The third annual Cultivate.you event by Arthur Ventures was held yesterday morning, May 20, at the Fargo Theatre packed with over 800 people. The 2 hour event is held each year to “motivate and inspire our community of entrepreneurs,” according to Andy Christensen of Arthur Ventures. This year’s topic centered around the message that building a strong company culture is crucial to success.

Two experts in the field took the stage: David Niu, founder and CEO of Seattle-based startup TINYpulse, and Clay Collins, founder and CEO of fastest growing startup in Minnesota, LeadPages. Doug Burgum, co-founder and partner of Arthur Ventures (among many other things) kicked off the event with a talk on tech in our world today, and moderated the event.

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David Niu, CEO TINYhr

David-NiuFor Niu, talking about creating company culture is exactly what he does for a living with TINYpulse (TINYhr is the holding entity). The very mission of TINYpulse is to improve employee retention by fostering positive culture, and it does so through a platform that allows employees and bosses to send anonymous encouragement and critique to each other.

In the 3 years since they started, Niu has helped 500+ companies (including Microsoft and Amazon) improve their culture. Niu also coined the term “Careercation,” after a year long trip to New Zealand and interviews with 35 CEOs taught him that taking time to explore is actually a vital component to a successful career.

Clay Collins, CEO LeadPages

claycollinsCollins has a different story, but holds the same high standards for company culture. He went from dropping out of school five times and living in his parents’ house with no money, to building a company that in 30 months now has 100 employees and 30,000 customers. Collins has also been able to attract and retain top talent, largely because LeadPages is painstakingly careful about hiring culture fits (the process is at least 7-8 interviews and a lengthy written test, he said).

Everything these two speakers said was honestly worth writing down and studying, and maybe even tattooing onto your foot. But to re-cap it in a nice bundle here, I’ll share what my personal takeaways were. You can also access the slides from the event, here. I strongly encourage anyone and everyone check them out.

4 Takeaways from Cultivate.you 2015

1. No excuses.

To state the obvious, the first step of creating company culture is starting the company. But that’s a step many entrepreneurs prolong.

When Collins started LeadPages by writing out extensive blogs, then making videos of himself reviewing website landing pages, he was living at home as a college drop out. He had no money, no MBA, no tech hub, no office, no adviser. Now he is a successful CEO. And he looked out and pointed at everyone in the audience, many of whom are also entrepreneurs, and said,”If I can do it, you can too. There are no excuses in this day and age.”

Over and over he comes across entrepreneurs who have pursued their idea, but get cold feet before launch. They need to do one more thing. Their logo isn’t right.

“The second you launch, you risk failure,” he said. “You risk crickets chirping. But you just have to get it out.”

2. Start at the top.

Establishing that company culture begins right from the beginning – and it begins with you. Both Niu and Collins stressed that a company culture begins at the top. If they personally can’t embody the company values, than the company values will fail. Collins gave one example of this, where he admittedly was “acting like a jerk” about an idea for the company and an employee called him out. At first it was a shock, he said, but when he realized it was true, he thanked the employee, amended his attitude, and the entire meeting changed. Such instances create a culture of transparency and honesty that are vital to success, he said.

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2. Know your values & vision.

Every company should sit down with their team and hammer out their core values. Collins had a word of advice when creating those values: don’t BS it. “People can tell when it’s BS and then it’s just awkward,” he cautioned. For example, a BS vision statement is saying “We want to grow.” Everyone wants to grow. A value statement would include why and how specifically you want to grow.

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Having a vision – or a “North Star” as Niu put it – is equally important, because it ties the values together into a greater purpose. And the way that Niu described it made me want to re-envision visioning. The difference between mission and vision, he said, is that mission is the here and now of what your company is doing by reflecting on what it has done already. The vision is based in the future. “Vision is when you close your eyes,” Niu said, “When you can think, see, feel, engage all your senses in what you want that vision to be.” It’s the broad picture of how you want your company to change the world, he said.

4. People > Product.

If the culture is cheap, if the individuals making up the workforce are proud, jerks, or just unpleasant to be around, the company will cave-in. No matter how great the product is, no one wants to work in that environment.

“I now believe,” Collins said. “In order to create truly good products, you have to put people before products.”

He illustrated this with a story of a top notch employee who was “crushing it,” but became a prima donna about it. In the end, they had to let him go, Collins said.

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Niu agreed, sharing that all hiring and firing at his company is done based on the employee’s ability to live up to TINYpulse’s core values. This includes, Niu said, walking into the office and making the choice to have a positive attitude. It includes holding yourself accountable, even though he doesn’t track sick days anymore. It includes being passionate about your day-to-day work.

Thank you Arthur Ventures

The energy in the room during and after the event was tangible. Participants were able to do a quick Q&A, with questions about diversity in the tech field, biggest challenges, and even which superpower would you have (Niu said healing, Collins said the power to see people’s future). Afterwards small crowds gathered around the speakers, introducing and shaking hands. Big shout out to Arthur Ventures for hosting such an energizing and inspiring event, and to the speakers for imparting their wisdom on the Fargo community!

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Photos by Marisa Jackels.

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Marisa Jackels