How to Codify Your Culture Like Netflix and Zappos

Taking the time to define your organization’s core values can seem like a distraction, but it may be one of the most important decisions you make as a team.

Company Cultures in the Public Eye

Culture manifesto. Culture code. Culture handbook. Whatever you call it, it captures the ways a team or an organization works. While ostensibly for internal use, the release of Netflix’s seminal culture deck on Slideshare back in 2009 paved the way for other companies to publicly share their own culture philosophies.

Before making a manifesto or handbook, though, companies have to discover and define their cultural values. We interviewed people at Warby Parker, Zappos , and other companies to explore the process a few companies have used to define their values, as well as how companies spread their values by turning them into physical manifestations.

What Is Culture, Anyway?

Culture emerges informally as employees come together to solve problems. Edgar Schein, an organizational culture scholar at MIT, writes:

“Culture is a pattern of basic assumptions—invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration…Culture is the result of common learning experiences. Because of these common experiences, over time this group of people will have formed a shared view of the way the world surrounding them works, and of the methods for problem solving that will be effective in that world.”

Culture Is Codified at 60 Employees

Most organizations write down their cultural values when they reach 60 to 70 employees.* Before that, a company’s culture is still being created; after 100 employees, it’s hard for the founders to include or represent everyone, since they may not even know all their employees. If values haven’t been put on paper by that point, human resources or the branding department may step in and write down a corporatized version of the culture.

Create Your Culture with Purpose

So how can organizations intentionally develop a culture in a way that employees feel ownership over creating and influencing that culture? We interviewed culture creators at several companies to understand the process they used to discover and define their values, namely:

  • How they decide when to define their values
  • How a company can ask for input from all team members

Artsy Asked for Broad Participation in Defining Values

Artsy is the online resource for art collecting and education. When the company grew to around 60 employees last year, it decided to intentionally define its values. As Caroline Lau, Director of Operations, noted,

“We already had a sense of what we thought our values were. We organically communicated that to people we thought should hear it—candidates we were interviewing, new team members, our partners and customers. We were seeing patterns in what we were saying, and saw the opportunity to create a common language around those themes.”

As a first step, Artsy researched other companies who they thought had done a good job creating values, like Netflix, Zappos, and SoundCloud. They took away three important lessons:

  1. Maximize broad participation in the process.
  2. Find opportunities to channel that input productively.
  3. Don’t rush the process—this isn’t a one week exercise.

Based on these findings, the Leadership Team then created and sent around a survey with five to six broad questions, such as “What makes you proud of Artsy?” and “What qualities do you most admire in your colleagues?” They left the survey open for three weeks. Lau stressed the importance of giving people time: “People need to make space to consider these questions and respond thoughtfully. In the end, we had over 40 pages of survey responses.” The Leadership Team then distilled these insights into eight themes for further discussion.

Two months later, the team planned a company-wide “Artsy Offsite” in the Catskills. They hired an external facilitator to run a workshop focused on discussing and refining the themes. Lau recommended working with someone who is not an employee to guide the conversation: “With an external facilitator, everyone feels that they can participate in the conversation and think broadly, critically.” After the offsite, they asked the team to meditate on and adjust the team’s five key values: Art x Science, People Are Paramount, Quality Worthy of Art, Positive Energy, and Openness.

Lau says, “We see and hear these values every day. They come up in conversation.” Next, her team is planning to “open-source” their values definition process in more detail.

Warby Parker Iterates and Localizes Its Values

According to a former Warby Parker employer who joined the company in its early days, Warby’s values came from the founders and a group of core employees sitting down together and writing down their beliefs after the first year of operations. (Not all of the values are shared publicly—only four are posted on the website.)

After five years, though, the company decided to revisit its core values. They asked all employees to participate in externally facilitated brainstorming sessions on the values. Employees shared their ideas about what to change, and voted on which values to keep. After the sessions, all the original values remained (with a few words changed), and one value was added. The former employee related that this process was valuable because it “felt collaborative. It felt like the culture statement was still a work in progress. The founders wanted to make sure we all believed in them.”

Warby Parker scales its values as it grows, incorporating them into hiring and on-boarding. During group interviews, people are asked to respond to the core values. They are also used as an on-boarding tool: new hires are trained not just in the mechanics of glasses frames, but also on examples of core values in action.

As Warby Parker has grown, it’s achieved a good balance of sharing these uniform cultural values across a huge employee base, but also allows each team and store to customize the values. Each store has its own mission statement: for instance, the flagship store’s mission relate to representing the beginning of the company, while the Miami store’s mission is about connecting with the arts.

The core values are heavily used within the company. They are displayed on the walls of the offices, and a few values appear in the retail shops, popping up in wall decals and other subtle artifacts.

Making Culture Real

IDEO Sees the Writing on the Wall

Originally, IDEO’s culture document was just a list of seven cultural values (Be Optimistic; Collaborate, Embrace Ambiguity, Learn From Failure, Make Others Successful; Take Ownership; and Talk Less, Do More), but it has since grown into an all-encompassing system.

As a way to share the list in a more visual manner, the company created an illustrated book. Each two-word value statement is illustrated, with a follow up statement that gives more color to the statement. The book is given to all new employees. The document is called the Little Book of IDEO,and posters of these core values (along with post-it notes, quotes, and other visual inspiration) cover the walls of each office.

