The following was published in the April 2016 edition of Context, Sharethrough's internal newsletter. We have been on a long journey to define our culture, mission and values. In alignment with our values, we felt that publishing this could help other companies who are grappling with the complexity of defining their own identities. The following was written by Rob Fan, our co-founder/CTO, and Rob Slifka, VP of Engineering.
Culture is more than the free food and ping pong that mainstream media focuses on. It is defined as the shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. Colloquially, it is known as something intangible, hard to define and impossible to force upon a group of people. To get Sharethrough’s culture to where it is today, we’ve allowed culture to permeate all aspects of the company (hiring, employee growth, product building, sales methodology, etc). Before getting here, we chose to get deliberate and academic about the way we talk about culture.
We place an importance on culture because we believe it to be the way a company can forever remain a startup. Of course there are some financial criteria required for being defined as such, but when talking about a startup in these terms (as an organization setup to search for a repeatable and scalable business model), it’s more about a way of doing things. By this classification, even large public companies like Google and Facebook can still feel like a startup. The big question is: how does an organization of 25,000 or 160 people use culture as a way to remain a startup?
In our research and experience, it starts by first breaking down culture into two primary components: why are we here? (our mission) and how do we do things? (our values). Next we need to define these things, and as painstaking as it is, put them down in writing. Getting deliberate with our culture allows us to scale it as the company grows. It also enables us to know when and if we deviate from the culture — the point isn’t to lock the culture in stone, but to make sure it evolves in the right direction.
Many of you may be scratching your heads and wondering if you’ve somehow missed hearing about our mission, but in reality it actually has taken us only eight years to commit it to words. This isn’t to say we’ve been wandering around aimlessly — collectively we all know what we are building toward and why. However, there is a great sense of clarity, not to mention making it easier to get new employees up to speed, when we are able to put our mission in writing. The challenge has been finding the right words that are both broad and specific; the mission needs to be grand enough such that it doesn’t need to get rewritten if we iterate the business or introduce a new product. Simultaneously, it needs to create some boundaries so it can provide us with a level of overall focus (vs being very broad like “improving the overall betterment of mankind”).
In writing the mission, we decided to follow the Golden Circle framework devised by Simon Sinek. If you’d like to learn more about this framework you can check out the TEDx talk here.
This framework is based on the notion that in the end, people don’t choose to work with you (or buy your product) based on “what you do”, but more because of “why you do it”. Many people (and companies) mistakenly think of a mission statement as a summary of the current line of business (e.g. Apple’s mission is to make the best technologically advanced iPhones, MacBooks, etc).
To make this more real, let’s extend the Apple example and now apply this framework to them.
WHY - Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently.
HOW - We make products that are beautifully designed and user-friendly.
WHAT - iMac, iPod, iPhone, Apple Store, Cars? Televisions?
Apple’s “why” has nothing to do with the devices that we all use, nor does it have anything to do with developing the most technologically advanced devices. In fact, the word technology isn’t used anywhere in this statement — by leaving it out it implies that technology is just one of the ways they achieve the mission. There is an explicit focus on making products that are beautifully designed and user-friendly — it’s an afterthought that they happen to make iMacs, iPods, iPhones, etc. If you look closely, you can see that this mission is both broad and specific: it makes it clear why and how they should be building while leaving the “what” to be very broad. With this mission statement, one could see how Apple making a car (as the rumor goes) can fit within their mission.
Let’s apply this why-how-what framework to Sharethrough.
WHY - Empower publishers to control their own destiny so that they can create content that moves humanity forward.
HOW - We do this by building products and technology with human-centered design.
WHAT - We provide publishers with ad products that are consistent with the user experience of a publisher’s site or app.
