of company culture I want to be part of?