Why Culture is a Competitive (Product) Advantage

Earlier this week, our co-founder and CTO Dharmesh Shah gave a talk at our company meeting about culture as a competitive advantage. He said every small interaction that happens at a company adds up to its unique culture, making it impossible to replicate; every decision, laugh, beer, handshake, everything. It’s easy to see the tie between those details and the parts of a business that deal with people, like recruiting. But when it comes to building software, the competitive advantage of culture isn’t so clear.

Two years ago to the day, Dharmesh published the Culture Code, a 135-slide deck on HubSpot’s values, mission, motivations, and flaws. Because I like you, I’m not going to dive into every single slide (I’ll save that for the 5 or 10 year anniversary but check out the full deck below). But I do want to talk about a few key parts of our culture that have shaped the way we develop, manage, and ship products.

Autonomy Doesn’t Work Without a Compass

“We believe in autonomy, not autocracy.” This part of the deck is especially true for our product team. We’re broken up into about 30 small teams so every tech lead, engineer, PM, and designer has ownership over part of the product. We trust everyone on the team to work with our customers, figure out the problem, and come up with a plan to tackle it. As managers, we’re not here to tell them how to approach development, we’re here to squash any friction that stands between them and shipping a solution.

But, autonomy only works when there’s a shared definition of success. Our company-wide goal is to solve for the customer, or SFTC as we like to say. The customer is so deeply ingrained in our culture that every decision, big or small, is easily made by asking “does this make our customers’ lives better?” If the answer is no, we don’t do it. Everyone’s on the same page in that regard so it’s pretty easy to let makers be their own bosses. We built a new CRM from scratch last year and our Engineering VP only checked in with the team twice- once when they got started and once when they were done. It’d be really hard to do that without a strong, well-communicated mission (and incredibly smart people with lots of espresso at their disposal).

 

You Can’t Build Amazing Things Without Breaking Something First

One of our engineers used to work at a social media giant in the Valley and because they could only deploy once a week at their size, he said breaking something was pretty stressful. We’re lucky that we’re at this growth stage and have an environment where making a mistake isn’t that big of a deal. The Culture Code says we’d “rather be failing frequently than never trying new things.” And it’s true; shit happens. A lot. Our dev team deploys about 300 times a day and we’d be lying if we said we never shipped some bad code. Things break, we fix them, and we move on. I accidentally deleted half of our customers on my second day at HubSpot; at first, I wanted to hide under my desk for the next few months but the team made it easy for me to bounce back quickly and learn from that mistake.

Because it’s okay for things to go wrong, we’re more inclined to take risks if we think it’ll take a part of our product from good to great. Dharmesh says, “we don’t penalize the many for the mistakes of the few.” I think having that in our back pockets has made us better at building software in the long run.

 

Your Product Will Only Get Better If Your People Do

Lots of companies obsesses over hiring great product people but then completely change their tone as soon as they get them through the door. There’s this idea that getting top talent to join your team is the end goal, when really it should be getting them to stay. We like people that are curious and have found that if they’re not continuously learning, they’re not happy. That’s why one of my favorite parts of the deck says, “we invest in individual mastery.” We try to make sure there are constant opportunities for our team to collaborate and do something they’ve never done before. There are weekly Tech Talks (like this one on React from Gus Vargas), presentations from interesting people like Zach Holman (formerly) of GitHub and Jonathan Klein at Etsy, and on a day-to-day, we’re always here to mentor each other; ask any person on our team if they've had the pleasure of getting a few pointers on their pull requests from Matt Ball and you'll hear a resounding yes. 

This funny thing happens when the people building your product are growing: your product does, too. Everybody wants to hire people that are really smart, but you also want to hire people that have the capacity to get better at their craft so there’s constant improvement happening. In the past 6 months, we’ve launched an entirely new CRM, reached 300,000 monthly active users with Sidekick, and improved our reliability scores across the board. We also had the highest eNPS (employee net promoter score) in the history of HubSpot during that same time frame. I don’t think that’s a coincidence and I hope we can keep finding creative ways to feed our team’s curiosity. 

There’s a natural separation at companies between the ‘hard stuff’, like engineering software, and the ‘soft stuff’, like aspirations and vision. But the intersection of that venn diagram is where great products are built. We do our best to keep that shared ground top of mind and are always learning from what’s working and what’s not. How does culture influence what you ship?

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