Why Your Company Should Have a Creed

Does your company have a creed? Twice a year, True Ventures (one of Automattic’s investors) organizes an event called Founders’ Camp, a one-day conference for the founders and CEOs of companies in their portfolio. The latest was held in the Automattic Lounge at Pier 38 in San Francisco (it could be the last).

There was an interesting conversation led by Ethan Diamond, Alex Bard, Howard Lindzon, and Narendra Rocherolle on the importance of culture in an organization and how it gets formed. Despite its importance, “culture” is one of those fuzzy things that’s difficult for many founders, especially men, to discuss earnestly.  Even though I have extremely strong opinions about company culture, I find it feels “corny” to talk about it directly. Nevertheless, as part of the discussion, I shared the following practical example from Automattic about something we did to codify and share our values.

It started innocently enough — someone copied me when they emailed their paperwork to accept a job offer. For the first time in a while I looked at the offer letter and realized that it read like a bad generic legal template: no branding; terrible typography; the most important information (start date, salary, stock options) buried under a sea of text; and, worst of all, it was being sent out in .docx format (especially embarrassing for a company whose foundation is Open Source). The offer didn’t reflect who we were, how we worked, and certainly not how we thought about design and user experience.

Nick and MT of the Janitorial team at Automattic designed new documents and worked out a clever way to have a web form on our intranet generate the pages as HTML. It has some extra goodies like vector signatures. Anybody sending a contract or offer can create a PDF out of that web page, and email the document out to the recipient. Everything is logged and tracked. (As a bonus our legal templates for employees and contractors are now tracked in SVN along with the rest of our code.)

Finally, as a hack to introduce new folks to our culture, we put a beta “Automattic Creed”, basically a statement of things important to us, written in the first person. We put it after the legal gobbledygook and before the signature area; if you chose to accept the offer, you’d sign your name next to the values before starting work. This seemed like a powerful statement and might affect people’s perceptions in the same way that putting signatures at the top of forms increases honesty.

That was around the beginning of May last year, and everyone who has joined since then (about half the company) has gotten the creed in their offer letter. The feedback from the beta was excellent and later that same month we added the creed to the home page of our Automattic Field Guide (our internal reference site), where it still lives today with a link to a recent discussion about what the creed means in practice.

Adding the creed before the signature block ended up being an easy change that had a big impact on the company.

A fair number of founders at the event have asked what the creed is. If you’re curious here it is (as of September 19th, 2011):

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

I’m sure that it will evolve in the future, just as Automattic and WordPress will. If you’re building a startup or any sort of organization, take a few moments to reflect on the qualities that the people you most enjoy working with embody and the user experience of new people joining your organization, from the offer letter to their first day.

Of course if you’d like to see the above in an offer letter, consider applying for Automattic.

If you write a creed for your company or non-profit after reading this, please leave it in the comments!

53 thoughts on “Why Your Company Should Have a Creed

  1. Nice! I am gonna forward it all my entrepreneur friends who are planning to scale up. I liked this especially, “I will communicate as much as possible”, this is thoughtful, as in a distributed company, there are misinterpretations, so getting people to be on the same page is vital. Kudos.

    1. The communication aspect is something I’ve been learning as well. My default is to text communication, because I can think through and craft every word, but text lends itself to less nuanced tone and can seem much harsher than it really is. It’s outside of my comfort zone, but jumping to audio or video for a few minutes can be much better for communicating complex ideas or criticism — it’s higher bandwidth in every sense of the word.

      1. Has the mantra “I will communicate as much as possible” ever backfired? People checking their emails, IM so much that it gets in the way of getting things done?

      2. It’s definitely easy to get caught in unproductive loops of checking all the different ways you can get messages, from P2s to Skype to IRC, but that manifests itself in work not getting done pretty quickly. It’s more common for people to work but under-communicate it, at least for us.

      3. Hi Matt,

        I read your thoughts on interpersonal communication (IPC) with interest. I am a social change specialist in the international development sector and what I see in today’s world is a knee jerk, almost immediate reaction to go to text – whether it’s email or SMS – to communicate. In every face-to-face interaction I have in my work, I always initiate the following question: “What is the most important decision you’ve made in your life to date? How did you make that decision, what was the process you went through?” These questions always allow me/us to discuss how we make our own personal decisions – most often it’s through IPC – interpersonal communication in a direct face-to-face environment. Why do we think any other decisions are less important that we relegate nearly everything to email and text today? It’s not how we’re wired to “communicate” in a meaningful manner. Text and email are terrific to keep up a dialogue but in my opinion, nothing can replace good old fashioned human-to-human communication, whether it’s in person or over a phone line.

