Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s Unexpected Advice on Preserving Startup Culture in Your Company

Startups are fast-moving and exciting, with a culture of getting stuff done. So it’s one of the biggest shocks for startup founders to see that culture change as the company grows, and naturally founders often get nostalgic for the days of yore and they make preserving startup culture a priority.

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Founder of Evernote Phil Libin has seen his company skyrocket to a billion dollar company in six short years, ballooning its headcount from 45 people in 2010 to pushing 400 just three years later. Growing concerned over what that precipitous employee growth meant for Evernote’s company culture, Libin reached out to Dick Costolo, CEO at Twitter, who’d gone through it before.

As Libin recounted to PandoDaily, he asked Costolo how to preserve the startup culture at Evernote that had made it so successful. And Costolo gave him an unexpected response that stuck with him, shaping his views on scaling company culture.

Don’t, Costolo said.

“You can’t preserve the culture, if you try to preserve it then you’re locking it into place, it starts to stagnate,” Libin said, recounting Costolo’s advice. Your job is to evolve the culture in a particular direction, Costolo explained, not preserve it.

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One company that’s attempting to avoid stagnation by intentionally evolving its culture is Zappos. Like every grown-up company, Zappos has seen the effects of having a headcount over 1,000 people, but they’ve come up with an unorthodox solution to the problem.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh had a fascinating insight that he put into action, which spawned a $350 million infrastructure project in downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh learned that when companies grow, productivity per employee generally goes down. But every time the size of a city doubles, productivity per resident increases by 15 percent.

That fact spurred Hsieh to intentionally evolve Zappos culture in a new direction — in the future, Zappos would be more like a city than a company.

Instead of building a new company headquarters cloistered away in a leafy suburb as Nike, Apple, and Google have done, Zappos would move its new headquarters into downtown Las Vegas and be a member of the community there. It wouldn’t have a lavish office with all the amenities so you’d never have to leave. Rather, the office would have minimal services in order to encourage employees to go out into the city, where fortuitous collisions and diverse social interactions can fuel innovation and creativity.

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Just as communities adapt and change along with its people, so too does company culture. As Hsieh told Fast Company, “Culture is to a company as community is to a city, just at a different scale.” And Libin is adapting to Evernote’s new scale by being intentional in his approach to its culture, making an effort not to lose the benefits of how startups work.

Holding too tightly onto a company culture in an evolving business is like holding onto that favorite sweater that you’ve outgrown. What had been a great fit in the past doesn’t mean it’ll work for you in the future.

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Images: [1] Cory M. Grenier; [2] Delivering Happiness Book