The Woman Who Helped Define Facebook's Culture Explains How Startups Can Explain Who They Are To The World

A company's founder can set the tone for how the culture thrives. Here's how Facebook did it, and your business can, too.

When Molly Graham joined Facebook in 2008, the company still felt scrappy. With 400 employees serving 80 million users, people were so busy "moving fast and breaking things" that the culture still needed to be defined.

Graham was hired to help make this happen—to not only tell the company’s story externally, but to build a shared vision and identity as it grew from 400 to thousands of employees. She started by asking two questions:

  1. Who do we want to be when we grow up?
  2. How do we talk to people outside about what it’s like to work at Facebook?

Since then, these two questions have formed the foundation of Facebook’s culture discussions. Most notably, they resulted in the "hacker" identity that has distinguished the company as a technology powerhouse that is always experimenting to bring the world closer together.

At First Round’s recent CEO Summit, Graham, who managed Culture and Employment Branding at the company for two years—and who now runs business operations for slick, modern word processor Quip—talked about what startup founders have to gain from defining culture early and often, and how to do this when there are dozens of competing priorities.

For Facebook and Graham, culture was all about staying true to the company's early identity and giving people the momentum to stay creative through hyper-growth. So she pulled as many other people into the process as she could.

In particular, she gathered together people who had been at the company the longest, split them into groups, and asked them the following question: What are the words you use to talk about this place? "One word that was noticeably absent from the conversation: Hack. Hacker," Graham observed. "We had it written on all the walls inside the company, but no one was throwing it out to describe Facebook’s character."

Wary of possible negative connotations surrounding the word 'hacker,' the company avoided using it for a long time, opting instead for words like ‘entreprenuerial’ which weren't as powerful. "But gradually, over the next two years, this attitude shifted," Graham says. Now the street leading into Facebook HQ is literally called Hacker Way and the center of campus is called Hacker Square.

"It’s an interesting story, because I think there are a few things we could have done to get to that identity a bit faster," she says. There are three lessons in particular that she thinks can help startups get to "this is who we are" earlier in the process.

LESSON 1: Companies are built in the image of their founders

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These are the people who sat down and said this is such a good idea that I want to devote my entire life to it, Graham says. "Companies tend to reflect everything about them—their personality, strengths, weaknesses. So when you start defining culture in an intentional way, first look at yourselves. If you’re not a founder, look at your CEO and the people who were there at the very beginning."

If a founder is competitive, the company will be more aggressive and competitive. If they are analytical and data-driven, the company will tend to make metrics-based decisions. On the other hand, if a founder deliberates too long over decisions, their startup may have a hard time moving as fast as it should. If a founder is a designer, the way the company builds products will likely be led by design.

"This might sound obvious, but to a lot of people, it’s not," Graham says. "Regardless, self awareness (or awareness about your founders) is a really good starting place. It brings up a handful of helpful questions that can be useful in thinking about the DNA of your culture. Fundamentally, it’s an exercise in self-awareness."

If you’re a founder evaluating yourself, consider asking:

  • What are my strengths?
  • What am I outstanding at?
  • What sets me apart from the people around me?
  • What do I value about the people around me?
  • When I look at my friends, what are the characteristics they have in common?
  • What qualities drive me crazy about people?
  • How do I make my best decisions? (Think of a recent decision you made that had a good outcome. What process led to that?)
  • What am I bad at?

"All of these questions lead you directly to things that will likely define your culture," Graham says.

The earlier you think through and articulate what makes you different from other people—whether it’s an attitude or a skillset—the better you’ll be able to capitalize on these qualities from a business perspective.

Similarly, the attributes you value in your friends are a great place to look when you start thinking about hiring. "What makes the people currently surrounding you so awesome? How can you find those qualities in other people without being friends with them first?" Graham says. "Alternatively, those things that drive you crazy—figure out how to suss those things out of candidates, and don’t hire those people."

Enumerating what you’re bad at is an essential springboard for thinking about your culture and making hiring decisions. "If you look at yourself honestly and know you’re not good at management, you should hire someone who is. Wherever you know you have weaknesses, how can you get someone who complements you?"

If you don’t have time to do anything else related to culture—if you’re at five to 10 people and sprinting all day long—take the time to do this inventory and write these qualities down, Graham says. "The qualities you list in this exercise will form the building blocks of your future company. Even if you put it in a drawer, you can come back to it later when you get to that place where you’ve already hired all your friends, raised your second round and have to figure out how to get strangers to work effectively together."

LESSON 2: Turn your adjectives into a story.

So now you have a list of words describing your company’s personality, what it’s good at, what it’s bad at, where it needs to change, and who you want to work with. What do you actually do with that? How can you make sure they guide your growth?

"When Amazon develops products, they actually write a press release before they even build a prototype or write a spec," says Graham. "They take the time to first think through what they want to say to the world when they launch the product. How are they going to explain it?"

In terms of culture, the question might be what do you want Fast Company to write about your culture in two years? "When you’re small, the focus is always on product product product, but building a strong team and a strong culture is a hugely important part of building a great product long term," says Graham. "Take a minute to write down your story. What you stand for. What do you want people to say about you?"

