Preparing for the TechStars pressure cooker by investing in culture.
9/10 startups do not have a clearly defined culture, yet AssetVault decided to work on their culture almost from day one.
An interview with Vishnu Teja, CEO of AssetVault
It's not enough to come up with a list of values and expect your people to fall into line and behave appropriately. The more sceptical members of your team will wonder whether this whole values and culture thing is just management speak and if you and your management team are really committed to living the company’s values every day. Your team are continually watching and judging whether the company's leadership believes in and is committed to living the values.
It's your job as CEO to develop and promote values focused communication habits and routines amongst your leadership team. Starting each internal presentation or meeting by listing the values demonstrates to your team how important they are to the company. Publicly recognising and rewarding the person who demonstrates they are living them embeds the values further into the team. Asking new-joiners (as Rob O'Donovan does) to do a presentation to the team on what the values mean to them has the added effect of embedding the values into the new joiner while repeating them to the team. Frequency and repetition will keep the values front and centre in the minds of your team and there is no such thing as too much communication when it comes to embedding and reinforcing the values of your company.
If you are able to "habitaulise" values communication into your business, you will go a significant way towards ensuring collective responsibility of communicating and demonstrating the importance of living the values. In this way you and your managers are continually communicating the importance of living the values to the team. Every face-to-face meeting, stand-up, town hall, team huddle or presentation is an opportunity to embed the values deeper into the company.
Vishnu Teja is the CEO and co-founder of AssetVault a secure digital service where customers can catalogue, protect and unlock the value of their physical and digital assets. Vishnu and his co-founder Farid are great examples of how to live and communicate the company's values at all times. I met Vishnu at the TechStars demo day in September and was pleasantly surprised to find out that he and Farid had already started to invest the time to define the company’s values. From my research to date most company founders do not start thinking about defining their culture as they start the business. So, I was interested to understand more about what Vishnu and Farid had done to define their culture, why and how they had done it.
When did you start exploring AssetVault’s culture and values?
Farid, my co-founder and I, sat down before we joined the TechStars program and discussed our commonalities, why we enjoy working together, and what we expect from one another – basically we discussed what makes us tick and what matters most to us. This discussion was an early exploration of our values and we did this as a critical foundation building block, as we knew we were about to enter a high-pressure environment and would need to understand more about the glue that binds us.
I read up on what the previous TechStars CEOs had said about the program and spoke to several alum about the process. TechStars really tests your hypotheses, business model and team intensely. You need to go into the program with your mind open to being pushed and pulled in many directions. As founders we were OK with that and mentally prepared for that type of environment, but we were concerned about our small newly formed team who would attend the program with us. Everyone looks for certainty in life, even in an early stage start-up and looking at it from our team’s point of view they were not necessarily prepared for the stress testing and pressure cooker environment.
So we decided to define our values together with the team in order to strengthen the bonds and prepare for the TechStars experience. We started with one of Bain & Co’s (my alma mater) traits that a Bainie never lets another Bainie down. We were going to take a similar approach at TechStars and really support one another all the time. In addition, we would also go one step further. We would actively motivate each other and refer to the strengths of our team members in meetings with mentors or potential partners or clients. The team would get together (we still do this today) before any meeting and Farid would lead a short session where we reminded one another about what we came together to achieve at TechStars, the respect we have for one another and the fact that we could achieve whatever we wanted to achieve in the upcoming meeting. This reinforced the bonds amongst the team and gave everyone a solid foundation to work from in the meeting. During the prep meeting we would make sure that the team was fully briefed with all the information so that any one of us could look like a rock star.
What specific values did you define?
We are at the beginning of our journey and have a very small team, so we decided to focus on three values. They may change or have to adapt as the business progresses, but we see this as a good start for us.
1. Mistakes are not a bad thing
We want our team to take ownership for their actions and at the same time realize that its OK to make mistakes as long as we reflect and learn from those mistakes. This is our way of setting the safety structure for the team to try and do something different and bring new ideas that can change the status quo. We realised early on in the TechStars program that we would probably make mistakes with some of our mentor, partner and client conversations. We knew that we would be drinking from a fire hose and would not get the perfect tens that we were used to it school. Therefore, we decided to create a process where after each task we would reflect and learn, and then purpose that learning better for the next discussion.
2. No hierarchy
Hierarchy brings unnecessary power dynamics into a business and a start-up doesn’t need this complication, so we decided that there would be no hierarchy.
We celebrate diversity. Diversity is important to us, not only as a point of social good, but also more specifically as a material benefit to the company. With different views and perspectives, we have the chance to understand the way the customer behaves better. Incidentally, I studied the economic importance of diversity even in the world of investing.
How do you embed and reinforce the values into the team?
Every Friday we look back over the week that’s passed and decide amongst the team who has been the rock star for that week. Who has lived the values and achieved the most that week. We give the rock star a small reward that they carry with them that week and then hand over to the winner the following week. We are still working on figuring out what the best methods are here.
What other tools or exercises do you use with the team?
We have regular open communications with the team where we give everyone the opportunity to talk about anything that’s on their minds. Everyone can ask questions or say exactly how they feel if they have any issues or concerns. TechStars is a challenging environment and this has created a very open and honest communication style in the company, where everyone can express their joys and also vent their frustrations. Again, no hierarchy mindset helps in fostering these kind of open communications.
For fun, we take the team out to Karaoke in Islington (Farid loves his 90s songs; I am more the Bollywood type), mini-golf in the park and we also hold regular team lunches.