E-Commerce secrets to scale

057 - The Keys to Defining and Scaling a Successful Startup Culture with Joseph Fung

057 – The Keys to Defining and Scaling a Successful Startup Culture with Joseph Fung

E-Commerce Secrets To Scale is a marketing and entrepreneurship podcast that revolves around hearing the stories and strategies of successful entrepreneurs and e-commerce professionals to uncover scaling secrets that will impact your online store.

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Tanner:

This week on the show, Joseph Fung from Uvaro joins me to discuss startup culture, how to define it as well as how to scale it. Culture is something that a lot of people get wrong. And Joseph has a really amazing perspective on the subject. You can’t really afford to have a toxic or even an undefined workplace culture. So definitely stick around for this episode.

Welcome to the show, Joseph, I’m really excited to have you go ahead and introduce yourself to the audience.

Joseph:

Tanner. Thanks for having me for everyone listening in I’m Joseph Fung, co-founder and CEO at Uvaro, and we help people launch amazing careers in tech. Thanks for having me here Tanner.

Tanner:

It’s great to have you, Joseph. So how did your career get started? Can you kind of tell us what your story is.

Joseph:

For sure. So like many tech entrepreneurs, I studied engineering, computer engineering. Launched my first company while still in university. And I’ve been fortunate enough to run a few B2B software companies. Sold a couple and now using those lessons to help folks get into tech you know, the way I would have liked to have help. So it’s been a fun, long, busy journey with its ups and downs. But I have been fortunate enough to go through a few startups and now I get the chance to do a few investments and give back in my own time as well.

Tanner:

Yeah, that’s awesome, man. Congrats on that. You’ve obviously been really successful and speaking of success, what do you think has made you successful?

Joseph:

Oh man, it’s funny. I know when we were connecting earlier, you told me you’re going to ask that and it was really hard to reflect back because there’s a, I mean, I imagine you’re in the same thing. There’s so many people that have made an impact. So many people that contributed. If I had to pick one thing, I had to really point to it. It’s one of those things that’s outside of my control. I think the combination of having really entrepreneurial parents and growing up in a family that didn’t have a lot, gave a really interesting combination. It’s that ability to try new things, that support network to try new things and a strong sense of we’re all in this together, we got to figure it out together. I know that’s a hard thing because not everybody gets to choose their family and their upbringings, but it’s definitely given me a huge advantage. And I could see my parents, my family’s fingerprints over everything that I’ve done and I’d have to them a lot of that credit.

Tanner:

Yeah, I think that’s a good answer. And I think it’s often overlooked, you know, how much we truly are molded by our upbringing. Right. It does definitely make an impact for sure. So Joseph, speaking of your current venture, how did you handle marketing and sales in the beginning and how has that changed over time?

Joseph:

It’s I mean, the thing that’s really interesting with this company is we originally founded it as a business to business software company. So I started there because if you look at the company now, I mean, we still have the same product. We give it away, but our primary go to market motion now is more of a, B to C tech enabled services. So now we’re marketing to consumers and we’re selling the outcome, not just a tool. And so that marketing and sales motion has really changed. When we first launched at the, right away at the beginning, we relied a lot on our network, you know, an email out to past customers, founders, executives, I know saying, Hey, we’re founding a company. You know, are you up for taking a chance and joining us as an early customer. Then a lot of content marketing, a lot of inbound marketing and over the last two years, we’ve switched to lot to rely a lot on social on a lot on search. So we generate a ton of content. Now we do a lot of social ads and I mean, even things like Tik-Tok videos and things that you would never look to sell business, to business software, those are all the really critical parts of our go-to-market strategy now. So yeah, we’ve been a little bit all over the map if I had to add it all together, but now we rely a lot on search, a lot on social and the creative that goes along with it.

Tanner:

Yeah. I mean, creating content is truly the most important thing when it comes to marketing any business, if you’re trying to invest in inbound, but I’m really surprised that you found success in the B2B space on Tik-Tok.

