Category Archives: culture

Posted On January 23rd, 2018 by Crowded Ocean

The Pros and Cons of Startup Interns

As a startup CEO, if your first thought when you hear the term ‘intern’ is ‘free labor’, think again. Interns—whether graduating college students looking for that first job or students getting credit—are a great resource. But only if managed directly and continuously. And there’s the rub.

Any intern, even those who may have interned before at another company, have to learn two things: the job and how the job fits into the company’s overall objectives. The latter is perhaps a one-time lesson from you, the CEO; the former is an ongoing process.

And that’s where the problem lies. Startups, for the most part, run lean and mean, which means that resources are scarce. If tutoring/training an intern is a quick, one-time process for your precocious self-learner, then great: you’ve got a good resource. But if it takes repeated training and coaching, think again.

More importantly, many key startup employees are inner-directed personalities (in other words, nerds with limited social skills). Which means they’re not the best trainers or coaches. Which can lead to frustrated interns who are either non-productive (don’t know the job and just churn) or requiring an ongoing level of maintenance that the startup can’t afford.

Posted On October 12th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Startups: Mission, Vision and Purpose statements

Readers of this blog know that we’re not big fans of ‘Mission Statements’. Even for those companies who aspire to—and perhaps even achieve—the goals of their mission, these goals are too often vague and euphemistic. Worse, they’re self-directed, focused inward, rather than out towards the market. In the early phase of building a startup, we practice sales-based marketing* and mission statements rarely helped your sales team open doors with critical early customers which is another reason we’re not in favor of them.

Purpose Statements, not Vision Statements

While we like ‘Vision Statements’, often as an early slide in an investor deck, there is an even better ‘statement’, one that combines Mission and Vision: the ‘Purpose Statement’. It has the benefit of being pragmatic, answering the question “Why are we in business?” More importantly, it has multiple audiences: for investors, a well-written Purpose Statement is more pragmatic than most Vision Statements. And for employees, a CEO can stand in front of a Purpose Statement and say: “This is what we’re all about. If your job isn’t in direct support of this statement, then we either need to change your job’s objectives or change the statement.”

Take a step back

Our suggestion: if your team is laboring over your Vision or Mission statements, take a step back and look at why you started the business in the first place. Then go from there.

* Sales-based marketing: The job of Marketing comes down to 3 words: Make Sales Easier. If it doesn’t initiate new sales, shorten the sales cycle, or make repeat sales easier, don’t do it.

Posted On July 11th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

Three new terms in startup-land

New-collar jobs: an emerging job category in the U.S. is skilled workers who do not have a four-year college degree but who can qualify for so-called “middle-skill” jobs Economists applaud the trend as a new route to the middle class and evidence of opportunities through skills-based jobs. 

Manterruptions: California Senator Kamala Harris was repeatedly interrupted during her questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions during a Senate Committee hearing in June. As a result, she’s become the poster child for this bad habit and the double standard that women leaders experience in the workplace. Her predecessor in this controversy surfaced two years ago in the lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins filed by female partner Ellen Pao. Pao described the company culture at KP as “interrupt-driven” and was even offered “interrupt coaching” to help her acquire the skills to hold her own with aggressive male colleagues.

Steganography: a new source of cyber security alarm is the concept of hackers hiding malicious code or content inside benign software. It’s possible, for example, to hide malicious information inside an image.

Posted On June 20th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

The Overlooked Startup ‘Office Manager’

One of the staples of news coverage of the early days of Silicon Valley was the story of the original ‘office manager’ at ________ (Name your hot startup) who got stock options along with every other early employee and, years later, was able to retire early and wealthy when the company went public.

In the early days of Silicon Valley, this Office Manager was typically a woman who served a vital role as a “jackie of all trades” keeping the place running, operationally, culturally and psychologically. She was an intrinsic part of the company culture and the resulting success and deserved every share (and resulting dollar) that came her way.

