Building a company culture: Lessons learned during 2 years

Building a company culture: Lessons learned during 2 years
Photo by Vlad Hilitanu / Unsplash

I wrote about my latest journey two years ago: starting a new company called Not Bad Security. I was fresh out of Microsoft and had an existing business. Still, I also wanted to focus on building a viable and self-funded company that focuses on defending companies against cybersecurity threats. We're taking steps forward each day, and it's simply a joy to work on the plans with the great team we've assembled.

Post-pandemic, I guess we've all slowly realized that IT work, as it was in the past, won't return. Possibly ever. I've come to terms with this, and I think I've found a model that suits me and my team well. Therefore, we don't have a fixed office space, either. We did contemplate that, but as the team is entirely distributed throughout Finland, it didn't make financial or logistical sense to invest in the effort.

What's company culture, anyway?

I have many worries when building a business. A few, and perhaps the major ones, revolve around team building, the company culture, and 'attitude,' as well as avoiding excessive internal meetings. I feel most effort and focus should be outward, toward customers and their problems - without forgetting what happens within the company.

I fall asleep when businesses start droning on about missions and values - far too often, these are just lip service on something that someone felt sounds important and great.

A few years ago, I read somewhere - sorry, I forgot where - that a company culture is how you do what you do at work. That resonates with me. And then, John Wick 4, the movie, arrived where the antagonist - Marquis de Gramont - says, "How you do anything is how you do everything." It's a bit cliché, perhaps, but it underlines that you have to understand what you do when and why you do it at work.

For me, company culture perhaps surfaces the best in how the team orchestrates work, thinking, and effort when skin is in the game.

Figuring out the basics of our company culture

From the get-go, two years ago, we set out the following parameters for our work - and I knew these would provide the seeds for our company culture:

  1. All work is asynchronous by default. Don't expect a reply in 5 minutes if you send an email. If it's urgent, pick up the phone or Teams and call. Teams is usually quite lively throughout the day if it's less critical.
  2. Everyone works remotely and aims to be roughly in the same time zone most of the time. Work wherever it best suits you. Traveling? There is no need to apply for anything; ensure a good connection wherever you go.
  3. Microsoft Teams is the central tool, and everything aligns there. WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Facebook Messenger, etc., are never used for work. Everything is secured and pretty locked down, so if you need access to TikTok, get a different device. Memes can and should be shared within chats!
  4. Everyone has the obligation and the right to share anything out loud without fear of repercussions. Everyone is also responsible for what they do and say. If I mess up, I urge my colleagues to let me know. When working remotely, it's harder to sense if things are wrong.
  5. Anyone can escalate topics to the leadership team 24/7. Need to call me, the CEO, at 5.30 in the morning? Go ahead. My phone might be muted, but if it's urgent, contact me again, and I'll wake up and get on it.
  6. Everyone takes ownership. If you work on a project, and there's an issue with something, you're the owner, and it's up to you to manage it - even if someone else has the subject matter skills. Hook them in and work with them to get it resolved. Own it.
  7. Work should be fun, and it's also our job to make it the best job in the world. Let's make it happen - do it yourself, don't wait for someone else to fix it for us. Let's wine and dine and do stuff together frequently. For us, that's around every 4-6 weeks.
  8. We treat each other fairly. We reasonably demand stellar skills and capability. Nobody works overtime unless they choose to. Nobody expects you to know everything, but if you're the expert on topic X, everyone in the team - and the customers - expect you to be on top of your game.
  9. If something is broken, let's fix it. Suggest a solution, and unless anyone else comes up with a better one, let's roll with the first viable one.
  10. Speak up! Don't stress about something alone at your home office for days. If you're stuck, use Teams liberally - that's why it's there, and you have the whole company + sibling companies people at your disposal.

Okay, conveniently, that's about ten things we listed, which probably isn't all. These are not rules. They are cultural habits that we all live and breathe when working - and we liberally share this thinking with newcomers who join our team.

Do I memorize these all and recite them during our weekly catch-up call? No. I live by these and aim to set an example. I do my best to lead by example, and above all, I am brutally honest and open about everything.

How does it work for us, then?

We're still a small company but growing at a respectable pace. Hiring new people has its usual challenges - especially in finding a good fit and communicating our way of working honestly and directly to someone considering joining us.

I usually state super early in the discussions with a potential hire that, for real - we all work remotely. We have an office space we can utilize in the city's heart, but nobody will be there. Ever. That's not how we want to spend our days - commuting back and forth to an office and then locking ourselves in a tiny booth for numerous customer calls. I would rather have those calls from home, perhaps using a Bluetooth headset and folding laundry simultaneously or just staring out the window on my sofa.

Are there challenges? Of course. We get by with point-to-point communications on many topics and only have one weekly catch-up meeting. It's not mandatory, but we urge people to make the 30 minutes per week to join and to catch up. If you can't make it, it's fine. Nobody will even ask you about it. Over time, we might require a bit more rigid structures, but that time is not now or soon.

Each day, I'm energized to get to work. Most days, I check up on messages and Teams in general around 6.45 in the morning while waiting for my Espresso machine to warm up. There's usually a good morning meme or an interesting link someone shared. I do my own bit of work with customers and keep myself available via Teams each day. Often, there's a need for a quick call or a time-critical query on something, and I return those messages perhaps with a quick phone call instead.

Sometimes, I call my co-founders at 9 in the evening to see if they might be around or if we have something urgent to discuss. The expectation is not that you have to be around at 9 in the evening if Jussi calls. I'd never call any of my employees after 4.30 in the afternoon, but people I've known for years who are friends and colleagues at the same time, I know I can call. And the fluidity of switching away from work for stuff with kids and family and resuming work just briefly to get something chugging along is great. It's not a 9-to-5 job in that sense that experienced architects and security professionals tend to think about these things 24/7. I do, at least.

In closing

I dislike it when someone tries to innovate "the" framework for running a successful business. Perhaps those exist, but far too often, they seem like snake oil to me.

Pure focus, vast experience, and true commitment to customer problems while having fun - I feel that's the essence of a successful company, and that sets you on your path to building a great company culture.