Joseph:

So it’s funny because we didn’t start on Tik-Tok on the B2B side of things, really what we’ve been using it as is experimental side of things. And the part that’s interesting is when you do all of the attribution work, you’ll see the links that people clicked on to come. What are the things they say that they heard? We don’t see a lot of tick tock as the first touch. Very rarely is that where the lead first came to us. However, it comes up frequently when people answer that question, Hey, where did you hear? What did you see? So I think what we’re actually seeing is that Tik-Tok is working really well to reinforce our brand and our activity, but the videos, the content is just much more memorable than the ads or the Facebook posts, the blog posts. So, yeah, there’s, it’s weird. It’s like the survivor bias, our customers remember it. So they think that’s where they saw it first, even though that’s not, as what’s showing up in the attribution data.

Tanner:

Yeah. That’s really interesting. So it’s almost as if your Tik-Tok content is a little bit farther down the purchase funnel.

Joseph:

It is and reality’s I’m okay with that. Our Tik-Tok content involves things like me spinning in a chair and falling over as we talk about spin selling. And I’m okay if I start to leads that are further down the funnel who see that.

Tanner:

Yeah, that’s great. So today we’re talking about something that’s really important and that’s culture in the workplace. It’s something that I’m really passionate about. Something that I feel like is overlooked and done wrong by so many companies. So Joseph, how would you define what a good workplace culture is? Specifically early-stage startups.

Joseph:

Oh man. It’s so it’s such an interesting thing. You’re right. I think a lot of people get it wrong. A good one. I think it’s a really, you know, a really easy thing to point at. And the first one is the documented deliberate, you know, did the founders do this intentionally? For some people listening, they’re going to say, well, yeah, of course I wrote this down. This makes a lot of sense. There’s so many founders who ignore it, they don’t do anything. And then just something evolves. And I mean, that so often doesn’t work out. So deliberate is the first thing. And I’m sure you’ve seen those too Tanner. They’re like people who just never think about it. And so something terrible emerges.

If you have values that only represent you, then all the people that you bring in are gonna look just like you. And that is not a resilient company, a resilient culture.

Tanner:

Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are reactive rather than proactive, especially when it comes to culture, but among other many other things. Right.

Joseph:

Totally. And, and beyond being deliberate. The second thing that I highlight is, and when we talk about being a, leading a successful company, is it doesn’t conflict with it. Doesn’t violate the personal values of the people who will join your company in the future. And that’s a subtle difference, but an important one, because it’s so easy as a founder to say, Hey, these are the values that I care about. I’m going to write them down. Bam. There are company values or culture. But at scale, when you have a hundred people, 500 people, a thousand people, you’ve got a huge variety of personas. You’ve got people who just came out of school and they want to be up late drinking with their colleagues. And you’ve got people who have kids or grandkids and being really deliberate saying, Hey, these are the values we have. And they aren’t going to violate the personal values of the people who we will bring on in the future. That’s really important because your culture is going to be what, you know, it’s kinda like the bouncer around the club that, that dictates who comes in. And if you have values that only represent you, then all the people that you bring in are gonna look just like you. And that is not a resilient company, a resilient culture. It magnifies all your strengths and amplifies all of your flaws. And that’s, I mean, I know I’ve got some pretty deep flaws. I don’t want to magnify those in my company.

Tanner:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, you hire people to help you with your weaknesses, right. And being diverse in, you know, your company as a whole is really important for that reason. I really like your analogy about the bouncer at the club. Cause it’s so true.

I think people treat company culture as something that’s a reflection of the founders. And I think it should be more of a reflection of the founders aspirations.

Joseph:

It’s funny because I think people treat company culture as something that’s a reflection of the founders. And I think it should be more of a reflection of the founders aspirations. The values are what you want your company to be at scale. You know, when it’s a brand that people know. It might not be who you are today because I mean, we’re all living, breathing, growing people in our organizations will be as well. So we definitely have to be aspirational. And so we tell founders when we talk to them, get your values documented really down pat, be really deliberate about how you bring people in. But don’t think about representing who you are today. It’s who you want to be at scale.