Over the past two decades the importance and visibility of the Office Manager has waned, in some cases considerably. While the position is now gender-neutral, it’s also junior in nature, often given to a first-time employee with promise. That person then graduates to a position such as Sales Operations or Marketing Coordinator (usually focusing on events) and is off and running with his/her career.

Yes, a Chief Culture Officer

But we counsel our startup CEOs to take the position seriously and to hire someone who is not only comfortable staying in that position but who can leverage their experience across the company to “own” and nurture the company culture. We believe that in this new era, the Office Manager is so important that they should become the company’s ‘Chief Culture Officer’, someone who not only helps the founding team develop the company—its brand, values, talent and culture—but can speak truth to power when the company goes off-track in any of these areas.

So, as you build your company, determine the importance of the role of the Office Manager and hire accordingly.


Posted On May 3rd, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

How Decisions Are Made Shapes Startup Culture

In his annual letter to shareholders, tech titan Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and founder, described his practice of “high velocity decision-making” that help sustain the growth and competitiveness of his company. The article published last week by Quartz summarized Jeff’s guidelines (including the unusual observation that “many decisions are reversible”).

Decision-making style shapes long-term success

One of the major predictors of long-term success is this: how decisions are made and communicated to the company. Not only are these initial decisions critical from a business and technology perspective, they establish a cultural tone at the same time.

Ask any employee and he or she will say that they not only want to be involved in these early decisions, but due to their investments in the company—time, reduced salary and quality of life issues—they deserve to be involved in these decisions.

Startups are always on, always moving: it’s a pace and environment not given to deliberation or self-analysis. It’s an over-used analogy with startups but making decisions is like changing a tire on a moving car—it would be better to pull off the road and do it right, but who has the time?

Disagree and commit

In his letter, Jeff Bezos emphasized the value he places on the phrase “disagree and commit” to propel swift action by his team (and to overcome any bias for consensus.) In the spirit of Jeff’s focus, we would emphasize the following tenets to make your style of decision-making a strong component of your startup culture:

  1. Get as much diverse input as possible. It’s been proven that the more diverse your group—in background, ethnicity, and gender—the better the output. If you’re smart, you’ve already got a diverse team; now is the time to reap the benefits.
  2. Instill “ownership” across the entire team to motivate employee engagement. Ownership is a trait that startup leaders need to foster and reward, but only if it’s genuine. Even if a CEO is seriously top-down in his/her decision-making, we encourage them to find areas of genuine ownership, however narrow, for each employee.
  3. Over-communicate to the entire team what you’ve learned in customer forums or open forums (even team lunches or celebrations) with all employees. Be sure to communicate back to the company in another open forum–creating the sense that employees been active participants in the process all along. It’s the founders who have to be active communicators to glue their team together.


Posted On March 28th, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

More chiefs than you can shake a stick at

Your startup must have a few chiefs already: chief executive officer, chief technology officer, chief marketing officer…and maybe now you’re considering hiring a Chief of Staff which is a role that’s becoming popular in larger startups. (See our recent blog on this trend.)

But it turns out there is a veritable explosion of chiefs out there: everything from Chief Customer Officer to Chief Wonk to Chief Algorithms Officer. After a quick tour through LinkedIn, we found a bunch of noteworthy titles listed below. Title inflation? Hard to say. But as a watcher of trends, both good and bad, we caution all startup teams to go easy on handing out the title “chief” (primarily because higher equity expectations come with that title).

Taking a bit of editorial license here: remember that too many chiefs in the kitchen spoil the MVP…

Chief Revenue Officer

Chief Algorithms Officer

Chief Innovation Officer

Chief Data Scientist

Chief People Officer

Chief Network Architect

Chief Product Officer


Chief Evangelist

Chief Culture and Talent Officer

Chief Customer Officer

Chief Wonk

And they’re hiring:

Chief Merchandising Officer

Chief Impact Officer





Posted On March 21st, 2017 by Crowded Ocean

New terminology seeping into the mainstream

Incidental collection: in case you missed this tantalizing term brought to you by the House Intelligence Committee hearings, when the NSA wire-taps a foreigner or U.S. citizen suspected of terrorist activities, they can sometimes collect other communications. That’s NSA-speak now entering the mainstream.

