Get Big ($3 Billion Big) By Staying Small (Part I)

Lessons from WL Gore & Associates, the original "Culture First" Company
June 26, 2023

If you’ve ever embarked on an outdoor adventure, you’veprobably come across GORE-TEX, one of the top brands globally for protectiveoutdoor clothing thanks to its combination of breathability and waterprooffeatures. GORE-TEX fabrics can be found in more than just hiking jacketsthough, reflecting the company’s truly innovative nature: whether you areplaying a range of sports, working for the police or fire service, on a NASA missionor even watching tennis at Centre Court in Wimbledon under the retractable roofwhich contains the material, GORE-TEX can be found in hundreds — no, thousands— of products.

 What you may not know is that Gore — the parent companyof which the GORE-TEX fabrics are just one tiny part — is a truly innovativeand astonishingly successful organisation. Gore was a Culture First companylong before the culture first movement even existed. It has been named a ‘GreatPlace to Work’ for over 20 years in a row, has reported revenues of over $3billion annually, and it shows no signs of slowing down.


It’s not just by coincidence that the Gore culture and Goreproducts are both world leaders: the founder of W.L. Gore and Associates,Wilbert Gore (known as Bill) designed his company with this exact thing inmind. He couldn’t stand bureaucracy and was driven by the conviction that acompany could thrive without the usual hierarchies, ranks and titles. He setout to prove his hypothesis true.


In 1958, Bill left his job of 17 years as an engineer atDuPont to launch a culture-driven electronics start-up in the basement of hishome alongside his wife, Genevieve (known as ‘Vieve’). While working at DuPont,Bill would occasionally work in a task force — a small group of diversecolleagues with specialist knowledge who would gather for anything from sixweeks to six months to solve a specific problem. At the time, in the fifties,colleagues would address each other as Dr, Mrs or Mr, but during the taskforce, this level of formality would dissolve and people would refer to eachother on a first name basis — until the task force ended, after whichthey would return to their usual role, place and level of formality in thecorporate hierarchy.


After one task force in particular, during which the teamfocused on the polymer polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, Bill felt thatalthough the presenting problem had been solved, there was much more untappedpotential to PTFE. He also found himself frustrated at having to return to themore traditional hierarchy (at DuPont, these task forces were a last gaspsolution and would only be utilised when people couldn’t find a solution byworking in the traditional hierarchy).


Organise around opportunity


Bill took the leap that countless would-be entrepreneurs havetaken since, quitting his job and setting up W.L. Gore and Associates withVieve. They believed that more was possible and were determined to organisearound opportunity rather than organising by function. They had in fact beenhaving this conversation for years, having first discussed workplace culturewhilst backpacking in the Utah Mountains as teenagers.

We can see this similar "organise around opportunity" model in how companies like Facebook, Spotify, Transferwise and numerous other tech companies have scaled their businesses.


From day one, Bill was obsessed with innovation and questionsabout company culture:


- Why should an organisation wait for a crisis beforemaking changes, taking risks or discovering breakthroughs?

- What if it was possible to run a company withoutchains of command and stifling hierarchies — with no bosses, no vice presidentsand no supervisors?

- What would happen if you threw out the rule book andcreated an organisation that valued human flourishing and inspired work at itscore? Would it still be possible to deliver consistent profitability andgrowth?

- What impact would be created if you gave everyone inthe company permission to speak to anyone else?

- What needs to happen to create a company where work isexciting, challenging, fun and self-directed?

- In fact… why couldn’t an entire company be bureaucracyfree?


Bill and Vieve didn’t wait for ‘someday’ to test out theirhypotheses; they built their business from the ground up according to theseinstincts, and it worked.


Initially, they raised seed capital from members of theirbridge club and set up a production line for the electronics the companyproduced in their own backyard; employees would sleep in their basement andraid the kitchen for utensils they could adapt and use in the manufacturingprocess. Supposedly early customers would find blades of grass mixed in withthe company’s first product, an insulated wire cable.


Fast forward a few years: the company reached numerousmilestones in its first ten years of operation, including its products landingon the moon, being found in the world’s most advanced computers and openingfurther manufacturing plants in Delaware and Arizona in the US, plus Germany,Scotland and Japan. The Gore culture, cultivated by the Gores from day one, wasdeeply embedded in each of these plants despite the diversity of the culture ofthe country.


Get big by staying small: Dunbar’s Number


Bill and Vieve found that ifyou want a bureaucracy free zone, you have to tend to it constantly. One ofGore’s many distinct features, which is a key aspect of helping the cultureremain bureaucracy-free, is that its plants never house more than 150-200employees[1]. Assoon as it nears that number, the company will open another plant somewhereelse — with good reason: Company legend has it that one day, Bill was walkingthrough the office when he realised he did not know every associate’s name,which bothered him and prompted an interesting insight about the nature ofgroups.  Through a process of trial anderror, Bill came to see that something happens when a group memberships hits150 people. It reaches a kind of tipping point where the nature of therelationships between people and within the organisation change — for theworse, Bill thought.


He organised the businessaround this insight. The Gore buildings (which are kept deliberately bland andfunctional — more on that in a future article) can only house 150 people; thereare 150 car parking spaces and 150 spots in the canteen. The plant reachesmaximum capacity not when its machines are running at full capacity or whencertain targets are hit, but when the car park and the canteen are full, and atthis point, another plant gets opened — sometimes only a few miles away.


This guarantees a workenvironment in which:

-    Everyone knows everyone else’sname

-    There is no line managementand no name badges

-    The depth of commitment toeach other is strengthened

-    Social problems are minimised.


This principle, of keepingplants small, became the genesis for a theory known as Dunbar’s Number and wasoutlined by Malcolm Gladwell in his brilliant book The Tipping Point.Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, researched Goreas well as military units and Native American and Amish communities, afterwhich he proposed that around 150 is the maximum number of people that any oneindividual can maintain stable, cohesive and productive relationships with.


Dunbar’s theory emerged fromobserving what Bill Gore observed and knew instincitvely — that if you want toreally get big, you need to stay small. The influential architect and designtheorist Christopher Alexander explains that once you hit 150, “Something happens— something indefinable but very real — that somehow changes the nature ofcommunity overnight. If you get too large, you don't have enough work incommon. You don't have enough things in common, and then you start to becomestrangers and that close-knit fellowship starts to get lost.”


That fellowship, as we shall see in Part II, isabsolutely key to the world class ‘Gore way.’












[1] The exact number isdebated — some sources report it’s 150, others say 200. For the sake ofsimplicity, I’ll go with 150.

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