How I Learned That Company Culture Isn’t Just Hype

When I quit my job to start Capterra in 1999, the last thing on my mind was corporate culture.

Defining our business model, identifying our target customers, developing our strategy, working on our product – these were the things consuming the vast majority of my time. The litany of research and articles on the idea of culture trumping strategy—including the now famous Netflix culture deck—have been a more recent phenomenon.

Fortunately, this worked out for us since we didn’t start seriously hiring until year six. During those first five years, I gave some thought to how I wanted our culture to be when we did begin to expand, but in retrospect, it was not nearly enough. I had no idea how important culture would be in defining and scaling our company. Now I know. Culture is the most important thing when it comes to building a company that lasts.

Capterra2014 Halloween

Capterra celebrating Halloween 2014 by paying homage to our 1999 beginning.

My initial thoughts on culture were a reaction to my four years of work experiences between college and starting Capterra. For example, I despised how much time people wasted at work and, related, how much weight was given to face time.

I, and others, would get into the office by 8am, leave at 6:30pm, hardly break at all, and accomplish quite a bit in roughly 10 hours a day. I really enjoyed the work and all the learning and growth that came with it. I’d take the evenings off, but invest a few hours over the weekend in reading business books and catching up on email as well. My manager demanded none of this; all he cared about was my work performance, and I believe that I exceeded expectations. I don’t think he ever bragged about the hours I was putting in. He didn’t have to… my work spoke for itself.

There were others in the office who arrived before I did and maybe even stayed later than me. Some of them did work harder than me—and get more done—but even more would waste hours every day in office gossip or screwing around online.

I feel pretty confident in saying that most of them were not very productive. They did not accomplish nearly as much as they should have, despite how good they were at appearing like hard workers. Yet their manager would constantly talk about the number of hours his team was putting in every day, like that was all that mattered to him. I don’t care what time you get in (or leave); if you spend half your day on Facebook, texting, or chatting it up with coworkers, there is little to no chance that you are getting much done.

Lesson #1: Using the number of hours that you see someone sitting at their desk – particularly in the age of constant Internet access – as the primary indicator of how well they are performing is ridiculous.

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Of course, that’s not to say that the number of hours is unimportant.

I don’t know anyone who is highly productive who does not also put in a solid number of hours. But I do think how we spend our time has more of an impact on our performance. Work smarter, not harder. Yes, a bit of a cliché but one with a lot of truth to it. The primary thing that people should be measured by is their performance—the amount of work they get done and how high the quality of that work is.

Another problem that I encountered at a large firm was the lack of freedom to work on other projects. No matter how quickly and adequately I got done all of my work, it completely flummoxed my managers that I wanted to try new things and contribute to other initiatives. I literally could get all my work done in a few hours each day, but the idea of taking on more responsibilities was simply unheard of to them. The tacit message was, “Slow down, take your time. And no, you can’t leave early either.” This was a bit soul crushing.

Lesson #2: If you are fortunate enough to hire employees who can get their stuff done faster than you had estimated, give them the freedom to take on more work. Within reason, let them decide what they want to work on.

This seems rather silly to even have to state, but this practice is apparently extremely uncommon. Middle management often does not know what to do with overachievers.

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My next lessons learned came in the first couple years of Capterra, which was spent working out of my basement.

My days felt incredibly more productive at home than in an office due to fewer distractions. I also was working much longer hours due to the work required to get a new business off the ground. That said, I took full advantage of the flexibility. I would go for a mid-afternoon run, something I never did while working at an office. I would leave at 6 to go pick up my now-wife for a date, return by 10, and work until 2. And those were some of my most productive work hours. The flexibility was amazing. I would mention my mid-day runs to people and they would make fun of me and call me a slacker. Their mindset was a 9 to 5 workday. They assumed everyone was like that.

Taking advantage of the flexibility was one of the smartest things I did. Does that flexibility have to go away when you get office space? Or have a family? I don’t think so.

Lesson #3: Take freedom to the next level. Not only should people have a say in extra projects that they take on, they should have plenty of flexibility in their schedule. This will go a long way toward making them happy in both their personal and professional lives.

Some people are early risers and prefer to get in and leave early. Others are late risers and prefer to get in and stay late. Others like to take more breaks during the day to go for a run—or whatever – and will happily get in early and stay late to make that happen. It should not matter. What matters is performance. If someone is killing it at work, does it really matter how/when they get their hours in?