Explainable AI: a field of research that, according to the Wall Street Journal, can explain in natural language how a machine learning model arrives at a logical decision.

Filter bubble: According to the New York Times, “the filter bubble describes the tendency of social networks like Facebook and Twitter to lock users into personalized feedback loops, each with its own news sources, cultural touchstones and political inclinations.”

Echo boomer: Census data indicates that there are more 26-year-olds in the U.S. than people of any other age. Like the baby boomer generation, the economic, retail and labor force of that large number of our population are expected to “echo” the influence of the prior, very large baby boomer generation.

Gaymoji: No explanation required. But if you must, check out this New York Times profile.

Posted On September 13th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

The Meh list for Startups

This is our list of some of the attributes of startups that are “in” and others that are just, well, “meh”….screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-2-10-23-pm

* for more on the bold claim, see our earlier blog post

Posted On August 23rd, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Living Through History: a Renaissance in Silicon Valley?

Before Tom went into the technology industry, I was an historian—specifically, a Lecturer in Holocaust and Genocide Studies (happy guy, I know). Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 8.12.32 PMAnd one of the things that we History dweebs would do when we got together was wonder, out loud, what events of today are going to be ‘history-altering’ and which of them, though seemingly important at the moment, are going to be quickly forgotten (see: Trump, Donald).

History is a matter of perspective: the later you come along, the more perspective you have.

For example, it’s hard to image Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, over a glass of wine in Florence in the early 1500’s, musing to each other: ‘Isn’t it great to be alive during the Renaissance?’ Why? Because they were caught up in something so new that it didn’t have a name. In short, they lacked the perspective to appreciate how unique their situation was.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 8.13.44 PMWhy all this historical musing? Because we have an opportunity that those who have come before us haven’t. We’re living in a time that is easily the equal of the Renaissance (or Industrial Revolution) in terms of its impact—and we should appreciate it now, not in our dotage. Just as the printing press and steam engine dramatically changed the world, so, too, have the internet and the PC/smartphone. And these tools are only a couple of decades old: think what the world will be like as they mature and their availability extends to every corner of the globe.

At Crowded Ocean, given the wide range of companies and industries we work with, we have a ringside seat to a variety of new technologies. Are any of them as potentially impactful as the internet or the PC/smartphone? Probably not (though we’re just scratching the surface of what Artificial Intelligence can do), but it’s important for all of us—not just those of us in the business—to stand back every now and then and marvel at the world we’re living in today and speculate on what tomorrow will bring.

Posted On June 15th, 2016 by Crowded Ocean

Open space: friend or foe for startups?

Virtually every startup that we’ve worked with in the past three years has gone exclusively to the open bullpen office layout, with hardly a wall in sight. At first glance it’s collegial, it’s democratic in its lack of hierarchy and it’s cost-effective.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 9.24.35 PM

But is it good business? Is it good for your employees’ frame of mind and productivity? The open floor plan has now been in place long enough that there are studies, not just anecdotes, about its role in business. And the findings are almost all in favor of some kind of return to ‘personal space’. Here are some stats to consider as you plan your next workplace:

  • Open office noise results in an increase in epinephrine (adrenaline)—great for a short burst of activity, bad for the long run.
  • Workers in open offices took 62% more sick leave than workers in single offices.
  • A University of Sydney study found that loss of productivity due to noise distraction doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.

We’re not productivity experts: we’re just reporting what we see and hear in our experiences with multiple startups. And the only positive spike we’ve seen—and the most collegial conversations we’ve overheard—are new employees asking the veterans which high-end headphones they should invest in.