Tanner:

Yeah. That’s a really good point. And you know, speaking of, you know, bringing on people that align with values you know, what kind of advice do you have for that? I know for us, I write interview questions that coincide with our values. So I make sure that the values are aligned in the interview process.

Joseph:

But you mean, you don’t just invite people in and say, let’s have a beer and see if we like each other.

Tanner:

Yeah. I mean, that might be an option.

Joseph:

Okay. It’s funny. Cause I think a lot of teams, I joke and I laugh, but I think a lot of teams do paint themselves in a corner by thinking that’s how you do a values based interview. You sit down or a culture interview. You just sit down and see if you like each other. And generally that just does what we talked about earlier. It brings in people who are like you. What you talked about, you’re absolutely right. The interview questions, we go a little, we go, I suppose if I had to be really honest, we’re probably a little pedantic internally about it. We write down, when we think about value questions that aren’t just about, Hey, what do you think about this value? Or tell me a time you’ve demonstrated the value. Well, we actually do ahead of time, as we think about what are the behaviors that demonstrate living the value.

And that idea of a behavioral based question is really the single biggest way to institutionalize hiring for values and culture fit.

And then how do we phrase the interview questions that really highlight that? So like an example, one of our values is honesty. And when we talk about that value, we say, Hey, that means not withholding difficult information. It means giving feedback and giving information, even if it’s uncomfortable and an example of behavior that would be giving negative feedback to a supervisor or giving you know, really difficult information or news to someone in a position of power. And so we’ll ask interview questions that are more along the lines of, Hey, can you tell us about a time when you had to give feedback up the org chart or give difficult information up the org chart? How did you handle that? How did that feel? And yeah, that’s about information, but it actually thinks back to that value of honesty. And that idea of a behavioral based question is really the single biggest way to institutionalize hiring for values and culture fit. So we spend a lot of time obsessing over that and I wish more founders did. Cause I think than what I have more scalable cultures, they could deputize people to interview. They could empower hiring managers much better. It’s hard if you don’t get to that level of detail.

Tanner:

Yeah. I really love that. And that’s exactly what we do. You hit the nail right on the head. You just have to ask questions that kind of, you get to know them based on those questions. It’s not, Hey, here’s our values. Do you agree with them? Oh, there, of course they’re going to say yes. Right. You kind of have to get it out of them.

Joseph:

Yeah. And they’ll look at your website, they’ll read what your values are

Tanner:

Hopefully

Joseph:

So people can believe it’s true that people are really aligned. Yeah. You gotta dig into specific examples, not just hypothetical’s.

Tanner:

Absolutely. So Joseph, what recommendations do you have for an early stage founder? That’s working on defining their culture, their values.

Joseph:

Yeah. One of the, one of the things that’s always tough is knowing what’s the right stage to write it down. When you’re a solo entrepreneur, it’s a tough time to say, Hey, this is what our culture is going to be because there’s no one else informing that. And so usually what I’ve seen work best. I don’t think it’s the only way, but what I’ve seen work really well is when you have that critical mass of an early stage team, you’ve got three, four people at minimum, but maybe it’s five or six. It’s the first early people who don’t necessarily have the capital F founder title and folding them in, you sit down and provide what your first draft is. And then you refine it together because as a founder, you set the direction. But if you can actually incorporate folks in getting to the final language, the final structure early on, they’re just much better equipped to be flag bearers and carry that culture forward. And that way it doesn’t feel like a dictum it’s much more fulfilled. And as a founder, you’re going to find things you missed in your first draft. So that’s usually what we recommend, but that’s super early, you know, some companies wait until they’re like a hundred people and I think that’s way too late. It’s gotta be done super, super early.

Tanner:

Yeah. And I would agree with that. I know for me, I set my values when I was just a solo entrepreneur, but then again, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I like what you said about bringing in your small team and having them give them their input about it because that’s going to help the culture really. That’s going to be the foundation of it. Right.

And when you do that together, when they’re telling the stories and they’re telling the ideas, there’s just a stronger sense of ownership.

