Startup Culture Matters: Q&A with SocialRadar’s Michael Chasen

December 30, 2013

3:00 pm

Let’s face it, culture’s hot right now. From Zappos and Netflix to Hubspot and Google, founders are eager to create their own manifestos and espouse a cool culture. I’m constantly reminding clients that it takes more than a list of values to create a culture. The values have to become part of the everyday of your organization. And that means you have to hold employees accountable for them. At exaqueo, we call them work rules. It’s how our clients go beyond a list of core values and cool perks to a culture that really sustains.

As founders, sustainability is the model we should be emulating. So I’m always seeking founders who are making that happen–creating a culture that lives, breathes and sustains. This week, I caught up with one founder who’s doing just that.

Michael Chasen is the founder and CEO of SocialRadar and former founder and CEO of Blackboard, Inc. SocialRadar aggregates existing social data to better connect users in real-time, in real places. With almost $13 million in funding earlier this year, SocialRadar’s growing fast. That’s where culture comes in, and Michael knows the importance of getting it right, now.

Susan LaMotte, exaqueo (SL): Does your company have a stated set of cultural values?

Michael Chasen, Social Radar (MC): Indeed, and we worked hard to create it. An introduction to our culture.

SL: When you made the effort to understand and strengthen your culture, what did you learn the most?

MC: When we started the company, we knew that culture was going to be an important component of a successful team and product. We didn’t leave our culture to chance; instead we called upon various influences to establish it and put it in writing for all on board to refer to. It’s one thing to say that teamwork is important, but it’s another to operationalize the company to support that—for example, we have fixed “work late nights” and team outings. In other words, we have both scheduled group overtime and scheduled group fun time. We offer perks such as gym membership, healthy dinners on work late nights, and general flexibility with hours to show our commitment to a work-life balance.

SL: That’s so true–you have to have examples of the values in practice to make them come alive.  What will you do to grow the company you want to grow?

MC: If you build it, they will come, right? We are pouring our energy into fine-tuning a product that is not only cool but ultimately indispensable. Even our marketing team would admit that word of mouth can be more powerful than any planned campaign.

SL: I’m constantly reminding founders of the role talent plays in growth. How do you manage having the right talent to meet rapid growth?

MC: I feel it’s particularly effective to have a mix of leadership: both young, passionate entrepreneurs and more experienced professionals. The former can reinvigorate the latter; the latter can inspire and mentor the former. It’s good collaborative chemistry.

SL: But it doesn’t always work perfectly, right? 

MC: Hiring is a big challenge: finding people who have both a desired skill set and who [gel] with the company culture. Your choices won’t pay off 100 percent of the time. A key to success is identifying when a person is not a strong fit and taking swift action to move that person on from the organization.

SL: So what are the first three things you notice about an employee?

MC: Intelligence. Creativity. Commitment.

SL: You’ve already had an amazing success with your first company. What legacy is SocialRadar going to leave behind 5 or 10 years from now?

MC: My first startup, Blackboard, launched in 1997; I hope its legacy will be that it fundamentally improved the way people worldwide teach and learn. I believe the legacy of SocialRadar will be that it positively redefined the way people meet and connect.

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Susan Strayer LaMotte is the founder of exaqueo. She helps startup and high-growth companies develop cultures, build employer brands, and create talent strategies to help scale and grow businesses. Follow her @SusanLaMotte.

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