Culture Clash

Company culture, like almost everything else, is accelerated and concentrated in Silicon Valley. Culture, and, by association, brand, is so important and prevalent, you could almost test it like Rorschach. Hold up a name of a company to a user and they’ll immediately know what it stands for.

Facebook: The Hacker Way.

Twitter: Birds.

Google: Nerds.

Apple: Good Design.

Square: Minimalism.

TechCrunch: Startups, etc.

This association thing happens on the less positive side of the spectrum as well. Yahoo! We don’t know. Aol? Oh well, we’ll see.

Culture is so important for an organization because it engenders focus and influences hiring.Talent is our arsenal for battle against both our competitors and the bigger players. As Paul Graham writes in “What Happened To Yahoo!”

“The company felt prematurely old. Most technology companies eventually get taken over by suits and middle managers. At Yahoo it felt as if they’d deliberately accelerated this process. They didn’t want to be a bunch of hackers. They wanted to be suits. A media company should be run by suits.”

First of all, the more the “Are we a tech (hacker) company or a media (suit) company?” debate is allowed to rage unchecked both internally and externally, the more a company seems to lose its way.

Second, this debate is annoying. Because it’s a tautological argument, everybody usually has a different opinion (Is Facebook a tech company? Is Path?). The truth is you can be a media company with a hacker state of mind, or vice versa, like Yahoo pre-Marissa Mayer. Culture is complicated.

I’ve seen this first hand as an observer of the different media fiefdoms within Aol. At 5:30pm on a Wednesday employees from The Huffington Post are downstairs playing ping pong. TechCrunch (Which is, as far as I’m concerned, an autonomous skunkworks within Aol, and also a tech company because of CrunchBase) never sleeps — okay, almost never sleeps.

It’s Sunday, and I’m at the office, mostly because I still consider TC a “startup that covers startups.” The only thing that’s changed is we’re now owned by a big something, a fact that we do our best to ignore culturally.

Because big somethings tend to slow stuff down. At a thriving tech startup, there are very few petty political squabbles, everybody is too focused on survival and everybody has way too much work to do. “Every person can wake up knowing that the work they do will be efficient, effective and make a difference both for the organization and themselves,” as Ben Horowitz wrote yesterday.

When company’s culture becomes more that of suits than hackers, it has the opposite effect, added layers of management, bottlenecks and the interruption of innovation. At these sorts of companies, as Horowitz describes, “people spend much of their time fighting organizational boundaries, infighting and broken processes. They are not even clear on what their jobs are, so there is no way to know if they are getting the job done or not. In the miracle case that they work ridiculous hours and get the job done, they have no idea what it means for the company or their careers.”

Making it clear what an employee’s efforts mean for the company is the first job of its cultural system. At smaller startups everyone is clear what value they add to the company, simply as a matter of practicality. If larger companies want to succeed, this sort of startup mentality needs to be preserved as they scale.

Marissa Mayer has infamously been infusing Yahoo with hacker culture as part of her first month as CEO, making headlines as she makes the food free, asks to be final review in the hiring process, enacts a Google TGIF-type Friday sit down, and (as we’re hearing) begins putting more emphasis on colleges, grades and testing for hires. The end goal of this is making sure the company attracts and retains talent. Talented people want to work for talented people.

Because of the Mayer hire and her renewed focus on product, Yahoo might have the potential to grow into a place where others want to work again — if it recreates the illusion of a startup culture the way Google managed to.

While borrowing heavily from Google’s culture isn’t necessarily the best play, the company does needs youth and hipness. Considering what it’s up against with Facebook and Twitter, it could try to build its own unique hacker culture inductively, scooping up marquee mobile properties like Foursquare and reviving languishing but beloved products like Flickr.

It’s hard for hackers to imagine any sort of product visionary wearing a suit, and that scares execs in power at Yahoo. One solution to is to get rid of them (is this what happened to Ross Levinsohn?) and any other management layers that exist unnecessarily. Tear down the “manager versus maker” culture currently in place.

The problem with this stuff is essentially a paradox, disruptors like Mayer are anathema to the status quo in a big company but necessary for success in a startup. Many in big companies are alright with the apple cart remaining intact because it allows them to get paid well for doing 6-7 hours of work.

It’s also boring. And it makes a company vulnerable to those people not playing ping pong at 5:30pm on a Wednesday, who are instead busting down the doors and cleaning up the mess later. Yes, on a weekend.

These companies would do best to remember that Steve Jobs (a maker and in some sense a hacker) was once axed in favor of the “adult supervision” of suits, and look what happened. They should etch Paul Graham’s words over on the lintels of the door-post, “There are worse things than seeming irresponsible. Losing, for example.”

[Note: TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington will probably grill Marissa Mayer about Yahoo’s company culture and other aspects of her management strategy at TechCrunch Disrupt SF in September — It’s one clash we’re all looking forward too.]

Image via Mark Bulmer