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In Pursuit of True Culture - Our Agency Story

Culture doesn't Grow on Trees

Our leadership team made a decision after our last new hire started a couple months ago. We needed to build a presentation on our company culture before our next hire started. We agreed that our culture was too important to our success not to communicate it more effectively with new team members. My 30-minute welcome aboard speech just wasn't enough anymore.

Shortly thereafter, I began brain storming in Power Point. I put together a few rough slides and a lot of notes, but not much else. Then I forgot about it. I simply let it slip down my priority list with all the other fires we face as a growing digital marketing agency

Flash forward to our August 4th leadership meeting. We had another new employee starting on August 14th, and we didn't have a presentation ready. Honestly, I didn't expect we'd be hiring again this soon. Growth happens. Now what?

We decided to scramble and get something together. After 10 days of collaboration we produced a 5-minute video for our new hire to watch when he arrived to work Monday morning. I'm sharing that 'welcome aboard' video because I think it does a great job of representing what we believe to be the foundation of our company culture. 

Introducing our culture to new hires now begins with this video

Culture can be a bitch. It sure doesn't grow on trees

I see that video as the accumulation of everything we've been investing in over the last 8 years. While it might not be the most impressive display of on-camera performance, I think it's authentic. I believe authenticity matters and I believe the video represents who we are, how we operate, and what's important to us. I also believe that's the definition of true company culture.

My research found that most sources refer to it as 'corporate culture'. Investopedia defines it like this:


Corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company's employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires. 


Darmesh's Culture CodeI'm not a fan of anything 'corporate' so I'm going to stick with 'true company culture'. Someone I am a huge fan of, Co-founder and CTO of HubSpot Darmesh Shah, interprets this as HubSpot's Culture Code. As the slide deck reveals, culture is really important to the success of their software company.


Culture doesn't just help attract amazing people, it amplifies their abilities and helps them do their best work.


At Revenue River, we developed our own culture code in 2016. You watched my team present it at the end of the video. I'm here to tell you that our company culture, and our culture code, did not grow on trees. It's been developing, growing, and emerging over the last 8 years. We couldn't define what really wasn't there all those years ago, we had to work for it first. 

Money can't buy you love, and it sure can't buy you true company culture

Everyone knows what fantastic amenities Google has to offer their employees. Free gourmet cafeterias, massage rooms, nap pods, haircuts, and onsite doctors available for employee checkups. All part of the package. Pretty attractive stuff. It all sounds fantastic, but is it their culture?

Uber has been in the news a lot lately, for all the wrong reasons. Their cultural exploits are the things dreams (or nightmares) are made of, depending on your perspective. I dare to say it's their lack of a healthy culture that led to the implosion of so many executive careers.

I feel like too many employers have the wrong things in mind when they think of culture. I believe their definitions of culture is completely perverted. Work environment is not culture. Sit to stand desks, game rooms, your dog by your side, bars loaded with bourbon, and gym memberships are not culture. You can buy work environment. You can't buy culture. You have to invest in it and embody it every day. I think that's why finding companies with true culture is harder than finding companies with really cool office spaces and blow out parties.

Are you avoiding true investment into culture for other 'priorities'?

Our Culture Code - Dedicated To Getting BetterRevenue River was founded in 2009, the same year I met and began working with Steve. We weren't funded. We had no startup capital of our own. We started with a single client and ground it out, took on personal debt to make payroll, and clawed our way through our first few years. My desk was in my client's conference room, 58 miles away from my house. Buying a combination print/scan/copy machine has absolutely represented a capital investment for me.

We didn't have an advertising, marketing, sales, meals, or entertainment budget. We did have a budget for development training. We've had a budget for personal and professional development towards organizational culture for over 100 consecutive months. We invested in the development of a lot of people that left the company before ever coming close to realizing return on that investment. 


Our Culture Code - Everything Is Earned

Even in the months where we lost money, we never considered canceling that monthly bill. We never wavered because we knew the value and we knew we were in this for the long haul.

