Fermenting on the Job
March 30, 2023
In the beginning of 2021, I bought a beer-making kit from a website. It came with a 3-gallon pot, a big plastic bucket, a bottle of malt syrup, a packet of yeast, and a bag of dried hops that smelled like Willie Nelson’s dressing room. I figured it would be a fun, socially-distant activity—and hey, at the end, you get to drink beer! When you brew using the kit, all you have to do is follow the included directions, practice good hygiene and sanitation, and at the end of your brew day, you’re left with a warm, cloudy, smelly juice called wort. You did it!
Wort? I thought we were making beer?
Beer comes later, after you put the wort into a sanitized bucket, seal it with a one-way airlock, and let it ferment for a matter of weeks to months in a temperature-controlled room. If you do it right, wisps of hop-tinged ethanol will waft through the house while you’re on Zoom calls. I’m fermenting on the job! When you peer impatiently into the closet that your wort is working in, you start to realize that you have very little control over the end product at this point. You either did the right thing or you didn’t, and you won’t know until weeks later, after bottling, when you finally crack open that first home brew.
After tasting that first home brew several weeks later, I was hooked. I went deep into the world of home brewing, where I discovered that almost every single thing you do can affect the outcome—equipment, ingredients, process, environment, and time. And each of those tweaks can create something entirely new, something unique, and in some cases, something dreadful or disastrous.
Enough about beer, let’s talk about work
Okay, fine. Good company culture is the fermentation that occurs when people, purpose, process, and environment come together and interact. Leaders obsess over having “good culture”, but culture is not an ingredient. It’s not an action. It’s not a list of values, mandatory fun, or a founder’s personality. Culture is a continuous outcome, and the palatability and durability of that culture comes from carefully and consistently applying the inputs beforehand.
Like fermentation, company culture is a process that happens on its own, subject to the provided raw ingredients and environmental conditions. You can change what goes into the vat, but what happens inside that vat is not in your control, and you often won’t know if you were successful until some time later. Culture, like fermentation in nature, can even happen on its own without your having done anything at all! This can be maddening for those leaders who want the comfort of total control, but it can also be empowering for other, more sophisticated leaders who see the leverage they can access from influencing “culture fermentation” at scale.
As your startup grows and evolves, the approach to creating a continuous outcome of good culture evolves too. Leaders in growing startups can get tripped up when the things that worked for them in the early days no longer work now. Cultures evolve and change as companies grow. That’s not a bad thing. And just as the culture that you aim for might change, the methodology to creating that culture must also evolve as you grow.
Early stage: mad science in the garage
In the early stages of building a startup, experimentation and quick iteration are vital. Much like brewing beer in your garage, early-stage forays into culture building are about starting small with high-quality ingredients, a meticulous, hands-on approach to the process, and an open mind.
You might start out with a well-known and recommended recipe for creating a culture, but you’d be surprised at how what comes out on the other side can be unique. Often, your ingredients and process will follow a reliable template, but the environmental variables will cause the recipe to interact in curious and unexpected ways. As you observe the culture you’ve fermented, be open-minded about whether those unexpected things are good or bad. Observe, analyze, and adapt your formula so you can reinforce the conditions that made your culture outcome unexpectedly good.
You also have an opportunity to experiment, and at this small scale, little tweaks can impart a big effect. This could mean taking a chance on a hire that doesn’t fit the rest of the team’s personality (don’t build a monoculture, that’s bland beer!), it could mean experimenting with how teams organize and communicate, it could mean being strict about some behaviors or lax about others. Ship quick, fail fast, and iterate; you’ll figure out what sort of culture works and tastes best for the team. And if your crazy culture brewing ends up blowing up the garage, well, grab a mop, then maybe consider brewing from a kit. There’s no shame in that.
Growth stage: the microbrewery taproom
In the growth stage, you are now operating the “microbrewery taproom” of company culture. You have to scale up and control your inputs to create an increasingly consistent culture product on the other end. Nevertheless, space should remain for experimentation, and you and your team should be willing to open up your palates to new findings. Other people will be involved in devising and running the culture-brewing process, and the knowledge of that process has to be detailed enough to create consistency, or else you will be forced to spend all of your time overseeing it. Leaders in your organization should be able to run the playbook for their own teams and foster a culture that is tailored to that team, yet familiar to the rest of your company. Your beer, erm… culture menu should have something for everyone.
People seek out microbreweries for that artisanal beer experience, but they expect some level of consistency and continuity in the product. In the same way, as your startup transits the growth stage, your employees may find delight in the unique but stable aspects of your culture. They’ll also appreciate visibility into how that culture is forged, so it might be a good idea to share how your culture-brewing is evolving and becoming structured at this stage. After all, are you really at a microbrewery if you can’t look in on the massive steel vessels used to make the very beer you’re drinking?