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The difficult part is when someone takes full advantage of this flexibility and is not performing at a high level. In fact, this really sucks. They bring down the morale of all top performers. When that happens, it forces the issue of having to deal with that person. You can’t hide from it. And I’m not perfect – I have hidden from it before. I continuously must recommit to dealing with under-performers when they arise. It is the least fun part of my job, but I can’t think of a better alternative. I don’t view taking away flexibility as an option. It is part of treating people like mature adults.

All of this leads to my two most valuable lessons learned.

Lesson #4: Hiring is insanely important. When you hire great people with a strong work ethic, you can spend less of your time worried about whether they will take advantage of freedom. Their own desire to perform at a high level will keep them motivated to do great work.

But it’s not the only thing that motivates them. Career analyst Dan Pink has stated that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the keys to staying motivated at work.

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Autonomy speaks directly to freedom, mastery adds the element of continuously growing one’s skills, and purpose alludes to the importance of seeing the deeper meaning behind not only your specific duties, but the overall mission of the company. A connection to a greater purpose is extremely powerful. I, along with my cofounders, have worked extremely hard throughout Capterra’s history to make these ideas a reality. We remain a work-in-progress.

Lesson #5: To lead is to serve. Servant leadership is the best way to engage people for the long haul. My job is to serve people in any way that I can to help them do great work and be amazing employees.

I don’t always get this right, but the more I focus on serving others – particularly our employees – the better the results usually are.

capterra adventure

I used to think that the customer was king. That may have had something to do with not having any customers for the first couple years. Now I know that the employee is king. Employees come first because they are the ones who delight customers. So my advice to any entrepreneur is once you are fortunate enough to get customers and employees, spend just as much time on the latter as on the former.

And culture is the primary means by which you do this.

Looking for Talent Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Talent Management software solutions.

About the Author

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Michael Ortner

Mike started Capterra in 1999 as the first website dedicated to helping people find the right software for their business. Today, Capterra lists over 30,000 software companies, displays more than 250,000 software reviews, and receives over 3,000,000 monthly visitors. He's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Fox News, and Inc. Magazine, among other publications, where he's spoken on topics ranging from the business software industry to running and growing a business in the 21st century. Mike received a business degree from Georgetown University and a philosophy degree from the University of London. He lives in McLean, VA with his wife and six children.

Comments

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Great lessons in life. In an office space where there is diversity, being able to captivate all of your employees is very important. Treating them well is one of the best things to do always, and by doing that we can assure ourselves that they’ll do the same thing to us as well, not just because we are their boss and they love their job but also as fellow human being with job position set aside.

[…] the software company-wide, I felt the software’s inherently bureaucratic nature clash with Capterra’s startup culture. I hit the abort button, and started to think more critically about what we wanted from a vacation […]

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This viewpoint is amazing. So comforting to know that feeling this way is normal.

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Fantastic blog post! I was involved in a family business for many years. Giving the appropriate amount of flexibility with understanding to employees was key to our success. It let the team members know they could count on us when needed. It
gave them a sense of additional security and comfort. Creating the culture you are now Michael is one that is so special and rewarding for both the employees and Capterra, on so many levels. So many other businesses (even small businesses will get a big return from employees in so many ways) should take your lead and do the same. They will become better for it. As you and Capterra have.

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Michael – Congrats to you. We are also entrepreneurs and, you’re right. Customers are your life and blood, but without employees, we are nothing. Our employees are like family – they need the utmost care. Your success is to be commended. Freedom to create your own small business is what makes America the best place in the world to be.

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Awesome blog Michael! I am lucky to have had a mentor in my early years that was ahead of his time. One of the first things he taught me was “The employee is KING!” With that said, I have been fortunate to work along some remarkable people because they work very hard for me once they realized I was a servant leader. Thanks again for the great post. I look forward in seeing more from you!

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Either you are in the midst of halloween or everyone where’s their “self” on their shirt at work – the company picture is a telling example of bringing personal expression into the workplace. It’s too easy to get nose down in work and forget that the folks around you are people too!

You can build a culture of respect and realization of people for who they are – but also building gossip into the workday with coffee breaks, parties, group activities, and 5 minutes of meeting agenda time is a good way to build interpersonal bonds and create a company society – rather than just stopping at a culture. Nicely done.

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Bravo Michael, great post. The fact that you get this shows in the ongoing success of Capterra!

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