Your culture is what you make it

February 24, 2020

One quote that I think about often is “How you do anything is how you do everything.” I’m unsure where it’s from but when I think about it, I also think about Prefontaine’s quote “To give anything less than your best if to sacrifice the gift.” The quotes apply to a lot of situations in life — Do you want to take the easy way out, even if no one is looking or do you want to do your best? Are your actions a reflection of your character? So I was excited to pick up Ben Horowitz’s book “What you do is who you are” recently. If nothing else, the title sounded a lot like a couple of things that I think about. Also, it attempts to answer a question that I get posed often, “How do you build the right culture in a start-up?”

The answer is important because getting the culture right in the early stages is going to improve the chances of having serendipitous events occur later. If you’ve got the right people doing the right things, you improve your chances of running through the inevitable walls that will pop up. The book examines a few historical leaders and covers the principles that they applied, which I’ll touch on below (so you get the general idea without having to read the book).

Summary of the concepts

Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian slave revolution, demonstrates that leaders should; keep what works, create shocking rules, dress for success, incorporate outside leadership, make decisions that demonstrate cultural priorities, walk the talk, and make ethics explicit.

The Samurai demonstrate that leaders should; practice a set of virtues (embodied beliefs) not values (beliefs), remain humble and prepared, and be polite and sincere.

Genghis Khan demonstrates that leaders should; give everyone the tools to perform, build a meritocratic organization as it’s better than an aristocracy, reward loyalty, and recognize and utilize skills regardless of where they come from.

Shaka Senghor, gang leader turned entrepreneur, demonstrates that leaders should; treat people as you would like to be treated, have a simple message and repeat it often so people understand and remember, recognize that loyalty flows both ways, be aware that culture will be reflected in both internal and external interactions, and understand that constant contact increases coherence.


People think that culture can be built through powerpoint decks and team building events but it goes beyond that. A document might be a useful way of disseminating information about the culture once the company reaches a certain size but it won’t help to build the culture in the early days. The traits that the leaders demonstrate, the behaviours that they tolerate (or encourage), and the attitudes of the early employees will lay the foundation for the culture of the organization as it grows.

This is quite evident having read “Powerful” and “That will never work”, two books about how Netflix’s culture was created. In “That will never work,” Randolph tells the story of how he spent $150 to acquire customers that would bring in $3 in marginal revenue at best each time that they rented a DVD from Netflix and people weren’t using the service a whole heap once they signed up. The concept should have never worked, it should have failed before it even began.

However, Randolph had built a strong team around him, a remarkable set of hardworking and creative people that were able to help navigate the obstacles that appeared. The initial team set the cultural direction, which was subsequently codified in “Powerful.”

The codification came after the culture had been instilled — Uber saw the negative side of this effect. This demonstrates how important it is to get the first hires right. They are the ones who will help to shape the culture. For better or worse, their perspective will likely reflect the founders’ approach to most things as a result of inherent biases when hiring.