What should come first: company values or the product?

“Let’s make an automated farm!” – Bohdan said expressively. We were sitting in a small Cuban restaurant, discussing the next product we should build while chewing burritos and drinking non-alcoholic mojitos.

Our story started 5 years earlier. It was February. Too mild for Kiev, Ukraine. I was sitting in a cheap coffee shop with a guy I just met in person, discussing big ideas and how they would change the world.

I was still a sophomore student and knew very little about marketing, or design, or business. Bohdan, a guy in front of me, was a talented developer, who recently dropped out of college, but was as well oblivious of the complexity of bringing products to the market.

“Think of it as an anonymous layer of the Internet, an anonymous social network for local communities”, I caught my muse. That was a moment gossipteller, our first company together, was born.

It turned out to be a flop, buried by the weight of all the unsolicited content shared on the platform, a Secret of the pre-Secret era.

After that quick failure, we created Loum. A social service that connected you to information and people in all your communities, as big as campuses or neighborhoods and as small as dorms or co-working spaces. It was about bringing people closer to each other, giving them a sense of community and belonging.

Loum was different. It was not a quick hack or a summer project. We had put our sweat and blood into it. Made a lot of sacrifices. Invested all of our money, forgot about sleep, moved 6,119 miles from Kiev to San Francisco. And made, perhaps, every possible mistake listed in some “1 000 000 ways startups can fuck up” playbook.

We never validated the idea. We worked for far too long without actually launching. When the product engagement stumbled we were drawn to adding more features, instead of making the core ones really useful.

Finally after two years of work, with all the passion for the problem burnt to ashes and with less than a thousand bucks left in our bank account, we decided to shut it down and take a little break from founding something new.

Finding new inspirations

Some time ago I visited an observatory. My guide, a 70-year old astronomer with big grey mustaches and dark blue veins on his hands, told me a phrase that struck me.

Explaining his work, he said, “We are categorizing far away galaxies and I know that this work won’t be of a real use to people nowadays. But I have a hope that in hundreds and thousands of years when the next generations of humans will fly off to those galaxies, they will need a map, they will need to know more about those objects. And they will thank us, unnamed, but not forgotten.”

What a humble, but powerful way of thinking! Such a long-term dedication to do what you love doing for the reason that you simply love it and, you hope, that it will help people.

Running for a quick success, many entrepreneurs (myself included) forget why they build new things.

The “why” can be found in the fact that there is a pain and you have an underlying need to solve it. That you are not willing to do things the way others do and have always done. That you have a desire, for fuck’s sake, to make the world a better place.

So when we found ourselves in that Cuban restaurant, we started thinking why we wanted to build a new company. Not what we wanted to build. But why. And how we wanted to do it.

Why and how are probably the most simplistic way of describing what company culture truly means. Which, in its essence is determined by core values – basically, what you believe in, as a company.

Reflecting on the Loum days, we have never designed any values (what a surprise from the guys whose first company was called gossipteller).

But founders impact their company’s culture, even if they don’t realize it. And in order to set the culture that inspires and engages people in the team, values should be defined as early as possible.

They can bring the change to the way the company operates on so many levels.

Make all decision-making easier and unified

Facebook values
Back at Loum, we didn’t miss some shiny phrases on the office wall. What we lacked was a proper framework for making decisions.
Of course, we had an understanding of what was right and what was wrong. The problem was that our decisions were governed by ever-changing outside factors, rather than something stable within the company.

It’s much easier to make a hard decision if you have a handbook to eliminate arbitrary judgment.

Values, if set right, can become guiding principles for everyone on the team to make everyday decisions.

Move your business forward in the right direction

Values are the company compass
Every business should have a True North – its unchanging true point on the compass, a direction it’s heading. This is the reason why mission and vision should be an integral part of any organization.

But as with any physical destination, you need a map to get there. Company values are the embodiment of such a map. A reference to check if this is the right turn.

Build your brand

Values help build the company brand
Proper values help the company tell its story. They show its uniqueness. They influence how customers perceive the company.

Some organizations mastered it so well, that just hearing certain words reminds you of their brand. From Volvo, coming to mind first when you think of a “safe car”, to Zappos – when you think of exceptional customer service.

They also attract people with similar values to become company’s customers, team members, investors, advisors and evangelists.

Shape your team

Hiring right people
Values determine company’s (read, every team member’s) view of the world and the way it treats people inside and outside the company.

Your team should live and breath those values. When people’s personal values and their company values are in alignment, they are happier in their personal lives and are more positive about professional ones. It is empowering to be a part of a company that is an expression of your own beliefs.

This is another reason why values should be determined as early as possible – to be the guiding principle for making hiring decisions later on. Not passing on a great hire if they are not a good culture fit might later lead to fractured decision making, frustration and clumsy processes.

Designing great company values

In order for values to be used and become an integral part of your team’s workflow, there shouldn’t be too many of them and they need to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. So, do whatever is necessary to remember and be constantly reminded of them (including, putting them on your wall).

It’s also important for your values to be unconventional or controversial. Generic ones, although safe and easy to adhere, won’t create a strong, unique culture.

Just writing down a list of values, though helpful, doesn’t actually do anything. Core values should be adopted and infused throughout the company, at all levels, from hiring and day-to-day workflow to customer service and internal communications.

Creating values is, perhaps, the smallest thing any founder can do, that could have the biggest impact on the company’s future success.

Choose them to show your company’s personality but remember to actually spread them and make them a part of a decision making process, from hiring to prioritizing a product roadmap. With great values in place, it would be so much easier to form an amazing culture, that will result in better processes, engagement and overall outcomes.

Our values

List of company values
Back in that Cuban restaurant we never decided whether we wanted to build an automated farm, a marketing management software, a scientific publishing platform, or any of tens of other ideas that were flowing around that night. But we understood why and how we wanted to build a new company. And we backed that understanding into each of our values.

Only recently we finalized what we wanted to build. Forming the essence of the company culture long before the product didn’t save us from mistakes. Well, it can’t. But it was a guiding light that helped us while searching for the problem that excited us. It made us stronger as a company and individuals, and I think it will do the same for you.