Zappos Turns Values Into Swag and Books

Before Zappos developed its now-famous culture book, CEO Tony Hsieh emailed all the employees, asking them to help identify the company’s 10 core values. At other companies, these values might end up on a poster and be forgotten, but at Zappos, they live in multiple media: in addition to on being the walls and the website, the values are listed on employee badges, t-shirts, shoe boxes sent to customers, and even on the passenger vans that pick up vendors and guests visiting the company. In fact, when the values were initially rolled out, the company engaged in several exercises so that people would understand the values were more than “a list on paper.” According to Christa Foley, Senior Human Resources and Zappos Insights Manager for,

“We got little pieces of swag that represented each core value. For the core value ‘Embrace and Drive Change’ we had a keychain the shape of a steering wheel. For ‘Create Fun and A Little Weirdness,’ we had a smiley face with spiky pink hair. If you saw a co-worker exhibiting a core value, you could grab the trinket and present it to the person. If you collected all 10, you got a t-shirt that had the mission statement on it.”

The Culture Book itself is handed out to all employees, is offered to all guests who visit the office, and is available for the asking on the Zappos website. As a model of inclusivity, every single employee has the opportunity to be involved, although it’s not required. Once a year, employees get an email asking them to write out their culture post, responding to the question “What does the Zappos culture mean to you?” When publishing the book, the company doesn’t change any of the words or messages, other than to correct spelling mistakes.

But the values go deeper than books or physical artifacts. According to Rachel Murch, a member of the Organizational Change, Learning and Development team, values at Zappos are different than at other companies she’s worked for because everyone knows them. Furthermore,

“We hold each other accountable for [the values]. For example, one value is ‘Be Humble.’ We point out when someone isn’t being humble, maybe by teasing about it. We joke about it, but in every joke, there is a lot of truth. Another value is ‘Create Fun and A Little Weirdness.’ You’ll hear people say, ‘We’re a little weird—but that’s too weird. That’s a lot weird.’

Big Spaceship Makes A (Truly) Useful Employee Manual

Big Spaceship, a Brooklyn-based digital creative agency, has created a different kind of employee manual: one that “will help you begin to understand our values and the way we make decisions as a team and as a company. Our manual belongs to you. Read it. Share it. Change it.”

According to Tatiana Peck, Strategy Director, the manual was born out of a hack day, a day when everyone at the company comes together to work on internal projects. Big Spaceship had already established its four culture principles, but hadn’t shared them in a visual way. From an initial concept, the employees got feedback from the entire company about what should go into the manual. They asked questions like, “What were your favorite kinds of rituals at Big Spaceship?” and ran brainstorm sessions. They asked others to co-write sections of it. They printed a few physical copies, and put it up on website, where you can still find it today.

Beyond the manual, Big Spaceship is a culture pioneer: it was one of the first digital agencies to work in collaborative spaces. All project teams sit together, across disciplines, which helps them work more responsively. Peck calls this the “swivel chair approach,” because you can swivel over and ask anyone a question. You can learn more about the culture from this HBS case study (paywall).

Creating Your Own Core Cultural Values

Taking the time to define your organization’s core values can seem like a distraction, but it may be one of the most important decisions you make as a team. In How Google Works,” Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt describes the way Google’s founders shaped the culture of Google:

“Most companies’ culture just happens; no one plans it. That can work, but it means leaving a critical component of your success to chance… Once established, company culture is very difficult to change, because early on in a company’s life a self-selection tendency sets in…The smart approach is to ponder and define what sort of culture you want at the outset of your company’s life.”

The best people to involve are those in your core team. According to Schmidt:

“…the best way to do it is to ask the smart creatives who form your core team, the ones who know the gospel and believe in it as much as you do. Culture stems from founders, but it is best reflected in the trusted team the founders form to launch their venture.”

So as you gather your core team, ask them probing, specific questions to make the implicit elements of culture more explicit:

  1. How will we build trust?
  2. How will we give feedback?
  3. How will we make decisions?
  4. How will we reward each other? How should we allocate resources?
  5. How will we recruit, select, promote, and fire?
  6. How should we have fun?

It’s crucial to spread these core values to the rest of the team, so look for opportunities to involve the company and encourage them to truly live your values:

  1. Once each person has answered the questions above, look for patterns, and bucket ideas.
  2. Have each person come up with a “headline phrase” for each bucket, and then vote on which phrases are most important. There’s no magic number, but aim for between 4 and 10 statements. This is your draft version.
  3. Next, bring in an external facilitator to help you share the draft version with all employees and get their input.
  4. Once the values are created, come up with a visual way to share them. Whether it’s a manifesto, a book, a manual, or a simple list, the medium should reflect your company’s personality.

Share the tangible document with the company, and encourage everyone to turn it into new versions.

For Your Eyes Only?

The last thing to consider is whether your team wants to keep the document for internal purposes only, or if the company would benefit by sharing its manifesto. The only way to see Facebook’s Little Red Book is to work at Facebook (and legend has it that it appeared overnight on all employees’ desks across all offices). On the other side of the spectrum, Holstee sells their manifesto as a poster, while Lululemon incorporates its manifesto into its bags. While there’s no one right answer, Big Spaceship’s Peck did note, “The manual has been one of the easiest ways for people to understand who we are, and how we operate. Finding a job is like dating, and it’s tough. This is one way for us to share our perspective and values.”

Article by Mollie West.

*Christiansen, Clay, “What Is An Organization’s Culture?” Harvard Business School Case, August 2, 2006.

Artsy’s Mission Statement image courtesy of Artsy

Warby Parker Core Values image courtesy of Warby Parker’s Instagram

IDEO Wall Image courtesy of Mollie West

Zappos Culture Book image courtesy of Zappos Blog

Big Spaceship Employee Manual image courtesy of Big Spaceship

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