When Culture Sets


Over 10yrs ago, I walked into the family office of Jeff Bezos- these are the people who invest Jeff’s personal money. Upon entering the office I was struck by a piece of furniture that seemed oddly out of place. In the front conference room sat a table. Well, not really a table as much as a pile of parts. A wood door atop some rough hewn legs jerry rigged together with some brackets and screws.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it turns out the desk is part of Amazon lore. It stands as a symbol of the frugality the company embraced early on in its culture. It represented that every dollar that could be saved could be passed on as savings to the customer.

The very first desk was  built while Amazon was still working out of a garage. It was then, and remains today, an important of the company’s culture of frugality. 

Like cement, the cultural foundation for new projects and companies sets early. This can be an incredibly positive thing, but it has it’s dark sides as well. 

Much ink has been spilt over Zenefits in the last few weeks. But the snippet that has sat most deeply with me was this:

Conrad created the macro near the start of Zenefits’ existence, according to two people close to the company, based on his belief that the required 52 hours was too long to spend in training.

What is this “macro”? It was a piece of software designed to cheat the systems created to certify that someone had completed the required training to sell insurance in the state of California. 

When was it built? At the very beginning. 

Left unsaid was that use of the program, known as a macro, would allow a sales rep to shortchange a requirement under California law. By keeping them logged into an online course, even while they were sleeping or doing something else, the macro enabled Zenefits employees to spend less than the legally mandated 52 hours in pre-licensing training. Newly hired sales reps, who often lacked an insurance background, used the macro as early as 2013, the year Zenefits launched, and as recently as last year, former employees say.

With each ensuing article over the last few weeks we’ve caught glimpses of the tone the macro set within the company and it’s culture. Now, the hard work has begun to tear out the old foundation in hopes of saving what was once considered a company with tremendous prospects.

These small, seemingly insignificant, early decisions to save money by building ramshackled desks or building tools to cheat the system set the foundation for company culture that everything after gets built upon.

This is the design of systems, and cultures are the outcomes.