How To Build a Culture That Scales: 3 Takeaways From My Time at HubSpot
This post is a slightly different from what I usually write, but since I've left HubSpot I've gotten so many questions about my time there.
Talking about "how HubSpot does marketing" is an entertaining question to ask but frankly, the real insights about the company are somewhere else.
In my opinion, what makes HubSpot special is not just the caliber of people in the org, or the marketing strategy – plenty of other companies also have A-players and a strong go-to-market motion.
It's the HubSpot culture and how seriously it is taken.
People sometimes describe HubSpot as a cult. As an aside, when you hear this about a company, I believe you should think highly of that team. It means leadership knows what they stand for, then planted a flag to draw like-minded people.
And so there is such a thing as "HubSpotty" people, and the team looks out for this when they are recruiting. (If you're in Singapore, my former team is hiring.)
You may have heard of HubSpot's culture deck. As I write this, it has 6 million views, which is remarkable since the number of people who have ever worked for the company is in the tens of thousands.
I was at HubSpot for 4 years. This post is a reflection of my experience with the company, takeaways for people who run teams, and thoughts on culture decks in general.
The first reaction I had to the HubSpot culture deck
"LOL. This is a nice piece of employer branding, but there's no way this is real."
I mean, I bought into it, but much in the same way I buy into most fictional stories: the world makes sense, it's obvious who the villain is, and the hero is easy to root for.
That's nice, but the real world doesn't work like that.
I'll cut to the chase: HubSpot's culture is for real. I'd go far as to say that it's one of HubSpot's secret weapons.
Despite the increasing crowding of the CRM & marketing software category, I have total confidence that HubSpot will continue to grow, and a lot of this confidence comes from its culture. (disclaimer: I hold $HUBS)
Once I joined, skepticism turned into bewilderment
When I came aboard and started meeting people from across the company, I remember being constantly shocked at how seriously people took the culture, and how it felt like everyone really believed in the same things.
To be fair, the company doesn't always live up to the ideals that it espouses, but it tries damn hard and in my opinion, gets it right the vast majority of the time.
This is a grand claim: but I think HubSpotters -- from leadership to interns -- taking the culture deck to heart is one of the key reasons behind this ridiculous graph:
And that brings me to my first takeaway:
#1 – Cultural consistency leads to faster execution
When you have a consistent culture that everyone buys into, so much of your company's brain power is freed up.
This sounds trivial, but I really want you to consider how much aggregate employee time is wasted by internal politics, inter-team drama, overanalyzing what leadership is thinking, venting to your friends because of a passive aggressive email, etc. Imagine the productivity and person-hours wasted when you recruit someone, only to have them leave 6 months later because they had a poor experience.
HubSpot has so little of that, and it just allows the team to focus on their work and produce things of value.
It's really refreshing to be in a workplace where you rarely have to think about someone's motives or suspect whether someone is operating in bad faith.
Does this mean you always have to have a "nice" culture like HubSpot?
Of course not. What matters is that you're consistent and that everyone expects the same things.
Dharmesh has described HubSpot as "kinder, gentler" type of company. (Probably because Dharmesh himself is a kind and gentle person and organizations are an extension of their founders.)
The most important thing is that culture is defined and consistent, so that people know where the guardrails are and what's acceptable and what isn't, so there's less second-guessing and people can just do their jobs.
Say what you will about culture at early Uber. But one thing most will agree on is that it was consistent and had an extremely fast pace of execution.
#2 – Culture decks should be aspirational
One of the remarkable things about HubSpot is that when it makes mistakes – and it does make them – it's often great at self-correcting.
I observed that many times, HubSpot's Culture Code acted as an "immune system" for the overall health of the company, since it gave everyone in the company a way to call out behavior (including calling out leadership; not just peers) that didn't meet standard.
I want to reiterate again: HubSpot doesn't always get it right, it's not perfect, and there are many things to work on. There are many alumni who did not enjoy their time at the company.
However, because of the culture, there is a feedback loop for these problems: disgruntled former employees are not seen as "miserable people who weren't a fit." In my experience, when someone leaves on poor terms what usually follows is a hard look in the mirror.
Part of that is because humility is a core value that HubSpotters take seriously, since it's enshrined in the culture deck.
#3 – Culture decks are living documents
Organizations are living things, and they are operate within the context of a dynamic, changing environment, where you are constantly taking in new information.
It therefore stands to reason that the way you govern that organization has to evolve.
If you're a company leader, you have to be careful not to make a culture deck then assume that it's done when you publish it. It's very much the opposite. Shaping your team's culture is one of the highest-leverage leadership activities you can do, since it defines the values and operating principles upon which everything is based. It's never "finished."
Here's a few changes to HubSpot's culture deck that I remember during my time at the company:
- Prioritizing "Empathy" over "Effectiveness"
- Updating it to make it more applicable to the post-Covid era
- Adding pictures and quotes from people of different genders and ethnic backgrounds
To me, this was a sign that everyone from leadership on down took the culture code seriously, and it wasn't just an employer branding exercise.
HubSpot tripled its headcount during my time there, and candidly, while it did start to feel a bit more "corporate" I can say that it felt like the culture remained intact. If you've ever worked in a large org, you'll know this is an incredible feat. When you scale, you add in new managers and layers, and it gets harder to get everyone's vectors aligned.
So that's my take on the HubSpot culture deck on the major impact it had on the company.
In the next post, I'll dig into another one of HubSpot's "secret weapons."
ICYMI: if you're reading this from Singapore, you should know that (at time of writing in Sept 2021) that my former team is hiring: