Monthly Archives: April 2014

Beyond Culture Fit: Community Value-Add

Recently, a founder of an early-stage startup asked me for tips on evaluating culture fit when building an early team. As the founder of most successful startups will agree, picking the first few members of your team is important. They set the tone for your company as it grows.

Personally, I think that the term “culture fit” can be misleading. It implies a sort of homogeneity, which is actually the exact opposite of what most companies want. I make a point of the language here because I think it can be harmful to internalize the phrase “culture fit” when what you really want is to build a community. “Community value-add” might be a better term.

If you think of yourselves as evaluating “culture fit” you’re placing your brain in pattern-matching mode, using the team you already have as a pattern and evaluating individuals against that pattern to test their fit. Even if you don’t intend to, this means you may implicitly be looking for someone who is like you and your cofounder(s)/teammate(s). Those people aren’t necessarily bad to have, but it can be a limiting perspective. A good community has people who can create some tension (in the appropriate ways!), because that’s what creativity and thinking “outside the box” are all about: respectfully challenging the status quo, for the sake of improving the company, product, etc.

Taken to the extreme, a company trapped in pattern-matching mode might subconsciously only hire people who fit their background and demographics. Aside from being potentially illegal (discrimination, etc.), this is actually very bad for your company and product. A healthy company needs a variety of perspectives represented in product decisions and day-to-day operations.

So, what is it you really are looking to evaluate? You’re looking for someone who is excited to be a member of your workplace community, to build your product, and isn’t afraid to challenge your assumptions when necessary, but knows how to do so respectfully and appropriately.

Finding people who are excited to work with you is best done by letting them self-identify. Give them opportunities to express their interest, and they will make themselves known.

As for the last part (finding who knows how to respectfully disagree), pose tough questions in interviews. You don’t want to try to set up “mind tricks” (this usually backfires), but do give them a chance to play tug-of-war with you.

In short, don’t expect people to fit your existing company culture. Instead, ask yourself what that person brings to your company’s community, and then ask yourself if that is a valuable addition


In college, I served on the board of a student group that advocated sensible drug policy. During this time, our school’s chapter was named one of the top ten most succesful chapters in the country. This honor was in part because we succeeded in passing a “Good Samaritan” policy to encourage students to seek medical attention for drug overdoses. It was also because we managed to unite a number of otherwise disparate groups – we co-hosted various events with the College Republicans, the College Democrats, the Arab students organization, Hillel (the center for Jewish student life), and more.

When we organized events with the College Republicans, they did not refuse to collaborate with us simply because one of our board members supported raising taxes to fund a single-payer healthcare system. When we organized events with the College Democrats, they did not refuse to collaborate with us simply because a different board member supported defunding Medicare extending the Bush tax cuts.

Those issues were core to what these organizations believed in, and they were actively lobbying for both issues at the same time as they sponsored initiatives with us. However, they were able to recognize what was relevant to our collaboration and what wasn’t, and recognize the difference between the personal views of our members and our stance as an organization.

Effecting social change involves building a coalition, and a coalition is by nature diverse. While I would love for the leader of every company to agree that I deserve the right to marry, I also understand that one’s allies in one movement may not be allies in every other. Disagreement about other issues is not the sign of a bad coalition; it’s the sign of a broad one.