New gig? Play company archaeologist and anthropologist

When starting a new job, there is a reasonable instinct to copy-and-paste your old ways of working into your new setting. You were, after all, very likely hired to do some version of that. However, this approach will ~always lead to some degree of organ rejection for you and/or for the company. Remember, your day 1 is not the company’s day 1. The more you can do to deeply familiarize yourself with the company and its culture (the context you are now working in), the sooner you will be effective and the better you will feel. So, how to get up to speed on culture quickly? Playing company archaeologist and anthropologist. (Buried the lede in the title, I know).

I recently heard Radhika Jones, the relatively new Editor-In-Chief of Vanity Fair, talk about her process preparing to lead the magazine. She knew she needed to first cultivate a deep, almost visceral, familiarization with the voice, values, and evolution of the magazine. So, she turned to the archives. I recommend doing the same when starting at a company (playing archaeologist). And from there, building a foundation of an, as objective-as-possible, evaluation of the current state (playing anthropologist).

Here’s a checklist oof what I would recommend you read, research, and who to talk to as you ramp up. There’s a lot here. Do all, do some, but don’t do none.

Internal company artifacts

  • Company mission statement
  • Company operating principles or operating mottos
    • Ex: Facebook’s “move fast and break things” or Amazon’s “disagree and commit”
  • P&L (profit and loss statement), if you can get your hands on it.
    • The P&L is a financial document that summarizes the revenue, costs, and expenses of a company over a given time period. It reveals a lot about a business, its health, and its priorities, and plans.
    • If you’re struggling to make sense of it, ask someone to walk you through. It’s worth it!
  • Company plans (short-term and long-term): what does the company plan on doing/shipping over time?
  • Company-wide gatherings: what does the entire company convene about? How often?
  • Internal wiki, if there is one; what is presented front-and-center there?
  • Company-wide emails/chats
  • Pro tip: if your company uses gmail, chances are there is a Google Group for addressing the whole company that may have archives you can scan through.
  • (if you would consider your company “engineering-led”) Engineering-wide emails
  • Recordings/notes from company All Hands meetings (from as far back as you can go)
  • Sales decks to aspirational customers *and* the average customer
  • Board decks, if they are accessible
  • Team/organization philosophies; for example, what is the marketing team’s charter? Infrastructure engineering team?
    • Any performance evaluation documentation (sometimes framed as ladders/levels)
    • People management philosophies (even if you are an individual contributor); how does your company want to develop people?
    • Sales; what does your company believe makes customers what to use your service or product? Who do they want to use the product?
    • Comms/PR; what does the company want others to know about it?
    • Brand marketing; what values does your company want to be known for? What artifacts have they put out into the world to show (not tell) those values?
    • Events; what does the ideal gathering of company and user look and feel like?
    • Recruiting; who is your company excited to make part of your team? Who will be building the future of the company?
    • Workplace/facilities; how does your company want you to feel in its physical space?

External artifacts

  • Major media pieces/writeups
    • Funding announcements are particularly helpful
  • Company home/about page (this sounds obvious, but read every word carefully. The stuff that goes on here was likely pored over by many people at the company, especially the company leaders)
  • Company jobs page, homepage and specific job descriptions. What companies look for when they hire, and how they talk about themselves to potential candidates, says a lot about company culture.
  • Company Blog; what flavors of topics show up?
  • Company Twitter account; what is the tone? Who likes/retweets posts?
  • Other company-sponsored social profiles? YouTube? Instagram?
  • Take particular note of how people describe the company publicly
    • For example, Stripe cares a lot about describing themselves as “financial infrastructure” versus an “online payments company”
  • What watering holes do customers hang out in? Slack groups? Twitter? HackerNews? Events/meetups? Spectrum? Lurk in for a bit!
  • Blogs, Twitter or other social media accounts, of employees

Leader artifacts

Company leaders set the direction for the company. Understanding who they are and what they care about (within the context of the company or otherwise) helps! For bonus research, apply the same for board members, key investors, prominent advisors, and particularly loud champions/critics.

