What Does it Look Like to "Over-Invest" in Culture?


by Tim Metzner

As we reach the end of our 3rd annual “Di Week,” I wanted to share a bit about how we think about culture and what we do to invest in it. For some quick context, we are not a venture-backed startup, but rather a digital innovation studio (a services business). While there are many differences, one thing that I’ve observed to be true (regardless of whether you’re a SaaS company, service company, or pizza shop) is that most of the top companies (who sustain that pole position) talk a lot about their people and their culture.

From the earliest days at Differential, before there was even a real company to speak of, we asked questions like, “How could we build the last company we would ever want to work for?” and, “What would it look like to over-invest in culture?”

The power in those early questions has allowed us to accomplish a ton in just 5 years, without a ton of resources. Today, Differential is a team of about 25 and has been growing rapidly and profitable for 3 straight years, which would not be possible without the ability to attract (and retain) amazing people.

What is Di Week?

That brings me to this week, our 3rd annual “Di Week”: a magical week every year where we bring our entire team to Cincinnati (about half of our developers are remote) for team building, vision casting and breaking bread together.

It consisted of things like a scavenger hunt across town, a night out at Top Golf, happy hour at the office, a “State of Di” presentation (who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going) and time to hear from our team. in order to make this the last company you would ever want to work for, we answered the questions: what should we keep doing, what should we stop doing, and what should we start doing? It’s always an incredible week; we learn a lot, and even more importantly, it’s a chance to get to know each other, as humans.

Why do we do this?

We spend the time, money, and energy in Di Week because one of our core values is “Invest in People.” There are so many reasons for this, but here’s how one of our employees talked about it (from her own personal experience). And here’s how we talk about it in our employee handbook:

We believe in investing in personal relationships (employees and clients) and getting to know the whole person. This is why we have Alliance meetings, 1:1 meetings, and talk on the phone with our clients outside of meetings to see how they are feeling. 

Also, as it turns out, this isn’t just a nice thing to do or the right thing to do, it’s also good for business. How? We’re still a pretty young company, but anecdotally I can tell you that:

  • Employee retention has been really strong
  • Our employees are building lasting relationships with each other and our clients
  • Our team builds amazing digital products together and overall works really well with our partners/clients (which results in them generally sticking around for a long time)
  • When we need to hire, we get hundreds of applications from devs all over the country
  • It feels like we have a high level of overall employee loyalty and ownership of the company culture

Building a great company culture is not easy, but it’s simple. It takes continuous reinforcement, but the nuts and bolts seem to remain pretty constant. Create a strong set of core values that will define who you are, be relentless about only hiring great people (who align with those core values), listen carefully to them, and find ways to over-invest in them!

UPDATE: In the middle of crafting this blog post (I was literally writing it when I got a call), we had an unfortunate accident during Di Week, where one of our employees got injured (pretty seriously) while participating in the activities for the week. Obviously, this is extremely unfortunate and upsetting (and we continue to support and pray for him). As tragic as it is, however, I can share a bit of a silver lining. What I got to witness the rest of the week was an actual real-world manifestation of this “culture” we talk so much about. It was absolutely incredible seeing the support and love that was shown immediately following the accident (and even still now). This is the why, truly. At the end of the day, we are all humans and want to feel a part of something special, and want to feel the love and support of others, when we most need it. I saw that happen this week and could not be more proud of this team and this culture.

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