Six Startup CEOs On Their Company Culture, Boiled Down to One Word

You can tell a lot about a company from its chief executive. They set the tone, the direction, the pace of operations. For a startup, it all starts with the CEO.

A startup’s culture is what sets it apart from its peers. It is the essence of the operation. It directly affects the company’s strategy, hiring practices, and the personality of its products.

Corporate culture is notoriously hard to define and measure, but critically important to whether a business will succeed. So I recently took a small (and highly unscientific) sample of Northwest startups, spanning the fields of business software, Internet, mobile, gaming, video, and materials—and asked the CEOs to talk about their company’s culture. Furthermore, I asked them to boil their culture and philosophy down to one word.

I’ll spare you any psychoanalysis of their answers, but it’s interesting to see how their descriptions reflect both their own personality and the market they’re in:

Apptio (Bellevue, WA)
CEO: Sunny Gupta
Culture: “Paranoid”
Comments: Gupta says the Apptio mantra is “glass half-empty.” But he doesn’t mean it in a negative way. He means the company is relentlessly focused on pushing its advantage, improving its weaknesses, and crushing its competition all around—a necessary mindset in the crowded and cutthroat environment of IT cost management and optimization.

Elemental Technologies (Portland, OR)
CEO: Sam Blackman
Culture: “Execution”
Comments: Blackman says he and his co-founders came from a previous company that started out executing well, but then took its eye off the ball and got distracted by things like mergers and acquisitions. He vows to stay focused on executing, which should serve Elemental well in the hyper-competitive field of online video.

Modumetal (Seattle, WA)
CEO: Christina Lomasney
Culture: “Competent”
Comments: Lomasney says her staff is brilliant, dedicated, aggressive, and well-rounded. But what really sets them apart is their competence in engineering and program management. When you’re talking about a company that makes nanotech armor to save lives in combat (among other mission-critical applications), the competence of Modumetal is crucial—and understated.

Ontela (Seattle, WA)
CEO: Dan Shapiro
Culture: “Humble”
Comments: Shapiro says intelligence, drive, and hard work are givens in his staff, but humility is at their core. That means a willingness to listen, learn, and constantly improve their mobile-imaging products. It probably also means understanding where they fit in the vast mobile ecosystem, and adapting to work more efficiently with the big wireless carriers who sell Ontela’s software to customers.

Picnik (Seattle, WA)
CEO: Jonathan Sposato
Culture: “Easy”
Comments: Sposato says this reflects both the company’s product and its culture. Picnik’s photo editing software is easy to use, and its staff is easy-going. Runners-up would be “LOVA”—the green leafy canopies from Ikea that sit above people’s desks and give the office an outdoors-y, family feel—and (my personal favorite) “kaffeeisenbahnzug,” German for “coffee train,” a nod to the team’s daily cafe expedition.

Smith & Tinker (Bellevue, WA)
CEO: Jordan Weisman
Culture: “Obsessed”
Comments: Weisman says his team has set a different goal—to merge traditional toys with video games—and is obsessed with bringing it to life. That means the staff has expertise across hardware, software, game design, toy manufacturing, marketing, and sales. That mix (and mindset) should serve Smith & Tinker well as it tries to straddle two $21 billion markets, and create a new kind of game experience.

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