My advice to you is that you can always make room for an investment in true company culture. You should never prioritize other things over your people and your culture. Even if that investment takes the form of time. Your time for personal improvement and education. We've cut a lot of checks for culture but we've also read a lot of books. We've struggled through a lot of exercises without a lot of skill or experience. We've invested consistently in a system and road map, and invested deeply in blood, sweat, and tears to make it work for us.

There are times when small, self-funded startups can't spend, no matter how bad they want to. 

Our Culture Code - Love For Each Other

I absolutely understand the very real pressures that come with not having enough money. I've felt the pain of real stress over other people's well-being as well as that of my own family. Cut something else. Don't cut culture. 

How did we build our culture?

I get asked that a lot, (these days). I definitely did not get asked that very often in the early days I described above. It seems you have to pass some test of time and demonstrate success in anything before anyone cares. The fact is, we've built our culture with a lot of faith in a system, persistence to stay with it, and great leadership. 

Our System
Our Culture Code - Integrity Matters

As our new employee onboarding video details, we're in continual implementation of the Franklin Covey curriculum. I know there are a lot of options for personal and professional development. 

I believe we went down the best road for our agency, and our situation. I have no idea what the best curriculum is for you. The point is, we adopted a system

Looking back, it's been the adoption of the system that's made all the difference. We you implement something that provides a road map, a framework, and a language you have something to fall back on. It's no longer about what you think, it's about what Stephen R. Covey researched, vetted, tested, and other really big companies do.

Our Culture Code - Driven To Succeed

Our system is our gospel of business success. We know that it works because it's worked for others. We've trusted in the system even though we're much too small to even experience some of the applicable topics. Having a system to adopt, follow, reference, and learn from has been a critical part of our success.


Investing in your culture is a lot like investing in digital marketing. It takes time to see results. You have to plant the crop, tend to it continually, nurture it, and grow it over time. You don't reap the rewards of the harvest a month after you plant a crop. That's an analogy we use with prospects to illustrate what we can do for them, and it fits perfectly for culture development too. 

Over the more than 100 consecutive monthly on-site training sessions, we've learned a lot. 

Our Culture Code - We'll Prioritize The Important

We've successfully applied a lot of what we've learned. We've misapplied a lot of what we learned too. There were many moments when I truly wasn't sure if saw the point.

  1. When I lost key employees that I'd invested in so heavily, for instance.
  2. When we struggled to catch traction with processes and client retention.
  3. When we just weren't taking off as fast as I'd hoped. 

I'm so glad we didn't give up during those moments. Looking back, it was those moments that tested our character and resolve. Those were the moments that were instrumental in shaping who we are today.


Our Culture Code - We Work as a Team

If you thought I meant me, you're crazy. Looking back, I don't see any scenario that would have worked for me to self-start and lead the personal and professional development that's grown our culture at Revenue River. I had, and continue to have, a fantastic mentor and implementer. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Steve in 2009. He made it very easy for me to seem smart in hiring him and has since guided me through the implementation of our own unique series development.

As a top Franklin Covey Implementer, Steve knows how all the pieces fit nicely together. I lean on his knowledge of the curriculum to advise what's most relevant at the time. We all lean on him to guide the implementations at our pace of learning. As a fellow entrepreneur and successful business man he keenly understands the different phases that businesses go through.

He always seems to know exactly how to address what we're struggling with at the time, and what we'll naturally struggle with next. His patient leadership of me and all my issues and bad decisions has been paramount in Revenue River's growth. If you're planning to invest in your own culture I advise you to first invest in a mentor.

The case for investing in culture

I'll make a simple, straight to the point case for culture. Everything hinges on  people and your people need culture. 

  • Want retention of your best people? Invest in culture.
  • Want to devote experienced people to your clients? Retain your people.
  • Want to develop true expertise to solve for your clients? Retain and develop your people.
  • Want great collaboration and synergy from your team? Align and inspire your people.
  • Want sustained growth and profitability? Attract, align, develop, and retain great people.

One of my favorite quotes sums it all up:

If it was easy, everyone would do it.

Get after it. Want it bad enough to earn it. You'll enjoy it more eventually anyway.