A conversation with Rich White, founder & CEO of UserVoice about how he is building Company Culture at UserVoice
Hi, this is Rama, founder/ CEO of GoodRipple. GoodRipple helps you send fun positive vibes to your coworker anonymously on Slack and our other product, Avocado Culture helps you see how your Company Values are lived weekly, so you can build strong company culture in real-time (also on Slack). I had a fascinating conversation with Richard White, Founder & CEO of UserVoice and wanted to share some of things we talked about. I first met him at a Founders Network event called the Summit. I am a big fan of his nuanced thinking.
A scrappy start in Santa Cruz and a ‘work at-all-costs’ attitude
Rich was working on a calendaring solution as part of the early team at Kiko (first-ever batch of YC) and was finding that they were spending too much time to receive feedback from users and there was no good way to receive it at scale. UserVoice started in that context: Build Better Products with Intelligent Product Feedback. Rich told me about the frugal and cheap way of being in the early days. The cofounders rented a place to live together in Santa Cruz (which was much cheaper than the Bay Area to live in). The early days informed one of the values today: “Frugal Not Cheap”. Rich recalled how they would drive up the 280/101 (highways) often to the famed Sand Hill Rd to meet venture capitalists and one person would drive and the two others would be working and they would switch driver/passenger roles along the way to keep working. When it was time to move out of Santa Cruz, one cofounder said to Rich that he would miss the local bus commute because of the spectacular view of the coastline which was visible during the bus ride, Rich wondered what view as he had been literally heads down working during these bus rides!
The first few employees were people with families and that impacted the culture early on
As UserVoice added the first few employees to the team, a few of them had families and the working style had to change to allow those employees to contribute at work and be able to spend time with their families. The culture was one where you worked seriously heads down during the day and went home to be with family (and worked more flexibly within the hours of the day). The place may not have looked or felt as much fun as other startups some of which could easily be confused for an adult playground. In order to be super productive, UserVoice experimented with forced work from home days and no meeting days, to help everyone be more productive. This culture kind of just happened naturally given the context of the employees with families.
An intentional look at Culture: Company Values written on a wall led us to discover who we are
The first community manager at UserVoice also helped articulate the values of the company for the first time. There were 10 values that were written on the wall. The effect of having those values written was that people felt the values reflected them and the values were things they could rally around. However, in the process a schism in the company became clear — 80% of the company really liked the culture and 20% did not. One of reasons for the split was around what people wanted the company to be for them. 20% of the people wanted things like movie nights, happy hours, and the others did not really want that (likely because they had other preferences like spending time with family). It turns out that during the course of a few months, most of the people in the 20% group left the company.
A turning point for the founder/CEO: Rich realized that Company Culture is something he needed to own, not outsource (even internally)
Until that point, Rich had not seen company culture as a priority and did not own it. With the schism and its impact, Rich realized he could not outsource company culture even internally, and decided to take more ownership of culture and has been owning it ever since.
The process of articulating Company Values: A collaborative process with intention set by the leader
Rich talked me through how he went about articulating the culture, a few times over the lifetime of the company. He created 4 brainstorming groups of a few people with different compositions (group of people who had been at the company a long time, group of people who were newer to the company, group of women, group of people from the same office (SF and/or Raleigh), group from the executive team. Each group was asked to come up with 3–5 ideas for the Company Values. With all the ideas submitted, Rich mapped them together and reviewed them to find that only 10% did not really reflect UserVoice. He then created a ‘semi-final’ draft which he sent to the team for feedback. One value they had was ‘No Sacred Cows’ and one feedback was that this formulation could be taken as offensive by a group of people, and that caused that value to change to ‘Nothing Is Immutable’. The process was not always smooth. In the process of formulating the culture, there was a strong split within the executive team: One group wanted to have a very thoughtful approach to making decisions and another group thought they should make decisions faster. The process of intentionally creating the culture brought to the fore these two ways of thinking and allowed the executive team to explore them. A conversation ensued which resulted in the executive team realizing that both modes of operation were important — and this was captured by the value: Optimize For Outcomes Not Activity.
Company grows: Company Culture has to grow up!
One of the values of UserVoice used to be: ‘Have empathy, don’t be a d..k’. As UserVoice increasingly started serving larger enterprise clients, people realized that this value which while it may be well understood internally had the potential to communicate the wrong signal to clients. A better way to capture the idea was: ‘Do the Right Thing (Even if No One is Looking)’.
Once Company Values were re-articulated: People felt these things matter and this served as ‘Inoculation against Future Culture Creep’
Rich noticed how once the values were written on the wall, people felt that these things matter. These were stakes in the ground. They also served as inoculation against future culture creep. As the company was passing the 50-employee mark, it became important to set the foundation for what the growing organization was going to be like. The values were published on UserVoice’s website. People who are looking to join can get a sense for whether the organization would be a good fit for them. Internally, during monthly all-hands, kudos was given to people who lived the values. Some managers would work these values into the performance evaluation. During the hiring process, the values became part of looking for the right cultural fit. Once the values were on the wall, employees started to reference it a lot in their work conversations.
A company value whose meaning became perverted — Iterate on the value
There was one value was being referenced, but the intention behind the value had been perverted: ‘Have empathy, don’t be a d..k’ — was being used by people to say that they felt other people were being a ‘d..k’ when these other people were simply debating ideas. This led to iteration of the values to include: ‘Don’t Beat Around the Bush’. Rich mentioned that UserVoice has had a few articulation of company values over the years — 2008, 2011, 2014/15 and plans to iterate again in 6 months from now. One question he asks in that context is: Do we feel we did not live this one?
Rich’s tips to other company leaders about culture — Own Company Culture earlier!
In his own journey, he wished he would have done the exercise of figuring out and writing down the Company Values much earlier. The founder has to own company culture. He found that the team feel they are on a mission with clear company values. People love them for recruiting — as it makes it easier to talk about the company and who UserVoice is. Rich said not to make the company values too aspirational. His rule of thumb is 80% is who you are now, and 20% is aspirational. I asked Rich, which value was aspirational for UserVoice and how did this value play out once it was articulated. He said: ‘Win Together; (Fail) Learn Together’ was aspirational and this helped the team get out of the ‘silently failing mode’ where teams were not asking for help. The aspirational value helped bring attention to how teams from different offices were not asking each other for help and were silently failing. With the value came the impetus and the right framing to fix the problem with the CEO involvement, which helped the teams get better together as a result.
Who were people or what ideas influenced Rich in the context of his journey as a builder of an organization?
Several years ago, Rich had come across the work of Joel Polsky, who did Fogbugz, Fog Creek Software, Stack Overflow, Trello. Joel had strong opinions about what a good working environment for engineers was and went against the flow. He was a contrarian (not just for the sake of being different). When everyone was having open plan offices, he thought that people wanted their own offices. 37 signals (now Basecamp) did this too. The standard Silicon Valley model was to have unlimited vacation and open collaboration. 37 signals thought normal working hours was a good thing (40 max hours/week and enforced 32 max hours/week for 6 months of the year). Rich says these influences gave him permission to think outside the box.
UserVoice Company Values as at December 2017: