For Founders

How to Shape and Scale Culture at a Startup

Melissa Tokmak, former Chief of Staff and current General Manager at Scale AI, shares her thoughts on how to maintain and scale organizational culture as a company grows. 

6
 min read
Published: 
July 19, 2022
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Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring On Deck alums Ming Lu and Vik Duggal. If you’re an early-stage founder, angel investor, or exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs - you’ll be in great company.

Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders.

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring Josefin Graebe. If you’re an early-stage founder, scaling founder, or senior exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs.

Melissa Tokmak is the former Chief of Staff and current General Manager at Scale AI. She also spent time at Facebook and Instagram as a product manager. In this guide, she shares her thoughts on the importance of culture, and how to maintain and scale organizational culture as a company grows. This is an abridged summary of Melissa’s interview on Execs, our podcast where we interview executives from high-growth companies. 

How did you go about shaping the culture at Scale AI? 

Melissa: Shaping culture is hard because culture is shaped in the moments you don’t see and don’t talk about. When I came to scale, they had already done an amazing job with those first people, setting a culture that’s absolutely amazing in terms of the caliber of the people, the work ethic, the passion about machine learning, the dedication to the customer, and the willingness to — what we call — run through walls. 

So, I had something to be inspired by because culture is shaped by those people who you bring on early. Then, it becomes more about how to make sure that as you grow, you keep the important aspects of that culture, the things that make you unique as a company, while bringing in flexibility to grow and accommodate others. 

Culture is multifaceted. Whatever culture you want to set, you have to be very intentional about it, and that means talking about it in a consistent way and writing down what you’re trying to do. At Scale, we have values that we call “credos”, some of which are “ambition shapes reality”, “run through walls”, and “earn customer trust”. 

You can be very deliberate about the values you want the company to demonstrate, but you can’t stop there. At Scale, we really cared about building a mechanism where people in leadership were not only constantly demonstrating our credos, but also recognizing the people who were demonstrating them. 

You also have to make sure you’re expanding the company with people who are espousing similar values. What are the absolutes that you will not compromise on in terms of culture? Those are your values. 

During our interview process, we always do a credo/values interview, and we really pay attention during it. We try to learn what motivates people in life. It’s not about machine learning or other technical aspects of the business, but rather: who are you? We want to know what motivates you and how we can demonstrate from both sides that our values are aligned so you’ll be happy and thrive here, and will keep the best parts of our values and culture together. 

What happens if people don’t embody the company’s culture? 

Melissa: First of all, you need to understand why there’s no value alignment. It’s often not about the person themselves. It often means, to be honest, that you messed up during the hiring process. Hiring, training, and onboarding take a lot of effort and resources. You need to make sure that the person has what they need to thrive here. 

For example, when we assess people for the “ambition shapes reality” value, we are looking to hire people who give a shit, who step up and take ownership of the job not only when things are good, but also when things are bad. 

We have a direct and extremely transparent culture at Scale, and that includes one-on-one conversations like this. If someone isn’t embodying our company’s culture, you would start by delivering that feedback to them, then talk about it and work with the person to see if it’s going to work out. It’s a very clear conversation on both ends. If nothing improves, the next step is best for both sides: If someone isn’t feeling the values at Scale and they wake up everyday not feeling encouraged or excited by what we’re implementing here, it’s a miserable situation for both that person and their manager. 

The most important thing that any company can work on is finding the right and fastest moments to have that conversation, because if you’re not timely and you are continuously delaying these important conversations, you’re not doing a service to either party. 

First of all, that employee doesn’t have the room to thrive and they might not know or understand why. Second, we really care about achieving the things we want to achieve while keeping our essence and pushing for the maximum amount of value we can create as a small entity. We’re not doing a service to ourselves if we’re not making sure we alway have people who are pushing the frontier for themselves and the work we’re doing here. 

How do you deal with employee burnout and retention as you scale?

Melissa: You have to be very good at prioritization as a leader. Not everything has to be done immediately, even though there’s a sense of urgency about the industry and the products we deliver. As the leader of a team, an organization, or a department, you absolutely have to be ruthless in your prioritization. Once you understand that, you’ll see that things will be tough, but they can be handled. 

You also have to be transparent with people about bumps in the road and the hard times. For example, if I know that next month something will be exceptionally difficult, I’ll talk with the team about everything I am doing now and show how I plan to make things better, whether that’s by hiring, re-allocating resources, taking the duty on myself, or galvanizing everyone to come together as a team. 

But at the same time, you can’t always be that transparent all the time; there are moments when it would be better if people stayed calm. We all need that sometimes. So overall, we focus on building a close knit team that can be open and communicate with one another and we focus on setting expectations and talking to our people often. 

It’s a give and take. When you’re a growing company, you’re constantly seeing more opportunities, more duties, more work. We create a very safe space to talk about issues, such as: is my team supported enough to be able to deliver this? Do they feel comfortable speaking up? What are their boundaries? Dealing with burnout and retention is really about understanding your people, understanding their boundaries, and creating a space where they can be honest about and maintain those boundaries. 

On the other hand, the pressure doesn’t go away. You’re constantly thinking about whether you’re doing enough, if you have the right hiring velocity, if you’re performing as a leader and making an impact. It’s a careful balance that you have to think about constantly to ensure burnout doesn’t happen and you keep the people you want to keep. 

When you have amazing people, you want them to stay. It doesn’t matter if everything they do is documented and the organizational knowledge could be easily transferred. It’s not just about that. The thing that makes companies unique is their people, so I deeply care about taking care of those people and giving them what they need to thrive.

We all came to Scale to improve ourselves and push our limits, and because we’re passionate about the field. Everyone here feels that in their very cells. What inspires me is to look around and see people who are willing to go that extra mile. That makes me feel camaraderie with those people, and makes me want to go that extra mile for them in return. 

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