  • Read/watch as many interviews, presentations, blog posts, etc. as you can find (first person accounts are 10x more valuable than anything someone wrote about them)
  • Emails addressing the company (this will help you get a sense of their different personality and communication styles and what they focus on)
    • You might be able to search company email and chat history for messages coming from the leaders
  • Recordings/notes from their All Hands presentations
  • Calendar lurking if you can; what meetings are your leaders attending and who are they meeting with (internal and external)? (This is a good proxy for what they believe their priorities and preferences are.)
  • Personal websites
  • Twitter accounts; what are their interests outside of the company?
  • LinkedIn; where were your leaders and what were they doing before joining your company?

Company Lore

Founding stories that have defined the culture (explicitly and implicitly). You can usually get to these stories by simply asking people. Like all lore passed down through telling and re-telling, the story is a living and breathing thing. Get a few versions of the story before you form your own.

  • The founding story (and, how your founders know each other)
  • Naming of the company
  • How did the mission statement become the mission statement?
  • Meanings of any operating principles
    • Examples of when they were optimally expressed and not
  • Origin story of any frequently cited mottos, quirky phrases or terminology, company traditions or rituals, and/or go-to artifacts (ex- company mascot, posters)
  • Historical ‘big bets’ (failures and successes)
  • Favorite customer and why
  • Why an important customer churned
  • Story behind particular artifacts in the office

Metrics to know

Above all else, start with the business model. Specifically, you should be able to answer; how does your company make money? All stats will flow out of this. Train yourself to keep up with these numbers and recite them with relative ease on an ongoing basis. At high-growth companies, these numbers will change a lot but do your best to stay on top of them.

  • Number of customers (likely “active” customers by some definition)
  • Revenue (monthly, annual run rate)
  • Customer and geographic distribution of customer count and revenue
  • Year-over-year performance of customer count and revenue
  • Customer retention; once customers start using the product/service, do they keep using it?
  • Lifetime value (LTV) of a customer; on average, how much value ($$) does a single customer
    • Is LTV concentrated in any particular type of customer?
  • Profit
    • And, if not yet profitable, why and timeline to profitability
  • Valuation
    • Note: this is kind of a vanity number, but is an important indicator of how investors see the company, it’s movement over time will also be an indicator of the health of the business. Investors are typically very smart and rigorous, so it can be helpful in many cases to key off them.
  • Gut check and ears out: are there any other metrics that come up a lot? (emails, company meetings, CEO-cited, etc.)

People to talk to

  • Your manager! (Foremost importance)
  • If possible, your manager’s manager.
  • Employees you have a hunch might be culture carriers
    • Tips that someone is a culture carrier: their name comes up in many different contexts as someone you should “get input from,” they often present in company meetings, they are meeting with company leaders sporadically
  • Employees that seem to be really good at their jobs
  • Employees that were doing pieces of your job or a job like yours before you got to the company
  • If you can, 1-2 company leaders and/or 1-2 people that have worked closely for or with them in the past (even many layers below is okay!)
  • At least 1-2 people that do customer support (they’re closest to the customer and will have excellent instincts)
  • A few random users (no matter your role)
    • Note: make sure to consult someone at the company before doing this solo in case there is any context you should be aware of before your conversation
  • Early employees that are still at the company
  • Early employees that have left the company
  • Teams to prioritize meeting someone from (nearly the same as organizational philosophies list): marketing, sales, recruiting, engineering, comms, internal comms

Note: If you work in tech, I always recommend getting on Twitter. Some subset of employees and your company leaders are probably on there. It’s a pretty low-stakes way to check out the conversation, what people are saying, what people are endorsing. But, be careful not to over-index company sentiment or tone onto Twitter stance. It’s just one set of inputs out of many.

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