Rather than focus our mission on “native,” we instead provide meaning behind why we are currently so focused on it. In this new world where publishing and social are blurring, there is a potential future where publishing as we know it today could be drastically different. Instead of publishers being their own entities that happen to distribute across various channels, one of which is social, we are near a world where publishers are no more than a curated group of journalists and writers who “publish” to social channels. We believe that if this future comes true, we will find ourselves in a place where there is less high-quality content being created that can move humanity forward. To avoid this future, we believe that publishers need to control their own destiny.
To achieve this “why,” we build products and technology versus offering a consultancy or reselling someone else’s product. “Products and technology” doesn’t mean ONLY the activities that the product and engineering teams do, but rather it includes all activities (decks, pitches, processes) that form the overall Sharethrough offering. Next we speak specifically to the way we want to build, which is with human-centered design. As defined by IDEO, human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world. In the real world, this is commonly practiced when designing an interface that our customers use. But at Sharethrough, this also applies to how we create all things, thus resulting in an unexpected level of personalization.
The final “what” statement speaks to what we are doing today — this should sound very similar to what you are used to hearing. Since this is very myopically focused, this has the highest likelihood of changing with time.
Our hope in finally declaring our mission is to provide everyone with better clarity in why, how and what we are all working towards.
The second component of culture is formed by our value system (or Values for short). Everyone has had some exposure to our values during Sharethrough University. They’re also present on our Careers page, describing who we aspire to be and how we operate as a team. I’d like to go a bit behind the scenes here and discuss how we arrived at these values and our style of communicating them.
When we think about values we have two challenges: how do we arrive at a shared understanding of what “value” means (recall “culture” and the idea of “shared understanding”) and then how do we define and communicate our values?
What do useful values look like?
When we set out to describe our values, it was important for us to keep three goals in mind:
- Values must be relevant and applicable to what we do today and aspire to do in the future. If they’re too broad, they won’t be useful, and if they’re narrowly focused, they will become out of sync with evolving and unpredictable challenges.
- Values must be helpfully instructive, guiding behavior in day-to-day activities. The more instructive they are, the more we can use them.
- Finally, values should have easy recall (i.e. not too many or difficult to remember). If you can’t remember what they are, it won’t matter how instructive, relevant or applicable they are!
Communicating our Values
As a refresher, we describe our values as follows:
Action — Learn and continuously improve by doing. We value decision making and learning over perfection.
Optimism — Don’t wait for change. Always think bigger. We value long-term investment over short-term reward.
Purpose — Demand context and understand why. We value understanding over execution.
Transparency — Be self-aware. Communicate effectively and respectfully. This underpins all of the other values.
One of the ways that we differ from traditional value system descriptions is that we further describe our values in terms of the healthy tradeoffs we consider on a daily basis. We do this because values stated along a single-dimension (e.g. Creativity, Simplicity) are absolutes that aren’t helpful in decision making; we’re always creative and we always aspire to create simple solutions for our customers.
Transparency is unique because it underpins all of the other values. For example, the “demanding context” that Purpose describes is difficult without the effective and respectful communication that Transparency calls for.
We have created something special at Sharethrough — to put this into words, we call it our culture.
- Culture = Mission + Values
- Being deliberate about our culture allows us to scale it and evolve it
- Our culture is why we continue to be a startup
- Culture is more than fun and friendly people. It’s the way we operate the company.
Mission = “What are we doing and why should people care?” We based ours on Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” framework — learn more here.
- WHY — To empower publishers to control their own destiny so that they can create content that moves humanity forward.
- HOW — We do this by building products and technology with human-centered design.
- WHAT — We provide publishers with ad products that are consistent with the user experience of a publisher’s site or app.
Values = “Who we are and how we do things.” They help guide behavior. They should be relevant and applicable and they need to be memorable. We add another dimension to our values by adding a trade-off statement to help with decision making.
- Action — Learn and continuously improve by doing. We value decision and learning over perfection.
- Optimism — Don’t wait for change. Always think bigger. We value long-term investment over short-term reward.
- Purpose — Demand context and understand why. We value understanding over execution.
- Transparency — Be self-aware. Communicate effectively and respectfully. Underpins all of the other values.