Value or vibe, what is a startup culture and what does it take to build one?

By Dennis Clemente

A pingpong table does not a startup culture make, as six distinguished panelists can attest to at the meetup, “How to build a startup culture” last September 17 at the Orrick offices at CBS building.

The panelists were Dane Atkinson, CEO, SumAll; Wiley Cerilli, former CEO of SinglePlatform, Current VP of Constant Contact; Mark Peter Davis, managing partner, Interplay Ventures; Allyson Downey, co-founder & CEO, weeSpringZain Jaffer, CEO, Vungle; and Joaquin Roca, consultant & COO, Venwise.

How do you build the culture you want throughout the life of your company?

For Roa, it’s about “knowing your culture is connected to your business strategy and how you must all be together in knowing how to win your market.” He insisted on having “core values that rarely change” right from the start. For Downey, an ideal startup culture is about having “some radical transparency.”

Cerilli, who probably has more staff than all the panelists with more than 120, agrees. “Hire people brutally honest with you and have a no-a–hole policy.”

Creating and preserving your startup culture requires some honest assessments. Cerilli likes to give leeway when it comes to off-hours camaraderie.

“As you get bigger, not everyone likes going out for drinks. People have different ways of celebrating,” he said, in response to how some startups think: “You must work together if you look at someone and think you can drink with him.”

As for how people choose a startup culture, Jaffer, who has about 40 staffers, responded to how people sense it, intuitively. “Culture is about unspoken things.”

When it comes to hiring people, Cerilli said he doesn’t do interviews anymore but at one point in time, he said a person who often said “I” instead of “we” and those who mentioned their previous bosses (in an unflattering light most likely) are big no-nos.

For Davis, it’s crucial that he gets people who think in terms of being a partner than just an employee. “If you feel you can’t deliver bad news, that’s a boss-employee relationship, not a boss-partner relationship.”

In terms of talent, Jaffer said he likes “hiring people smarter than me” whereas Atkinson puts a high premium on “trust” and, borrowing from Cerilli’s management style, having a push-up drop-down policy for those who think they’re getting “pudgy.”

“We ask if a someone had a bad day for three successive days,” Atkinson said. This way they can respond accordingly and do their best to help.

For Roa, diversity is the most important thing. “Ask yourself what you are missing in your team, because oftentimes we like people who like us. And if we’re white and we only have white men, that’s not good. A diverse team sees things wholistically.”

In Downey’s case where she and her husband are co-founders, they try to be honest about what the other half can’t do—and that includes knowing how to balance work-life balance and a virtual workforce. “If you can’t do (the latter), you’re doing it wrong.”

But how do they communicate culture? For Davis, he likes to “drop the F bomb” and see how his interviewee reacts. “It’s all about show and tell.”

Jaffer went for a more measured approach. “We do anonymous surveys,” especially for those exiting the company, because they’re more honest. Cerilli likes how people communicate Wow moments on a wall at his company’s office.

But how do they handle a problematic employee?

Davis said you don’t want to be last person to find out if there’s a problematic employee, because it can affect your bottom line. He said he has given someone another change, but when things didn’t change, he went by “addition by subtraction,” as he noticed the company and staff became more productive. “We just had to let this person go.”

Jaffer likes to ask himself, “I ask “Is it my fault? Did I give this person an opportunity to succeed. If we didn’t, everybody is accountable. You have to give this person a chance.”

The meetup was hosted by David Concannon, a partner at Orrick.

Startups and founders talk tech in Queens

By Dennis Clemente

The Queens Tech Meetup in Long Island City is quite a trek from Chelsea’s Silicon Alley, but you can trust techies to go where location has always been relative.

Last February 21, five founders brought their amazing stories to Queens: Wiley Cerilli, he of the famed SinglePlatform (http://singleplatform.com/) until he sold his company to Constant Constant for a deal reportedly worth $100 million; Adam Sanders of Backspaces (http://backspac.es/); Peter Pelberg of Yog (http://getyog.com/) and Stefanos Missailidis of Fiestah (http://www.fiestah.com/).

queenstech

Where the other founders focused on talking about their products, Cerilli talked more about his interesting journey. He dropped out of New York University to set up his online business, “faked” some functions in his site, and even promised more than he could deliver to a huge potential client but did deliver anyway (probably inspired by how Bill Gates did it with IBM back in the days).

SinglePlatform by Constant Contact helps you manage and publish your business or restaurant information and content in one place, and reach millions.

Cerilli lives by the quote he showed in his slide about adapting, “The winner between the alligator and the bear is determined by the terrain.”

Cerilli is now a Vice President at Constant Contact, and he sits on the Constant Contact Executive team. He was once named one of the Top 25 CEOs in New York and Top 100 Most Influential People in New York.
Backspaces’ Adam Sanders showed his iPhone app, showing how it works to create and share stories with friends. He showed how by using the event to tell his story at http://www.backspac.es/r/YVZdEHn6QO

The app only allows you to create storing using words and pictures, not videos, as he and his two other co-founders prefer to keep it simple and fun. Why no videos? “We all love videos, but it’s really hard from a mobile and bandwidth perspective,” he says.

How have they done so far? “We prototyped it in May last year, launched it in August. We’re growing 1,000% a day,” he adds.

He demonstrates the app with stories that moved him, especially one that came as far as Indonesia. The app allows you to share your stories with a simple web link; discover other stories and follow your favorite storytellers.

yog

Pelberg’s Yog is also an iPhone app. This one connects you with runners around the world so “you’ll never have to jog alone again.”

“You run with anyone, anywhere in the world, in real-time,” he says of the social running app he worked on at night after work.

How do you invite friends to a run? SMS, email, Twitter or Facebook will do it and you can run with as many as 20 people.To use it, you need to Create a Run by selecting the distance, date, time, music and other people you’d like to invite to go running. Then join a run created by another runner on Yog.

Missailidis of Fiestah presented his event management website, just a month after a co-founder presented it also in another tech meetup in Chinatown. Being only a year-old, it’s normal for these startups to make the rounds to promote their businesses.

Fiestah helps you plan your event by taking the hassle out of finding, contacting, and managing multiple vendors. Right now, he says they have 250 vendors, most of them in the food business.
To avoid rate haggles or price wars, Missalidis says the site does not indicate the price or rate of the vendor to other vendors. “Only you as the event planner can see the different rates of the vendors.”

He monetizes the site by taking a 10% cut from vendors.

Queens Tech Meetup had a surprise guest. Eric Abrams from the Queens Chamber of Commerce came to announce a $30,000 prize for developers to come up with an idea and website/app to promote Queens to the world. Deadline is second week of March. For more information, call him at 718-898-8500 or email him at eabrams@queenschamber.org

Photos courtesy of Queens Tech