Culture Is a Product You Build

by Drew Beechler - Director of Marketing

And Other Lessons from HubSpot’s Culture Code at #SaaStrAnnual 2018

At the SaaStr Annual conference this year I had the privilege of hearing Dharmesh Shah, Co-Founder and CTO at HubSpot, and Katie Burke, Chief People Officer at HubSpot, sit down in a fireside chat with Jason M. Lemkin to talk about building the HubSpot culture and share many “hard-won lessons on culture.”

Having started my career working for a company—ExactTarget—that specifically touted our “Orange” culture in the S-1 IPO filings as a key competitive strength and “one of our greatest assets and is consistently cited as a key differentiator,” I can’t stress enough how much I believe in the importance of culture. As we work with, found, and invest in many different startups now at High Alpha, we often advise our leaders to begin thinking about company culture as early as possible. We even started an entire company, Structural, built around this idea to help companies “create world-class employee experiences.”

This conversation in particular at SaaStr with Katie and Dharmesh, though, was one of my favorite sessions of the week. I wanted to share a few key lessons I took out of their discussion around building a winning culture that I think any company should think about in trying to create a culture their employees, partners, and customers love.

Your Culture Is a Product You Build

Dharmesh and Katie were adamant during the session that you have to think about your culture as a product you’re building.

Dharmesh noted, “Culture is a product you build. And your people are its customers.” Think about the fact that your culture is to recruiting as product is to marketing. Katie and Dharmesh both talked about how your customers and prospects are much more easily attracted to an amazing product—in the same way, talented people are more easily attracted to a great culture.

“Culture is a product you build. And your people are its customers.” — Dharmesh Shah, CTO, HubSpot

Think about and treat your culture like you would a new product line. Obsess over it. Put the same amount of effort and focus into creating happy employees that you would to create happy customers.

Source: Dharmesh Shah & Katie Burke SaaStr Annual 2018 Presentation

Culture Is Everyone’s Job

Everyone in your company should be working on culture — it’s not just one person’s job. Katie noted that, “Our employee experience is one of the most valuable products we offer. It is the singular way we win. Our people are our biggest asset.”

“Our employee experience is one of the most valuable products we offer. It is the singular way we win. Our people are our biggest asset.” — Katie Burke, Chief People Officer, HubSpot

Building a company you love and a culture worth fighting for is everyone in the company’s job. If you truly see people as your biggest asset, the entire company should be bought in on that perspective. The entire company should feel responsible for the employee experience and getting the most amazing people to join you on this journey.

In the HubSpot Culture Code deck, Katie and Dharmesh also note, “Our best people don’t just fit our culture, they further it.”

Be Conscious of Your People Debt

One of their biggest mistakes at HubSpot they noted was that they should have started focusing intentionally on culture even sooner — especially when it came to diversity and inclusion. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t address and fix existing issues. Fixing culture issues, though, can be much harder than issues in other parts of the business.

Dharmesh noted, “We talk a lot about product debt in software. The idea of people debt also very much exists. I think people debt, though, has a higher interest rate than product debt. And it’s harder to change.”

All companies of all sizes have a “culture,” whether it’s intentional and planned or not. Invest in someone to own culture—like Katie’s role as Chief People Officer—as early as you can. Even by the time you’re 50 employees, if you don’t have this help, it’s tough to dig yourself out and take control of how your culture is shaping.

Your Values and Culture Should Differentiate You

Katie spoke at length about the need for your values and culture to differentiate you.

When you are developing your values in the early day, most companies always end up regressing to the mean because they don’t want to offend and be as inclusive as possible. The issue, though, is that it doesn’t help inform candidates whether or not they would join your company.

Katie proposed a test for evaluating your values: Ask someone if they would work for a company with your core values (without the company name). Can you “cover up” your brand/company and still appeal to the kind of candidates you want to work with you? Do they know what kind of company they would joining? Or does it feel like someone is going to work at the yoga studio down the street?

Your values and culture should differentiate you from others. It should draw people in and even draw some people out.

Celebrate Alumni

Celebrate your alumni who grow and move on to do great things.

If you’re hiring high-performing individuals at the top of their game, chances are that they will have many opportunities for continued growth and advancement even outside your company in the future. While you always prefer they continue to grow and do amazing things at your company, it’s also important to celebrate those alumni and keep them close to the company. They can be some of your greatest advocates, future customers, and referral sources.

You want former employees to be proud of working at your company and what they accomplished there. You also never know when they might boomerang back and help provide a new perspective or way of thinking at a future stage of your business.

These were just a few of the major themes and lessons I took from Dharmesh, Katie, and the HubSpot Culture Code deck. To dig in more to the secrets behind the HubSpot culture, be sure to check out the deck in its entirety.

Also make sure to check out my full SaaStr Annual 2018 recap on SaaStr.com here.

About Drew Beechler
I run marketing for High Alpha, a venture studio pioneering a new model for entrepreneurship, where I help our portfolio companies craft marketing strategies to build category-leading B2B SaaS brands.

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