Joseph:

Totally. And when you do that together, when they’re telling the stories and they’re telling the ideas, there’s just a stronger sense of ownership. And the reality is that founding team is also the group who’s going to help you get through the rough situations lately, when everybody has this, you get into a problem or a situation where it feels like the company is not living up to their values, maybe in the way they hired or dealt with a situation. And if you have more people who know what that idea is like, what the values mean and how you live and breathe them, they can help the company navigate that better. Until it’s having more people involved will make the organization more resilient.

Tanner:

Yeah, absolutely. I could not agree more. So once you’ve established your culture, as you grow, what are some good ways to preserve that culture?

Joseph:

Yeah. It’s so funny because I want to answer it first in the reverse. Every couple of, and I don’t know if you see these Tanner, I see them every five years or so. Somebody pops up, it’s like an op-ed in a newspaper or it’s a medium article that everyone shares. And it’s some founder who was never deliberate about their values, they write an article that says culture can’t be created. It’s something that emerges and then you document it. And it drives me nuts because what they’re effectively saying is, Hey, our company took on a life of its own. And I realized, oh crap, I got to get real about cultures. I better write it down. And now I’ll write a big public article so it looks deliberate. And I always anchor on that because what they said is true, the culture takes on a life of its own and that admission that it takes on its own life and it carries itself forward.

That’s actually the same mechanism that you can leverage as a founder to make the culture scalable. And it comes down to things like, what are the stories people are sharing? What are the questions they’re asking in interviews? What are the things they talk about in meetings? And if you can influence those, you can let things scale. And as a founder, you don’t have to do every single interview. So simple things like when and I mean, for context, for listeners who weren’t scouring my LinkedIn profile, my last company was in this space. You know, we’re building HR tech, made it easy to scale culture, big emphasis. What we did. One thing that we highlight is when you have a culture sorry, a system of recognition tying it to your cultural values. So like, if you do kudos in your slack channel or you do like high fives by giving each other gift certificates or, you know, in a town hall meeting, whatever the mechanism is always calling out and linking those to the values.

You can’t control every conversation, all you can do is influence what they share.

So a lot of companies make the mistake of, of linking it to the numbers. They say, Hey, we’re going to recognize Tanner cause he crushed quota. We’re going to recognize Samantha because she had the best call rate. We’re going to recognize Jimmy because he shipped the most code. That’s about the number. Whereas if you do recognition based on the values, Tanner demonstrated honesty amazingly, Samantha demonstrated customer first in this incredible way, you’re doing two things. You’re showing the team the culture and the values are super important. And you’re equipping them with the stories that they use when they talk to their spouses, the employees, the people on the street. And that’s how you turn it into the self-sustaining thing, because they’re going to be out there talking to people. You can’t control every conversation, all you can do is influence what they share.

Tanner:

That’s really amazing. I really liked that. And you know, to know that your employees could go home and talk to anyone that they come in contact with, they start reinforcing the values that they have at work. I mean, that’s just going to reinforce your brand even more.

Joseph:

Totally. And for founders, when you think about scaling a company beyond just the culture, I’d suggest it’s better for you to spend the time writing those stories and saying them again and again, because if you don’t, all people are going to talk about are the artifacts, things like the swag. A good example, one of the stories we talk about as a team is when we talk about honesty, one of our first employees came into my office at the end of the day, one day, and everyone was gone and called me a jerk. And it evolved into this amazing learning opportunity for me. But that idea that this was a safe place for somebody to come in and call the CEO a jerk was really profound. And if you equip your team with those kinds of stories, when people say, Hey, where do you work? What’s it like, that’s what they talk about. But if you don’t, if you don’t get those stories, people fill the void. And when people fill the void, they talk about things. So they talk about stuff like, well, we get these t-shirts or we get lunch or we’ve got ping pong tables. Or the laptop they gave me was really crappy. Or these are the things they talk about. So you got to give really good stories that are memorable and shareable or else people fill the void with all these things that aren’t actually really relevant.

Tanner:

Yeah. That’s a really good point. You know, you’re much better off to reinforce the stories like you mentioned rather than let them make up their own. Right? Yeah. So Joseph, what are the three elements of a startup culture?

