Why One Of My Startup’s Key 2020 Business Objectives is Culture

My first real job was at a startup called Abebooks.com, now owned by Amazon. It was a company that got culture right, and cemented some of my closest long-term friendships.

We had various events that we enjoyed together. One particular event we did every year was a golf-cue. The entire company would take part in it, regardless of golfing ability. The year my brother and I lived in a large home we jokingly referred to as “the mansion,” we offered to host the post-golf BBQ at our place. I remember spending my weekend time picking up the keg and helping to set up the BBQ. At the end of the evening, there was a pick-up jam session in our basement that filled the house with music. When I reflect back on this day, I was happy to organize and host the party. We even felt proud to host the company event in our home. Everyone just loved being together.

How did this happen? Why did I feel so connected with the company I worked for and its people? Even on days when I was frustrated with a work problem, why did I see that as a challenge to overcome, with a happy goal of propelling the business forward?

I made some of my closest friends while working at Abebooks and this did not happen by accident. I’m able to see now these friendships were created because of the challenges, fun, and responsibility I was given in my role.

abebooks cookoff 2001
The marketing team, in the 2001, Abebooks cook off

So why is culture important, as opposed to something we just give “lip service” to?

It’s all about people. It’s about creating unique connections. It’s about being a part of something you care about and caring about those people around you.

The Dark Side of Culture

As much as I’ve seen the bright side of workplace culture, I’ve also been on the dark side of it. I spent three years working for a government organization that had long-since lost its lustre. And while I was given responsibility and my team were amazing people to work with, a lot of people in the wider organization just didn’t seem to care. I remember going to a meeting with a handful of personal assistants to organize when we could have the meeting to kick of a project. I felt like I was in an episode of The Office.

This type of signalling happened over and over. Slowly my work output declined. I became a clock-watcher. Until one day my husband told me I needed to get out. He was not wrong. I was in a work-rut. I felt stale. I felt despondent. I had become one of those people — I didn’t really care that much.

I thankfully jumped off into a consulting career with my husband which created the space to create our first start-up. I’d forgotten how much I cared about doing meaningful work that mattered. That was scary to realize.

Why I Have My Own Company

Yesterday I had a rough start to the morning that included tears before 10am. Never a good sign. When I came into the office my teammates smiled and we had some morning banter and the low cloud hanging around my shoulders dissolved. My day was dusted off and put back onto its feet. That’s the power of people and connection. This human experience matters. It’s why I run my own company. I get to choose who I work alongside every day.

My AE Team

Culture isn’t the free snacks, beer Fridays and foosball, (although those are nice). It’s realizing we are all people and we are all connected in so many ways beyond our work. We have challenges with family members, times when your car or bike breaks down and it throws your days plans into disarray, find no coffee in the house!, feel angry and sad because even your national sport isn’t immune to bullying and racism, that time you run out of compost bags the day you’re having friends over for food, missing a bill payment because you couldn’t find it in your giant stack of disorganized papers, struggling with eco-grief after watching Life with David Attenborough…and on the list goes.

Before we come into the office we have lives and when we leave after the work day we go back into those lives. And while that life can feel like bookends to our work days, that “stuff” is actually who we are. That is the substance of our lives and a huge part of our identities and how we’re connected. Just because it happens outside our work days doesn’t mean it’s stays on the outside.

Our Year of Culture

2020 is the year our team is focusing on culture. In fact, one for our four measurable business goals (or OKRs) is Live and Grow our Culture. Woah. I know a few people reading this are thinking, hang on, that’s one of your four key goals for the YEAR? How the hell are you going to be successful? I believe that any business can be successful for short bursts. You can have a shit culture and be profitable and successful, but it won’t stay like that for long.

There are three key reasons why culture is a critical OKR and huge focus for us:

1 – Hiring is Hard

Hiring is hard, especially in Victoria, BC. Our tech sector is growing rapidly and the demand is far outstripping the supply. I want our company to stand out and stand for something. I want the people who join our team to understand that culture is critical and they want to add to ours and connect.

2 – Finding our Partner Investors

We’re gearing up for our first round of North American funding and I’m looking for the right investors. Having spoken to a lot of investors over the last ten years, there are a handful of investors I’ve connected with over the power of culture. Those are the investors I want to partner with. Purpose, pleasure and success is a combination that’s sustainable. I consider our business culture goal to be a sneaky way I can weed out the investor wheat from the chaff.

3 – Live our Culture

As our team scales in 2020, it’s important to each one of my AE’ers that we grow and retain our culture. Retaining our great culture as we grow was something everyone brought up in our recent annual strategy planning. When you hear this message from all of your team members, there isn’t anything more satisfying. You know you’ve hired the right people.

live our culture ae's 2020 business objective

I’m looking forward to sharing more of our culture journey in 2020. It’s a huge focus for me in my ops role to dive into culture, its code, its roots and how you grow it. I’d love to hear what’s worked for you and whether you’ve set a culture goal in your business.

***This article originally ran on Medium. Follow Annabel here.

Annabel Youens

About Annabel Youens

I'm a co-founder and CMO at AE. I believe that truly successful internet businesses have to connect people. {wave} When I'm not online I'm exploring beautiful Vancouver Island. Things I love: everything scifi, literary fiction, coffee, Google Music, my workhorse sewing machine and board games.