        Just my two cents…

        Regards,

        Shari Cohen

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  3. That’s great – I love that rather than signing an offer letter, you’re actually signing that you agree with the creed. You have no idea how important an offer letter is. At a company I worked for, I once got a big promotion, and the offer letter was insulting – it read like I was being punished and demoted and I almost quit because it offended me so badly!

  4. Brilliant! This technique of reading and signing the Automattic Creed is a weapon of influence, as described in “Influence – The psychology of persuasion” by Robert B. Cialdini (in the chapter titled “Commitment and Consistency”).

    In this case, it is a weapon capable of generating positive actions. The creed leads the Automattician to commit him/herself to the company, and in the near and not-so-near future, the Automattician will take decisions, consciously and unconsciously, in line with the creed. A great step in aligning the individual’s actions with the company’s vision.

  5. I like the creed. The part that says “I’m in a marathon, not a sprint and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of the other. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable”.

    If there’s a will, there’s a way. Keep trying until you succeed. That’s what comes to mind on that.

  6. I enjoyed reading much of the creed. The values of continuous learning, mutual help, motivation by something other than money, communication and perseverance are critical values for a sustainable organization.

    Although Open Source is an extremely powerful idea, I cringed a bit at the words ‘our generation’ (I’m 50.) Does this imply that everyone at Automattic is of the same generation?

    1. We range in age from 20 – 60-something, with an average of 32. I think you can read “generation” as more of a philosophical thing — the generation of people who live with technology and believe in Open Source — rather than dependent on the number of times you’ve been around the sun. :)

  7. “I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything.”

    Brilliant to include this. If there is one thing that I’ve recognized over the years from Automattic employees (and it bleeds over into the WP dev. community) is the willingness to share and teach, completely, and seemingly, absent of ego.

    Though, the creed mentions nothing of facial hair – - a growing trend that made me think they must have all gotten ‘the memo’ :p

  8. I really like this idea. We’re about to start taking on some staff, and I’ve been trying to work out how to convey the philosophy and ethos of how we present ourselves to clients. It’s so important to us. A creed is exactly what I’ve been trying to formulate! Thanks again Matt.

  9. Thanks so much for sharing this with the world Matt. I love that you’re being so open with information like this as well as it’s so beneficial to people around the world!

    We’ve reached the stage where our startup ( a dev shop based on WordPress :) ) needs to put on our first full time staff member and we’ve been trying to work out how to communicate to staff that part of their job will mean that they will be expected to always keep learning, attending Meetups and WordCamps whenever possible to share the knowledge they gain back to the wider community, and that we’ll be throwing some sideball projects just for fun and to put them out of their comfort zones and keep them on top of emerging trends and technologies.

    The hardest part about this is a) trying to find staff that will fit in with this methodology as most people are 9 to 5 types who aren’t WordPress obsessed like we are and b) trying to communicate this to them without sound over demanding as an employer.

    I think the creed you’ve come up with is amazing and it has definitely inspired me to start trying to create our own creed.

    Thanks again for this wonderful post! :)

  10. You get to the heart of what makes a great company, that you encourage, almost demand that your employees always keep growing, something I’ve tried to share with other company owners as a sure way to ensure longevity!

  11. Interesting, that your statement focuses on “business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers.”

    You realize, I’m sure, that this is wholly different, culturally, than today’s anachronistic, if still dominant, way of doing business. As illustrated in a blog post recently by a good friend of mine…

    If this had not personally happened to me I might not have believed it. If someone else had told me about this, I might have said, “no way!” I went into our local *a particular building supply center* this past Friday to purchase a few gallons of paint. The guy working the paint counter, Douglas, was a machine. He had to be. He had been left alone to run things, on a Friday afternoon with customers, some contractors, lined up. He was awesome! He had more plates spinning, more orders to keep straight, more paint mixing than I have ever seen. And he kept smiling, was helpful, and professional the entire time. Now keep in mind that the paint department and building materials are the two big money makers for *a particular building supply center*.

    I asked the poor guy, “Douglas, where’s your help?” He said that his partner associate had been sent home. “What happened?” I asked, thinking maybe the person got ill or injured. He said the reason was “for hours,” which means that the associate would have too many hours if they had stayed to help continue to take care of the customers. Huh?…

    Managers Manage and Leaders Lead…

    BTW, what I mean by “anachronistic” is “doomed to fail in spectacular fashion.”

