What's in a culture?

TL;DR: I tried to build a company in order to build a culture, failed to do it beyond giving me a very nice and easy-going living; then lucked out and found a compatible culture where my contributions are greatly amplified by contributions that other make; then won the Salesforce's Hackathon 2014 Grand Prize with part of the same engineering team.

Last year (2013) I decided to take on a new challenge and try to build a company because I wanted to work in a specific kind of culture and couldn't find one that was compatible with me (transparency, honesty and respect at all times and for all people being the essential ingredients). This isn't to badmouth my previous companies but there was always at least some element that wasn't quite to my taste or standard.

In this new challenge I was, in some important but ultimately rather small ways, successful and I hope that the few people I manage to recruit and work with, saw just how important that "culture" mission was to me. But in many other ways I wasn't successful - I built a system where I could make great living doing contractual work but that's not a company, it's just one man show. Our apps didn't fair very well and no amount of outbound marketing helped (and I couldn't find a good match on inbound marketing - I wanted people with their skin in the game and I didn't know how to sell that). So it became increasingly clear that while I could sell my services, I lacked something to sell the company vision, at least externally. This was fine - I shall not complain about making a great living, doing the thing I love doing the most. But it wasn't what I was set out to do.

On this road to create a better, more compatible culture, I didn't search to join a new employer, maybe because I didn't think that I would find one that I would be happy to join. And today if I'm not happy to join, I won't. This is a newfound luxury which I couldn't afford or was too afraid to make use of for my first 15 years in Chile. But on this road I did, by chance, stumble on Hothouse Labs aka StichApp. They were looking for help, I was selling my services, that was a good match. But over time, it became increasingly clear that it wasn't a good match, that it was in fact a great match. To this day I can't find anything, not bad but not even less-than-optimal to say about the company and the people that make it. And apparently they also think that I'm a good fit for their culture, so much so that after my last consulting contract expired, we easily agreed for me to join full time which I did starting October 1st.

When I look at the path that brought me here - it's one thing that stands out: if you can afford it (critically important - don't be a fool and starve trying), don't settle for less. People will try to sell you bullshit, will try to convince you that you are worth less than what you think (and hell, maybe you are but how do they know unless they've already seen you in action) all in order to extract an extra buck out of you. I always insist that I don't negotiate - which doesn't mean that I won't compromise (not at all!) but that I won't give you figure X so that you can give me figure Y so that we can reach something in between. No - if I tell you X (either as a buyer or as a seller) it's because I really think that's a fair figure for all parties involved. I might be wrong but that's what I honestly think - you are free to try to convince me otherwise. One exception I did make recently (unrelated to all of this) is to make a selling offer which purpose was to set ceiling and thus make the negotiation easier. But even then I explicitly said what I was doing - I didn't (still don't) know how much would be "fair" so I came up with "maximum that makes any modicum of even very remote sense" and offered that figure.

Okay, so how the hell did I come to negotiation from culture? I'm not sure but maybe there is a chain of logic indeed as when I finally met a group of people that set high but reasonable expectations, are trying to do something very novel and interesting, have a wonderful equitable way of telling you what sucks in your latest pull request, don't overrate mistakes, don't underrate the importance of respect in all human dealings... there was no tedious negotiation, just talking, agreeing, understanding and a firm shake of hands.

At least it was a virtual shake of hands until I traveled to San Francisco to spend a week working with my colleagues there, with an excuse of participating in Salesforce's Hackathon 2014 with some of them. But again the strength of forming part of great culture, of knowing that we can depend on each other, that we can do more together than on our own, all this allowed us to do even more and we (with a lot of luck, great concept, excellent execution and presentation) won the Grand Prize! It's a story for other time but for now I can tell you that those 1/4 of a million USD? That's truly only an icing on the cake. It's the cake that's important. "It's the culture stupid!"


Ivan Erceg

Software shipper, successful technical co-founder, $1M Salesforce Hackathon 2014 winner