While walking a potential investor through my first company’s office, he suddenly stopped to take a few deep breaths. I thought something was wrong until he told me, “I’ve never felt such powerful energy!” As a 21-year-old entrepreneur, I had taken our company culture for granted until that moment.
In the course of building my first and second companies, I learned firsthand that a startup’s culture is built on its founders’ true values. With this in mind, I set out to discover and define my own values as I was finishing up my second year at Stanford Business School and getting ready to start Fig, my third company.
But how do founders identify their personal values? While I cannot provide a universal recipe, I can share three questions that helped me determine my core values, and some of the ways my current team aims to align our culture with our shared values:
- When have you felt most alive? Building my first startup during my undergraduate years was a deeply fulfilling life experience. I pinpointed what made the experience so rich by asking “Why?” many times over. Our team, a group of 20-somethings, was on an adventure of self-actualization. Every day, we pushed one another to grow — not just because we wanted to see the startup succeed, but also because we longed to see each team member fulfill his or her potential, professionally and personally. Once I uncovered the root of my fulfillment, I was able to articulate my passion for the value of “Becoming and Achieving” — whether it means developing product design skills to create richer customer experiences or improving my listening skills to strengthen my marriage. At Fig, we reimburse team members when they invest in their own growth and share their learning with the rest of the team.
- What behaviors stir up intensely negative reactions in you? During grad school, I examined the wide range of emotions I experienced while listening to speakers and interacting with my classmates. The vast majority of the time, I felt inspired and challenged. There were a few experiences, however, that got under my skin. When speakers or classmates demonstrated airs of arrogance or coldness, I felt frustrated. As I questioned why I had these feelings, I discerned the root of my discomfort: these airs created distance between the members of a community that was usually open and supportive. Meditating on my discomfort helped me understand just how much I value another value, “Cultivating Authentic Community.” To help us connect at at a deeper level, our current team holds weekly emotional check-ins, and alternating bi-weekly team workouts and book discussions.
- Are there narratives you hold sacred or value systems you can borrow from? The Torah and The Prince are two texts I found helpful in discovering my values. The Torah speaks to human dignity in conveying that all people are created in the image of their creator. By contrast, The Prince encourages leaders to pursue power by any means necessary. Distinguishing between the perspectives I cherish and those I eschew helped me understand my commitment to a third value, “Affirm Human Worth.” We embrace this at Fig by striving to honor people’s time and avoid instrumental behavior.
While all our values will drive our behavior as leaders, don’t assume all of your personal values should become part of your startup. One of your chief roles as a startup leader is to prioritize and communicate what is most important. Startup coach Dave Kashen encourages founders to “select startup values that enable team members to flourish and the company to win in the marketplace.”
Finally, give yourself and your team members grace for the moments you fall short of the ideals you hold most dear. I miss the mark more often than I would like to admit. Perfect adherence isn’t necessary to create a life-giving and high-performance culture. Your startup culture is strengthened every time team members discuss and help one another better lean into your shared aspirations.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.