Late stage and beyond: selling six-packs
As you scale up to hundreds and thousands of employees, culture becomes less a matter of creativity and more a matter of data, detail, and discipline. At this point, you’ve got a culture product that is a known quantity to a great number of folks, making it risky to change the fundamental recipe of your culture at this point. To that end, it’s imperative that your culture now remains highly regular and observable, and that you brew enough of it to sell to the masses with a process that is efficient.
The culture that you brew now might taste more like a light lager—clear, crisp, and palatable to a very large number of consumers (except for those weird farmhouse-juicy-sour-triple-IPA snobs, they’re probably early-stage lifers). Gone are the days of wild experimentation and weird brews of your early stage past. Some of the sharper notes of your early culture may become muted as your culture becomes more accessible to a greater number of people. And now, people you might never meet are brewing your culture to the precise commercialized standard you’ve built over the years, and are serving that culture to employees who they themselves might never meet.
At this point, your culture is a packaged good, and people expect a consistent product behind the label. They’ve also molded the way that they work around that consistent culture, and any culture drift that develops across your company can turn into significant shortfalls in productivity, velocity, and efficiency. Of course, culture affects these metrics at any company size and stage, but the stakes and impact scale up as the company does.
Your culture can certainly be refined at this point, but it is a lot of science and a lot less art. Culture surveys, quantitative metrics related to hiring, retention, and engagement, eNPS, and the like are just some of the ways that you can apply a scientific method to determine what enhancements need to be made to a culture at scale. There are entire teams and professional disciplines related to managing culture at scale. It’s fine to let that sizable apparatus in at this point—just make sure that what makes it into the glass doesn’t fundamentally change as a result.
It’s (probably) not a culture problem
When companies grow, and people at those companies get more numerous, and work between those people gets more voluminous, the swelling tide of activity can give rise to a host of unsavory experiences at work. Interpersonal friction, office politics, lack of accountability, disengaged employees… the list goes on. If this dysfunction goes widespread, folks might be keen to point out that you have a dreaded culture problem! And while I wouldn’t argue with those folks because I know what they mean to say, in the context of this article I would argue that it’s most likely a problem with the ingredients, the process, or the environmental conditions. The culture isn’t the problem, the culture is a reflection of the problem.
So what does that mean? It means that solving a “culture problem” is often about working back from the reported issue to the proximate and root causes (using something like five-whys). You might find that people aren’t politicking and undercutting each other because you have a culture of cutthroat jerks; it might be because goals are not aligned and priorities are not clearly communicated between teams. You might find that employees aren’t disengaged because you have a culture of indifference; it might be because proper context for the work hasn’t been provided, or there’s some structural barrier to doing their work that is dousing their motivation. Culture issues can be visceral and overwhelming, but try to see them non-judgmentally to uncover their true origins.
Leaders may need to confront these culture issues in two ways. If the culture issue manifests as disruptive or harmful conduct, the first way is to confront it directly and say “stop doing that”. The second way is to step back and ask ”why is this person doing that?” From there, you can step through to the root cause and address it in a thorough and durable way. The salient point here is that even though many “culture problems” are actually upstream issues, you’re still responsible as a manager for policing conduct on the other end. And if you’ve examined that conduct and found that it’s truly just the isolated behavior of an individual, that’s a painful but simple thing to address.
Where were we? Oh yeah, beer. In my short time learning to brew beer, my adoration of the process of brewing was ballasted by my frustration with having to wait so long to understand if I got everything right, and the looming fear that one little mistake could mess up the whole batch. Building culture in startups is similar in terms of the long lead time for feedback and the asymmetric stakes of getting it right versus getting it wrong.
These conditions make the pursuit of fermentation a challenging endeavor, but there are people who respect the craft, accept the lack of control they have in the fermentation process, and maintain a curiosity and open mind about the end result. These qualities can serve as a foundation for wisdom and intuition that make the process of creating beer—or culture—a more consistently successful one over time. And a knowledge of how the process and considerations change as you scale up can help you avoid the pitfalls of growth.
In a company of any size, you are part of an active, living process of fermentation, the end result of which is the culture that you consume every day. That process is unpredictable, but it can be controlled, and leaders have an obligation to set and tweak the parameters on an ongoing basis to ensure a consistently good cultural product on the other side. It’s hard work, but the result is a culture that goes down smooth.
Bill Eager is a web technologist, engineering leader, and reckless pontificator. Twitter, GitHub, LinkedIn