You have to align your processes to the actual values that you have.

Joseph:

Oh my goodness. Okay. It’s such a powerful and such a meaningful question. I mean, the first one that we talk about is that idea of document your values, and you guys are already doing that. And most people don’t when they write and they think about their culture, they talk about, Hey, this is the thing that we’re doing. We, we’ve built this kind of product. We care a lot about our customers. We do a lot of swag, but actually writing down the things that you believe are important. Yeah. That’s the first and foremost thing that we always, always hammer home. You gotta write down those values. The second thing that’s really important is actually the processes that underpin them and a lot of people push back on this too. Like, Hey, your processes don’t have anything to do with your culture, but what we’ve recognized and what we really believe is that the systems you set up actually are representations of those cultures.

So you see companies do things like they say, Hey, we value your time and efficiency. We want to make sure you’re really effective. And then they give you this pain in the ass expense tracking process. It’s like, come on, put your money where your mouth is. Like expense tracking is not that hard. Don’t make it difficult for people. So it’s like you have to align your processes to the actual values that you have. And it sounds like such a silly thing, but it really is really, really important. And the last thing, and I mentioned this earlier, is the stories. Because everyone knows that they need to memorize your company, like your values, your vision, your mission. It’s going to be on poster on the wall. That’s kind of table stakes. So I suppose that’s a fourth or zero component, but you need to be able to articulate the stories that are most important.

And it’s things like your founding story, your first customer, things like that. One of our first customers, so we do some sales training and one of our first customers, we had this pitch competition and we tell them, Hey, you can pitch any product you want. And we don’t say that anymore because one of our first customers decided he was going to pitch the idea of a bidet. It wasn’t software. It wasn’t a service, He’s like, I’m going to try and get everybody in this program to use bidets, not just toilets. So it’s like, and those stories are powerful. So if you’ve got the good values, they’re written down, they’re understood, you have processes underpinning them. So self-sustainable, and you equip your team with the right stories then you’re going to have a very rich culture that takes on a life of its own in the way you want. Not in that risky negative way.

Tanner:

Yeah, that’s awesome, man. I’ve definitely learned a lot from what you’ve had to stay so far, so I appreciate everything that you’re sharing with us.

Joseph:

Oh. And any time this stuff is always fun, but it’s, I mean, I laugh and I speak very emphatically. Like this is how people should do it. And the only reason that I say it that way is because we’ve made ridiculous numbers of mistakes doing it wrong. So if anybody, you know, learns from this and manages to dodge the same mistakes I’ve made I’m happy with that.

Looking for founders who have the same instincts as you is really important because making sure that they’re steering the company the same way you do when you’re not with each other is super important.

Tanner:

Yeah. I can definitely feel the passion in your voice. So when a startup is hiring, you know, what kind of hires should they be looking for? And you know, maybe this is pre values.

Joseph:

Oh, it’s so hard. It’s a hard question to answer because in many ways the answer’s different for different people. I think the one thing is that, like you said, pre values that really, really early side, when you’re your first employees kind of feel like co-founders. The really big things that I look to are that sense of right and wrong. Like what is the right way to handle this? Name a very vague situation, like an employee, you know, you uncover evidence that you think an employee is stealing from you or you you’ve got a customer who’s so angry, they threatened a lawsuit like these really difficult situations, you know, what’s that right. Capital R, right thing to do? Looking for founders who have the same instincts as you is really important because making sure that they’re steering the company the same way you do when you’re not with each other is super important.

And the second thing is like a similar sense of how do you choose to dig in when the going gets tough? Like, do you both choose to put in a lot of extra hours or do you both gravitate towards bringing in an outside advisor or do you both gravitate towards taking a break from the problem and coming back to it. That sense of dealing with adversity and challenge. If you treat, if you handle the situation similarly, you’re going to accomplish yea, overcome those obstacles a lot more. You’ll accomplish more. Whereas if you actually handle those situations differently, the way you each cope is going to cause tension. And those are two things I really point out because I see a lot of founder teams struggle, they hit a rough patch and just their coping mechanisms are different and it causes so much stress that doesn’t have to be there.