    Heh, yeah, and just wait ’till you read about the writer’s confrontation with management. It’s a knee-slapper.

    1. Your post is along the lines of what I was thinking. “Hours” most likely means that the employee sent home was approaching the line that separates part-time(read: no benefits) from full-time.
      So it’s refreshing to read about this well thought out approach, to identify and develop a real. positive, and well-defined culture or Creed.
      I had a business a while back which involved behavioral assessments attempting to achieve a similar goal. Couldn’t give them away. Spectacular fail.
      Hopefully Automattic won’t involve into the typical corporate format that includes CEO’s who tie their compensation(which is all they really care about)to the company’s performance on Wall Street, and the unwritten law that the best way to make a company profitable is to slash and burn the workforce until only those practically enslaved by the company remain; or sell it to an oufit like Tyco which will do the same thing for the stockholders, leaving the executives and escaped stockholders with short term gains, and the remaining stockholders with the remaining shell of the former company. Unfortunately, that is the creed of Wall Street today.
      So keep up the good work, Automattic, and stay independent. It is your best hope to maintain and grow the creed.

  12. Thank you for sharing. As a person on a job hunt (and I should say a “not just any ol’ job” hunt), it is refreshing to see a company convey the feeling, or the passion of how the company is and how they want it to continue to strive to be. I especially value the “I will communicate as much as possible, it is the oxygen of a distributed company.” Hoping to find opportunities in my field with the same sentiment. An important heartfelt message indeed… one that I am sure is embraced by newbies and seasoned employees alike!

  13. Floyd on “Creeds”

    While we’re all familiar with Mission Statements, employee manuals, and cheesy team-building meetings; Offer Letter Creeds with a forced signature take it too far…

    (this turned into a blog post..the rest is on copystratic.com/blog )

    1. The signature isn’t forced — if someone doesn’t like the creed they shouldn’t take the job! It’ll just cause more problems down the line if they fundamentally disagree with the things the company believes in. Pretty much everyone we offer a job at Automattic is at the top of their field and has their choice of dozens of companies — I want them to choose the one that they’re going to be happiest and most fulfilled at, even if it’s not Automattic.

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  15. While I like most of your Creed, and presume papering your company walls with it could encourage your workers to aspire to positive thinking; making a new hire’s employment contingent upon signing away their personal mental freedoms to secure a job is, well, Orwellian. Suppose they slip up & accidentally lose their sunshiny demeanor?

    A my-way-or-the-highway stance that presumes the employee will love you more for requiring an Offer Letter Creed be signed & kept on file for each employee is simply too official.

    Human relationships, trust, and loyalty reduced to this state breed resentment.

    It might sell like security…an insurance policy against a rotten egg employee, but it can backfire or gradually breed resentment/passive-aggressiveness just as easily as “Honey, I’d love to marry you…just sign this pre-nupt first.”

    Imagine it… “she will Always esteem me highly & Never dare to have a negative thought toward me or my company?” That should go over like a lead ballon.
    Workers can fundamentally disagree with this tactic/creed, easily take the job anyway..and derail out of spite… like a wife forced to sign a pre-nupt.

    Thank you for posting such a thought-provoking essay, my position remains Good intentions do not guarrantee good results.

  16. Hi Matt,
    Very impressive. You’ve got a more thought-out credo than we do as a political blog. One quick question slightly off topic – is the doc-generation tool available as open source?

    Cheers
    James

    p.s. I’m also insanely jealous of your domain name!

  17. About the ‘I never stop learning’… it reminds me a favorite ‘dogma’ of one of the members of the community I lived in in the late 80′s of last century (wow, stating it this way, it sounds Iike I’m part of history already). “The Teacher is there, when the Pupil is ready.” Since I knew it all, I’m the best, I’m the expert in no matter what, it took me years to discover so many people are there, willing and ready to teach me… And since I discovered that, I’m teaching while learning… and learning while teaching…

  18. I absolutely love this post, and while I know it is an old one, I wanted to post my organization’s creed, which we just developed at a recent board meeting:

    I believe that nonprofits exist to make our world a better place. I am motivated by the good in people and their desire to help others less fortunate. Being confident in my abilities while being open to new ideas is the surest way to continuous improvement. I choose communication over assumption, listening before giving advice, and lending a hand to any organization in need. I know that we are limited only by our imaginations, and it is with that spirit I choose to meet each and every day.

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