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Beer Pong Isn’t Culture

Published July 24, 2014

22a6650“Perks are good, but they are not culture.” Ben Horowitz, a16z Founding Partner, Author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers.

Perks, as any entrepreneur knows, are a great way to motivate staff when you know job security isn’t one of the reasons someone agreed to work with you. As a group, entrepreneurs know and accept the risks they are taking. But most staff in a small business or startup often discount the risks, knowing – or rather believing – that paychecks will continue to roll in. Entrepreneurs know this won’t always be the case, so perhaps in an effort to distract, or at least thank staff for the higher risk, more rewards are rolled out. 

These can come in the form of shiny fun things, like free meals, massages, unlimited coffee, office beer, happy hour, free snacks, discounted gym memberships, casual dress, electric go-carts, and beer pong. Expensify, an online expense-reporting startup, and Buffer both take their teams off site for a month of the year to beautiful destinations like Thailand, Vietnam and South Africa.  

The sort of perks you don’t get in larger organizations. 

Perhaps because in larger organizations they don’t worry about running out of money in nine months. 

If perks aren’t culture, what does culture mean?  

Ben Horowitz, an entrepreneur (he sold Opsware to HP for $1.65 billion in 2007) turned Venture Capitalist (he then co-founded Andreessen Horowitz in 2009, which has invested in 150 companies to date, including Skype, Facebook and Twitter) doesn’t believe that perks are a substitute for culture. 


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Culture is more fundamental. Culture is about valuesand how your company lives them

Young Woman Taking A Break From WorkHow well current and prospective staff fit in with your cultural values can be determined using the Plum Dashboard, but first you need to have a culture for staff to interact with. 

Horowitz sees creating this as the number one job of any CEO or business owner. He believes that “being a good company is an end in itself.”

How can we become a “good company”?

  • Learn how to give feedback. In any leadership role you are doing something which in any other social situation would seem unnatural: giving feedback. In most cases feedback becomes a monologue. The person giving feedback probably doesn’t want to be doing it, so they go into auto-pilot – just reciting the facts of what went wrong, what the other person should be doing to improve. Job done. Next. Not very pleasant for either side, but least it’s over with. Productive feedback is a dialogue. It is about finding out the facts from all sides and working out a way forward which benefits everyone. 
  • Don’t assume any “management debt.” Another Horowitz phrase, which he compares to debt that product managers assume when they ship code fast, instead of taking more time and care. Sometimes you need to take shortcuts. But too many will see an organization of any size burdened with mistakes which are harder to correct the longer they linger. They become part of the culture. 
  • Tell a good story. “The CEO must set the context within which every employee operates,” says Horowitz. This means making sure employees know why they are doing something, not just what they are meant to be doing. Every action or project should contribute to company growth, culture and how you relate to key stakeholders, like customers. The narrative, which evolves with time, is the anchor for culture. 

As much fun as beer pong is, comfy beanbags and company retreats, they aren’t a substitute for having a strong culture. Living your values means asking difficult questions. It means questioning your actions as a leader. It means ensuring employees understand the story, the context behind their actions. Culture is about teamwork, stories, managing effectively; the end result of hundreds of big and small decisions. That, at the end of the day, is how culture is created. 


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