How to build a corporate culture

Suspension creaks beneath you, softening the bone-crunching impacts as wheels thump over rocks and through gullies in the sun-scorched deserts of northern Baja. Dune buggies are are unique vehicles. They excel in extreme conditions. They are built to be reliable no matter what. They see obstacles as challenges. When you buy a dune buggy you’re not looking for leather seat covers, a THX-certified surround sounds system, a designer interior or mahogany inlays. No. You’re looking for performance. You’re looking for function over form. You’re looking for beauty at its simplest. 

GroundMetrics Inc. is one of the hottest young companies in San Diego and I’ve been advising them for about two years now. They spun out from a world-leading electromagnetic (EM) research group in 2010 to commercialize a suite of fundamentally new sensors. They use those sensors to run surveys for oil, gas, and geothermal companies as well as carbon sequestration organizations. Their technology is almost like an MRI for geology, it models what’s going on underground.

GroundMetrics is a dune buggy.

“Culture is the #1 thing we hire for,” says George Eiskamp, GroundMetrics’ CEO. “It’s more important than years of experience. It’s more important than whether you’ve worked in the industry. Everything else pales in comparison. We’re building a culture based on a sense of ownership, scrappiness, and grit. We don’t have big expense accounts or in-house masseuses. We want smart over-achievers who can accomplish a lot with a little and focus on outcomes, not inputs.”

GroundMetrics is doubling in size over the next few months, bringing on quality engineers, field operators, computer modelers, and signal processors. “Here’s a key to hiring for culture from my mentor, Jim Heaton,” says George. “If you were to send representatives to Mars, who would they be? Write down five names. Now, why did you choose those people? Those are the elements you need to be selecting for.”

“It’s all about who’s on the bus,” Dane McDonald is the CEO of FG Press, a new venture-backed publishing startup in Boulder, CO. FG Press published my new novel, Uncommon Stock, on March 5th and I was out in Boulder last week visiting them. “What kind of car would FG Press be? A Tesla. No question.”

“Publishing is an industry stuck in the past. Although many of the people working in publishing are wonderful, their businesses simply aren’t adapting to pace of technological change,” says Dane. “We’re building a collaborative community of readers and writers. We’re experimenting with all the new storytelling tools we can dream up. We’re leveraging innovations in content sharing and distribution. Ultimately, we’re focused on empowering people who love books, authors and readers alike.”

FG Press just made their first major hire, Chief Marketing Officer Sandy Grason. “We’re thrilled to have Sandy on board,” says Dane. “She fundamentally understands the vision and is already moving mountains. We look at the world like a sandbox. We try new things and explore the boundaries of what’s possible. Our north star is relentlessly producing content that defines excellence so readers can’t help but fall head-over-heels for it.”

Culture is as hard-to-define as it is important. The best companies are able to attract and retain top talent based on culture alone. Nothing sinks a stock price or valuation faster than a poisonous culture. Nothing drives teams to excel like the knowledge that they’re all on the same page.

“Role models are critical,” says George. “Many entrepreneurs think that culture is a bullet list of values you hang on the wall. That simply doesn’t work. You end up with a non-functional organization. The first step in building a corporate culture is to be extremely selective as to who’s at the table. Everyone needs to ‘get it.’ They’re going to set the tone for the entire organization because culture is contagious.”

So if GroundMetrics is a dune buggy and FG Press is a Tesla, who are their role models? Interestingly, not Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

“I’ve always admired Andrew Carnegie. His vision and drive to truly make an impact is inspiring. He set out to define the world around him instead of letting himself be defined by it,” says Dane.

“I just finished reading a book about Henry Ford,” says George. “He faced and overcame the exact same challenges that all new CEOs face today. It’s incredible, the fundamentals of launching a disruptive technology company haven't changed in 50 years.”

George and Dane are solving problems from the oil field to the bookstore. One is hiring electrical engineers while the other needs editors. But at the end of the day, both are intensely focused on building cultures that will define their teams and shape the future of their respective industries.

If your company was a car, what would it be?