Here’s something you probably already know: All companies have their own internal culture.
Now here’s something you probably never realized: company culture is not static. Subtly and imperceptibly over time, culture changes. And, like any other ecosystem, company culture will find its balance; create, and maintain itself. The trick, as the head of a company, is to make sure that culture isn’t a rudderless ship that takes the business nowhere.
Geoff Cook, CEO of the Meet Group, a social apps company based in New Hope, says that sense of rudderless drifting is especially common in companies once their founders leave. The strong vision and presence that guided the company walks out the door and the ecosystem is left to find its own stasis, and that, Cook says, can be dodgy for new leaders who don’t pay attention to a fundamental idea in business: People change.
Cook will be the keynote speaker at Princeton Tech on Thursday, November 16, at 6:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. The program, “Building a Consumer-Facing Mobile Product and Build a Culture While Building a Company,” costs $5 to attend. Visit www.meetup.com/Princeton-Tech.
Cook grew up in South Plainfield, the son of an electrical engineer father and a mother who helped design supermarket layouts. He attended Harvard, where in 1997, as a sophomore, he started an editing business on campus called EssayEdge.
“I started editing essays and resumes,” he says. “I had an E-commerce storefront that was cheaply done. I made $10,000 by the end of my sophomore year.”
That 10K turned into $40K, and then into $300K, he says. He had taken on some staff, written an article for Wired magazine, gotten some investment money to help build the business, and moved to California. He sold the business in 2002 to Thomson Learning (now Cengage) in Lawrenceville, which brought him back to New Jersey.
In 2005 Cook co-founded MyYearbook.com, a socially based website, with his brother David and sister Catherine. Geoff was in his 20s at the time and his siblings were in their mid-teens.
“We launched it in their high school,” he says.
In 2011 MyYearbook was rebranded as MeetMe, a dating app that now operates under the umbrella of the Meet Group, along with other dating apps/sites Tagged, Skout, and Lovoo. Those last three sites were acquisitions, each focusing on different dating areas: Tagged is a predominantly African-American dating site; Skout is international; and Lovoo, Meet Group’s most recent acquisition, is German.
Those companies were all bought within the past year. For Cook it has been a year of exposure to the nuances of company cultures. The companies were all founded by different types of entrepreneurs who left their specific marks on the companies. But he has noticed a few common threads.
Founders drive culture. When a founder is present, Cook says, the culture is more focused on goals and product initiatives. Cook freely admits that he’s a product-driven CEO, which he says is a must for tech companies.
“We need to deliver code on time,” he says. “We tend not to tolerate people who don’t respect timelines and don’t respect each other.”
The respect for others has to do with timelines to a large degree. If you don’t get your work done on time, then the company isn’t progressing as it should, and everyone who works there is tied up while the deadlines get resolved.
Culture is emergent. People change over time. That means cultures change over time too. At MeetMe, Cook says, the early days of the company were heavy on coworkers hanging out after work, getting a few drinks together, working late with each other.
“Twelve years later, no one is particularly interested in socializing with their coworkers when the kids have homework,” Cook says.
The important thing about culture is not that it must remain unchanged, Cook says, it’s that it must always bolster the company and its mission. Everyone, in other words, should be working towards the same end. Companies at odds with themselves run the risk of becoming those rudderless ships— of having a decentralized culture. That might work in some companies, Cook says. But it’s not a good fit for a company that supports a big product, like a tech company whose lifeblood is new products customers will be glad to use.
Don’t try to rewrite company culture after an acquisition. Guiding a company’s culture after a sale is “more of a co-opting that a rebuilding,” Cook says. “You don’t go in there and say, ‘OK, here’s your new culture.’”
It’s more about keeping certain signposts of the culture, he says. Take the fabled ping-pong table. A common conception of tech companies founded prior to 2010 is that they were often founded by young entrepreneurs who wanted to make work fun, ergo the slide from the second floor or the ping-pong table.
As the new boss, you might not be about the dormitory playground atmosphere, but that ping-pong table is likely something the employees use in a really beneficial way. Like the golf course, where business deals are often hammered out, the table is probably a spot where coworkers gather and exchange ideas. It’s a place that helps them think about the job and the company. A thing like that you keep.
But remember, culture is emergent. Over time new people come through the door and veterans leave the company. And new people might not want to play ping-pong.
Cook says he doesn’t worry about those little quirks of culture, whether they are attachments to ping-pong or free meals for employees, as long as those things don’t disrupt the central mission of his business — to get code out the door on time.
Ultimately, he says, culture needs to keep the most important thing in mind for the company to actually be successful: the customer. “The more user-minded you are, the more relatable [your product] is to the people who can get behind it,” Cook says. “You need to keep people in mind.”