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What exactly is a Tribal Culture?

Mar 27, 2019 by Armory

We’ve worked hard from the beginning of Armory to create a culture that is based on trust, transparency and empathy. You will often hear our founders say “the culture of a company is its operating system.” A good culture is something that most candidates will reference as the top thing they look for in a company and it’s the thing that great employees stay for.

As you are reading through some of our documentation you will see the word “Tribe”used to describe our culture. You may be asking yourself at this point, “what does it mean to be a tribe?”

Ben Mappen, our Chief Product Officer and Co-founder, wrote this post about how the founders approached building Armory’s culture.

When DROdio, Isaac and I started Armory, we wanted to build something special – not just a special product, but also a special company. Part of company-building is defining its culture, and as one of Armory’s founders, I have the pleasure and responsibility to help craft its core values. People often talk about culture and how important it is, but many people don’t know why a company culture is important. Here are just a few reasons why having a strong culture is important that may not be obvious:

A strong culture is important because it fosters trust. If you have a high-level of trust with your co-workers, the breadth and depth of communication required to get things done sharply decreases. “I think we should do X” is typically followed by “Sounds good, I trust you to do the right thing.”

A company without a strong culture (or trust) must implement strict rules and processes to get ANYTHING done. “Before you can ship X out the door, it needs to be signed off on by Johnny, Theodore, and Jessica, then you have to follow these 10 steps..etc.” If you have a strong culture, you don’t need as many rules. Think about your relationships with your spouse, your parents, your siblings and other family members. You know “in your bones” how things work and what each person’s expectations are.

When your company is growing, there are lots of reasons to stay: career development, learning opportunities, wealth, etc. Everything is great. But a typical startup will experience between two and five WFIO’s (”we’re f*cked, it’s over” moments). During the bad times, your company will have a mass exodus if the culture is not strong because there will literally be no reason to stay. Companies with strong cultures tend to dig even deeper when they are faced with adversity and this often means the difference between your startup’s life and death.

DROdio, our CEO and Co-Founder, references a section of this post “Non Obvious Lessons Learned from Building BrightRoll” and the ideas behind how being a tribe can make your stronger.

Lesson #6: Be Tribal

My last two lessons are about culture and the best book I have ever read about successful startup culture is Tribe by Sebastian Junger. Ironically, the book is not about startups or culture.

The book discusses the fact that “we have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding.” These groups are called tribes. Startups are not families, battalions or even worse analogies like fraternities.

Startups are tribes. Or, at least the successful ones are.

While politics shouldn’t have a place within a startup, tribalism should run rampant. Tribe members live in close quarters, support one another, hold each other accountable and respect status based on value add rather than name or title. This tribalism breeds incredible loyalty, shared purpose and an egalitarian ethos. When people belong to a tribe, their lives have more meaning and, when that tribe is a startup, they move mountains for the company.

One area in which this tribalism can pay huge dividends is in competitive information. One of the best sources of competitive information for startups are your customers. Customers tell your employees information all the time about your competitors people, products and challenges. If your startup is a tribe, every edge of your company becomes a touch point for information gathering. The depth of information we received over the years still has me shaking my head in disbelief.

If the worst mistake is not turning your company into a tribe, then the second worst is not realizing which of your competitors has succeeded in doing so. To be specific, interview a competitive tribe’s employees at your peril.

A second area where tribalism is a huge advantage is in talent retention. The majority of the first employees at BrightRoll are still working together ten years later! That doesn’t happen in startups, it happens in tribes. Employees (at least the good ones) who leave tribes create a strong feeling of betrayal and collective outrage within their peer group. Remember, practically speaking, a strong employee departing a startup actually does put the tribe at increased risk of survival.

At one point, our team became so frustrated by the constant attempts to poach our employees that we created a LinkedIn honeypot. We essentially created a profile for a fake engineer at BrightRoll and then we shared internally all the inbound interest this “employee” received from recruiters. This was a win-win. Our engineering team found comfort in knowing the leaders in the company were fully aware of their market value, and management gained powerful transparency into what was actually happening to our engineers everyday.

In startups, you have few competitive tools and tribalism can be one of the most powerful.

To us, the concept of a “tribe” also means that we support the people behind those who come into work every day. If you get home from work and your spouse / family member / friend asks you “why are you working so hard at that company?” it’s much harder to be successful at work. We express this “tribal” philosophy in a number of ways:

  • We provide each tribal (our word for employee) a free companion airline ticket whenever we send them on work travel, so they can take a +1 with them, and make a fun weekend out of it
  • We cover 2x the gym membership if tribals work out with other tribals
  • We pay for entrance fees to races, and other events that tribals can do together
  • We host tribe-family gatherings – not just for our tribals, but for the people that support them, too.

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