I was discussing the previously-cited Netflix Culture Deck with a few new colleagues, one of whom pointed out that the word ‘failure’ is conspicuously absent from the presentation.
That highlights a key difference between big companies and startups. In a large, publicly traded company, there’s a lot to lose. While not all new initiatives can be successes, it’s at least as important that few are damaging failures. Whereas, in a small company, chasing the upside of continually swinging for the fences is the only way to grow substantially. Focusing primarily on not screwing up keeps a startup from ever getting off the ground.
In that light, it’s interesting to consider Facebook, which attributed a lot of its early success to the internal motto, “move fast and break things.” A few months ago, it shifted the motto, to “move fast with stable infra.” By now, Facebook has more to lose than to gain by excess speed, but it never would have reached its current dominant position had it played conservatively from the start.
I’d have been curious to read the deck Reed Hastings might have crafted in Netflix’s earliest days; by all accounts, they were a hard-charging, risk-taking culture. Because, in particular, I’d have been curious to see how they balanced accountability and encouragement. On the one hand, Netflix fosters a competitive culture, where people are held to high performance standards; on the other, for employees to take necessary risks, they have to feel safe getting things wrong.
In building Northstar, we’re trying to strike a similar balance. But, in my experience, the more serious early stage danger tends to be too much conservatism, not too little accountability. Which is why I’m posting a ‘Comedy before Competence’ sign on my office wall; I don’t mind if we get things wrong, so long as we try them out aggressively, and can laugh about it along the way.