One of the key moments in solidifying the story of Facebook’s culture was a blog post by Paul Buchheit, who joined Facebook when it acquired FriendFeed in 2009. The post reframed "hacking" as "applied philosophy"—the ability to transcend rules to make great things happen fast. He also made it clear that the term didn’t apply exclusively to software engineers and could be used by anyone to accelerate their expertise and progress.

"When Paul wrote that post, he wrote the story of Facebook’s DNA," says Graham. "He was so articulate on the topic, and so positive, that it was an inflection point for Mark and for the company. We really started to own the Hacker brand after that."

One warning: it’s easy to write down a bunch of cliché adjectives to describe your company. "Many of my first attempts could have described any company—think ‘we hire smart people who are fast learners and team players.’ I would read what I had written and need to take a nap because it was so boring. Don’t just rehash what every other company has written—watch out for words like ‘innovative’ and ‘impact’—you should only write down your story if you are willing to stick your neck out and make it controversial."

Your story becomes deeply relevant to a variety of use cases within your company—particularly hiring, because your story shows up in every single job description.

"Early on, I got an amazing piece of advice that most job descriptions aren’t actually very honest," says Graham. "They’re written so that everyone will read it and think ‘yes! I am definitely qualified to do that. I want that job!’" This happens because job descriptions are written like pitches, practically selling the idea of the job to prospective candidates.

"The advice I got was to write your job description for the one person that should absolutely 100% be in that role," she says. "You want everyone who isn’t right for the job to think, ‘Oh my god, I definitely don’t want that job.’ The same is true of your company's culture narrative: When you have a well-crafted, specific, controversial company story, it can guide everything from who you shouldn’t hire to how you settle arguments."

This story doesn’t have to be long, Graham emphasizes. "It can be four sentences or one paragraph or three values," Graham says. "But it needs to make it clear what you are and what you aren’t as a company." It also needs to give you language that you can re-use again and again in the press, in hiring, in product announcements, and at all-hands meetings to reinforce what your company is about, who you want to attract, and why you’re doing what you do.

When Facebook first started to grow, Mark Zuckerberg spent time asking other CEOs about some of the things they did early on at Microsoft, Apple, and others to establish culture and explain to people what it meant to work there. One of the best pieces of advice he got was to write down a succinct list of what it meant to be "one of us."

It apparently took him 10 minutes, and he ended up with this list:

  • A very high IQ
  • Strong sense of purpose
  • Relentless focus on success
  • Aggressive and competitive
  • High quality bar, bordering on perfectionism
  • Likes changing and disrupting things
  • New ideas on how to do things better
  • High integrity
  • Surrounds themselves with good people
  • Cares about building real value over perceived value

Zuckerberg wrote this list in 2006 and put it in a drawer, but he brought it up again in 2009 as Graham worked with people across Facebook to re-write the company's values. Reading it for the first time, Graham was struck by how it was not only an honest, controversial description of the early culture at Facebook but also that in many ways, it was a great description of Zuckerberg himself. That list, combined with the Hacker piece that Paul Buchheit wrote, created a powerful description of the culture and philosophy behind Facebook.

LESSON 3: Turn your story into a conversation.

"As a founder, this is not something you can delegate," says Graham. "I’ve seen dozens of tries at cultural transformation from other people inside a company, but it usually only works when the founder or CEO is the one speaking. A founder saying something is like throwing a rock into a pond and watching the ripples. People immediately start repeating it. At Facebook, Mark would say something and the next day it would be on the walls."

Culture is not something you talk about once and forget about. "You have to communicate what you want to build in every meeting, in every email you write. Especially as a founder or a CEO, but even as a manager, it has to be a huge chunk of your job and your mindshare."

It’s also important to acknowledge that culture is not a fixed thing. "As a core leader, you own it, but you have to let it evolve," says Graham. "There will be moments when your culture evolves organically. It will change as you grow, and there will be moments when you think, ‘Uh, we need to revisit that thing we were talking about two years ago, because it totally doesn’t make sense anymore.’"

"Move fast and break things" is a prime example of a tenet that had to evolve over time. "It’s definitely still the default motto for the company, but the meaning has changed," says Graham. "Originally, it meant: duct tape that server together so we can keep growing; or, it’s okay the site went down because we were trying out big ideas."

"Two years later, we got to a point where we had 500 million people depending on us, and downtime or duct-taped servers no longer cut it. Mark actually kicked off this conversation internally: What moving fast and breaking things meant long term for Facebook."

It was clear that if the company was going to support hundreds of millions of users, reliability would have to be part of its long-term competitive advantage—but this still couldn’t compromise speed. The new meaning was about elevating Facebook’s game, and making it clear to everyone that the company would need to move fast over years, not just days or weeks.

The earlier you start the conversation about who you are as a company, the stronger the backbone you’ll have for everything that comes after—including cultural changes. You’ll be able to support healthy evolution without constantly racing to catch up.

"Culture is worth thinking about from the beginning," says Graham. "What kind of company do you want to build? How do you want your team to treat each other? No matter what you have to do right now, take a minute to start with your self-awareness exercise and write down your story. Revisit it in a year when you raise your next round or whenever you start thinking more about culture. Then prepare for it to evolve, just like your product will too."

This article originally appeared in First Round Review and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user ricardo]

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