No-nonsense perspectives on startup growth

This article was published on March 25, 2021

Company culture is built on actions — not declarations

Millimeters quickly turn into kilometers

Company culture is built on actions — not declarations
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
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Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

CEO and co-founder, TNW

Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.

Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

A few days ago, I was doing a woodworking project which involved two wooden planks, just over 10 meters in length (impressive, I know).

I had to attach them firmly at one end, then I roughly aligned them so they would be parallel to each other. My attitude towards woodworking could be summed up as “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” So as usual, I wasn’t stressing the details too much in the beginning.

When I’d firmly secured the first 3 meters in place, after a considerable amount of elbow grease, I noticed something. The few millimeters of margin I’d noticed in the beginning were now a few centimeters of margin. And surely enough, further along the planks those centimeters turned into decimeters.

Still, no big deal, right? Well, unfortunately this woodworking project was literally building a bridge I would have to cross soon.

[Read: Why you can’t base business decisions on numbers alone]

I didn’t quite relish dying prematurely in a freak bridge accident of my own making, so I was left with no choice but to scrap everything and start over completely. But this time I’d pay extra attention to those millimeters that seemed so trivial in the beginning.

Another thing that might seem like mere millimeters at the beginning of a project for most people — but can end up causing a kilometer-wide gap — is company culture.

Values, manners, and methods are implicit, and when you’re struggling to get your idea off the ground or just trying to simply survive, there’s not a lot of time for long brainstorm sessions about What It All Means.

But even if you never sit down to come up with your meaning or values, I’ve learned that all the little things you do in the beginning will end up defining what you’ll eventually recognize as your company culture.

It’s a mistake thinking you can create ‘company culture’ by putting a ping pong table in the basement or force everyone to think of yourselves as “one big family.” Company culture is a lot more subtle than that, and it’s created by all the tiny actions that have happened, rather than sweeping declarations.

I declared I was building a bridge — but the amalgamation of all my actions showed I was constructing weird stilts for two planks, veering off into different directions.

That’s why simple things like how founders treat each other in meetings are the building blocks of company culture. Those millimeters of small mistakes you skipped over so easily in the beginning can turn chasms you can never cross if you’re not careful.

But even if you manage to inspire a thriving culture with mutual respect and the ability to grow, are you done? No, never. Company culture, and the values it comes with, is a living and breathing thing, and like the tide, it ebbs and flows with the people that live it.

So make sure all your actions contribute to the company culture you strive to build.

Can’t get enough of Boris? Check out his older stories here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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