Startups as a Second Language

Like many others, English is my second language. As I learned over time, there’s a particular way of ordering adjectives in English to make yourself understood. Opinion. Size. Shape. Condition. Age. Color. Pattern. Origin. Material. Purpose. Noun. That’s the order most of the time.

When I say a unique large curvaceous second-hand modern orange checked Italian carbon fiber racing car, it rolls right off the tongue and you imagine a sleek, if garish, Lamborghini. But if I alter the order just a bit to say carbon fiber checked Italian orange racing second-hand curvaceous unique modern car, I’ve lost you in adjectival gobbledygook.

I endured sentence diagrams from a punctilious grammarian for 4 years in an American middle school but we never learnt these guidelines. So when I came across a table like the one I’ve reproduced above, it was a revelation. From the chaos of a language with an exception to every rule, here was a system.

English is an eclectic patois. 29% of English words are originally Latin; 29% French; 26% Germanic. But that’s just the head of the distribution. Sky is Old Norse. Coffee is Arabic. So is lemon. Potato is Quechua.

Startup cultures are like the English language. A startup’s culture is a mixture of the different people within the company, especially when it’s quite small. As the company grows, the culture alloys and hardens.

As startups grow, new employees don’t benefit from the historical context around the culture - how it evolved, who values what, which topics are sensitive. And so they can often start ordering adjectives improperly.

Documents like Netflix’s Culture or Valve’s Employee Handbook illuminate to prospects and employees what matters to a company, whether they would fit and how to speak the language effectively.

Moreover, the process of creating a document like these, even if much narrower in scope, helps teams identify their values and priorities. That knowledge is an essential component of hiring new team members effectively.

Identifying, debating and codifying these values and ideas early in a company is an important step, especially when growing quickly. Because before you know it, a startup’s management team must begin to manage by culture.

Published 2016-09-12 in Culture 


I'm a partner at Redpoint. I invest in Series A and B SaaS companies. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 18,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.

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