Culture is about how you are different from others, not how you are the same. Culture is what makes you weird and strange to others looking in.
If you have ever had the pleasure of going to an Indian wedding (I’ve been to many and they are amazingly fun), you will appreciate what culture is. The Indian culture is unique, beautiful, and distinct from other cultures. In the days leading up to the wedding there are well choreographed dances and songs. During the wedding the groom rides in on a horse. The bride does not wear white, she comes in full of vibrant colors. Everybody dances. The wedding is uniquely enjoyable.
I’m not saying the Indian culture is better than other cultures, but it is different. If you’re an average American and you walk into an Indian wedding, you’ll immediately know you’re in a different place.
Company cultures should be like Indian weddings.
Your company culture needs to be like a well known culture culture. There should be key elements where you are distinct from everyone else. Of course, you will have your own language, lingo, and mannerisms. But you also need something extra specially different.
Culture is defined by our differences.
A good culture actually turns off lots of potential employees. You want people interviewing with you to say to themselves “this is not the right culture for me.” You do not want to appeal to everyone. Instead, you want to massively appeal to a few talented people that will join your company.
One of the reasons for the enduring success of Amazon is its distinct culture. Amazon has a frugality at its core that very few start-ups can match. They take frugality to the extreme — their CEO is famous for his quote “your margins are our opportunity.” They have a lot fewer perks than other comparable tech companies because their view is that every dollar they save internally can be passed on to the customer.
Of course, the Amazon culture does not appeal to everyone. It was not designed to. A few people get super excited about the culture and they sign up, work hard, and fanatically try to help the end customers. Lots of other people are turned off by its culture, and that is okay.
Most things companies think are part of their culture are not actually part of their culture.
98% of startups have an open office layout, so it is not part of your culture if you don’t have private offices. But if you give everyone a private office, it is part of your culture (because it is really different).
If you’re a tech start-up and require that men wear ties, that is definitely part of your culture. But ties are not part of the culture of the White House because men are expected to wear a tie when working near the President.
It would be really neat to see a tech start-up that required business attire, use Windows, host their apps on their own servers (rather than use AWS), and be cash-flow positive from day one. That would be really different. It might only appeal to a very small percentage of the population, but they might end up having rabid fans.
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