The Culture Cliche and Why Your Startup Needs Batman


If I've heard it once, I've heard it a million times from a hiring manager: "It's less important if the person has done this job before... It's more important that they are really smart and that they fit into the culture."  Too many CEOs think that their startup is a special snowflake that has a magical unicorn culture... A culture SO GOOD that it will magically take high performing grads from colleges with sexy names like Stanford and turn them into adults who can consistently complete discrete tasks and have a positive impact on the company's bottom line. 

NO, NO, That's not true.  That's not even in the same neighborhood as the truth.  And the reason is what I call the culture cliche.  Companies get funding and they go on a hiring spree and then they think they have to start providing free lattes and a meditation room for all of their new employees so that they have a good "culture".  But that is not culture any more than a walk through Epcot Center is the same as backpacking through Europe. It's the trappings of a happy work place without the actual basis of what makes employees happy and keeps them for a long time. 

Well, what does make employees happy and retain them?  Isn't it a great culture?  Think back to the beginning of your career.  Do you remember the first time you had a job that you loved?  The first time you were really engaged and happy in your work?  The moment you said "Aha... this is what I can do for the rest of my life,"  most likely did not happen at the company's organic cafe or after a difficult match at the fuze ball table.  No, it happened when you were presented with a project or challenge that was mostly within your area of expertise but just a little bit beyond it.  You had to work within what you knew, but just at the border of your ability.  And accomplishing those types of tasks will make your employees love their jobs and stay at your company for a long time. 

You should still be hiring based on skill set more than culture because employees who work successfully within their skill sets will create a positive culture.  Skill set is still king. No matter how much that cool recent MBA convinces you he is "just like the rest of the team-" you should still only hire based upon his skills and recent experience.  Chances are, you're not going to have a beer with everyone you work with, but you will spend a lot of time solving problems with them.  It's important to find the people whose talents are aligned with the problems you have to solve on a daily basis. 

Which brings me to Batman. I knew an entrepreneur who founded an app that was ultimately purchased by a large tech company.  He had hours and hours of code to write and needed to get a developer who really could complete this product in the shortest amount of time before the Angel round of funding ran out. There were tons of pretty cool young developers who would have loved the opportunity, but this CEO was smart.  He chose a super smart developer who was a little bit older and sort of...  different than your average person.  He had an almost childlike obsession with comic books.  I called him Batman. But his culture clash was actually a benefit to this startup because he and the tech founder were able to sit silently and code for hours without getting distracted by small talk.  The fact that Batman was a skill set match and a culture clash was actually a good thing as evidenced by the successful exit. 

So, as your friendly neighborhood head hunter, allow me to admonish you-- if you hire a company full of Batmans, you will automatically have an awesome culture because everyone will be thriving and successful. 

AND think of all the money you can save on lattes and office yoga classes.