Tanner:

Yeah. Those are really good points, Joseph. So what would you say your secrets to scale are?

Every single time a team sees outside success, it comes from the fact that they’ve got the right people behind the wheel and they trust them to do the job.

Joseph:

The interesting thing is we’ve talked a lot about it, but culture is the single biggest one. It’s so funny because people think that it’s a model of pricing or a specific set of features, or maybe there’s intellectual property. Every single and I’ve run a few companies. I’ve invested in several. Every single time a team sees outside success, it comes from the fact that they’ve got the right people behind the wheel and they trust them to do the job. And the only way to do that is if you have a very, well-defined and intentional culture. So that’s number one in terms of just being deliberate on that, the second thing which you can only do if you got the first one, right, is being extremely humble as a founder, you said it earlier, Tanner, you try and hire people that are smarter than you, better than you.

And as a founder, if you’re not comfortable enough backing away and saying, you know, I’m going to trust you to figure it out. Even if you make mistakes and give you that room to succeed and the room to fail, you’re never ever going to flourish. And then the last one that I’d really put up there is that idea of think about how things are going to go wrong and how you’re going to react before you get there. And that sounds really glib, but in that startup journey, there’s so many terrible crises that happen just it’s nonstop. It’s like, what day is it? It’s Thursday. Today, there was probably already three crises this morning. Knowing for yourself, just asking yourself, what would you do in those situations ahead of that time, it’s going to make it easier for you to stick to what you know is right, as opposed to, you know, making a decision when the emotions are running high, your adrenaline’s pumping, people are looking for an answer. And it sounds really silly, but as a founder taking the time to write down, how are the ways things can go wrong? And I mentioned earlier, maybe an employee stealing, maybe you get threatened with a lawsuit, maybe all your customer data is deleted. Maybe just these random things. It sounds silly, but just taking the time to think through what you would do in that situation. You, as a rational, calm person is way better equipped than you as a panicky terrorized situation. So a little bit of forethought will save you so much stress. So, write your culture down, make sure you bring in people and get out of their way. And then for yourself, think about how you should lead in a moment of panic before you get there. Cause it’s gonna happen.

Tanner:

I really love that. I’ve never heard that before trying to plan ahead for the worst and trying to basically plan out how you would react to those situations because you know, reacting based on emotion is what gets us in trouble, right? So I really love that. And I also really love the fact that you said hire people smarter than you and let them do their job. Because if you don’t do that, you’re going to be working every day, 12 hours a day forever. And you never get the freedom that you wanted in the first place. And that’s the reason why you start a business, right?

Joseph:

You see so many founders who they don’t intend to, but they set up their interviews to almost feel better about themselves. And they hire people that are more intentionally, more junior or less experienced. And then they have to really offer so much guidance or then they hire somebody who’s better than them. And they don’t get out of the way. And both of those are just terrible recipes for disaster.

Tanner:

Yeah, no question. So Joseph, I really want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything that I did not ask you that you think might benefit the audience?

Even if you’re doing things right, there’s always room to improve.

Joseph:

The only thing I’d add is the best way to stay humble and to grow is to have conversations like these. Cause Tanner, even just hearing the questions that you’re asking reminds me of all the things that I need to do better. And literally while we were talking, I jotted down a couple of things reminding myself. Oh yeah, Joseph, you got to do this better. So have these conversations because even if you’re doing things right, there’s always room to improve.

Tanner:

Oh man, I’ve got like a list of 10 things after this interview that I need to go improve on. So we’re on the same page there. So Joseph, what’s a good way for anyone listening to get in contact with you.

Joseph:

The best way is folks can always hit us up on our website. Uvaro UV A R O.com. And if anyone wants to reach out to me personally, I’m on most social media, you know, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter at Joseph Fung, all one word.

Tanner:

Awesome, man. We’ll make sure to link that up in the show notes and thank you again.

Joseph:

Hey, my pleasure Tanner. We’ll chat soon.

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