May 28, 2020

Why defining company values isn't such a big deal

Don't bother with an agency, don't expect the founders to agree on them (at first) — but do write down your company values, eventually

Sophie Harrison

5 min read

Part of the Panaseer team

Like many a startup gone by, Panaseer's other founding team members and myself skipped happily away from our 'big company' jobs with cries of "let's create a company that's the sort of place we'd want to work!" and "down with corporate BS!" 

But it wasn't long before we realised that perhaps there's method to (some of) the corporate madness. Maybe policies have a place [insert scream face emoji] and — God forbid — perhaps even codifying your company values might be a good idea! 

Here's the story of how we ended up writing our values down, and some tips and pitfalls to watch out for, for those who are thinking of doing the same.


Culture vs. Values

After five months spent fending off vitamin D deficiency in a Surrey basement, we finally got our first round of funding. The time had come to make our first hires. 

We heard from somewhere that you're supposed to perform 'culture-fit interviews'. Looking back, this seems a little fool-hardy — to purposely try and narrow down the already narrow pool of highly-skilled individuals who want to work for a small salary in an office with minimal sunlight and some imaginary share options, all on the promise of 'one day!' And let’s be honest, we didn't even really know what 'culture-fit' meant. But hey-ho, we did it anyway, cos' we were a startup and apparently, this is what startups do. 

During these early culture-fit interview days, we often found ourselves being asked, "how would you describe your culture?" After a while, we developed a stock answer around being inclusive, not corporate, taking on lots of responsibility (the usual startup stuff) and so decided to write it down. 

While investigating 'how best to communicate culture', Google told us that, in fact, we were concentrating on the wrong thing. We should, in fact, first find out what underpins that culture — and THIS is what you need to write down. The quest to define our values began.

Panseer team
The Panaseer team.

Getting started

As chief of staff the project fell to me. I began by asking the founding team what they thought our values were. Unsurprisingly, they all had different opinions. 

Numerous drafts were amended and shared; six months later most of the company had been involved. No one could agree on the final copy and writing something down that would be set in stone 'forever' felt like a weighty task indeed.

Writing something down that would be set in stone 'forever' felt like a weighty task indeed.

A year in and the existential anxiety set in. Who are we? Why are we here? Who even cares? Why am I doing this?!

I decided to break the stalemate and got an agency in — surely the experts would be able to help! They conducted interviews with the leadership team and held focus groups with cross-functional teams, but even they couldn't get to the root of our conscience. Whilst writing down values lends itself to a language which is lofty and grand, talk of ‘fearlessness’, ‘honour’ and ‘destiny’ felt boastful, manufactured and slightly cultish ("drink the Kool-Aiiiid!"). The exact opposite of how we endeavour to be at Panaseer.

Who needs values anyway?

At this juncture I all but parked the project. We were far too woke for all that nonsense anyway —"Actually, we're living in a post-values society and we'd really rather not define ourselves with your business normative words and boxes."

Alas, we were not. Panaseer was still a London startup, and as we grew the question kept bubbling to the surface. How do we scale our (great) culture if we can't explain what makes it so good?! [Hint, painting ‘don’t be a d*ck’ on your wall is not the answer!]



Last year, I went back to the drawing board and saw that the answers were finally there. They hadn't been there all along, and we'd had to grow up, make some mistakes and get to know ourselves to see them, but now it seemed obvious. 

The values we have now committed to as a company were hidden in the words that had become common parlance for describing how we act when we’re happy, winning, failing, giving our all and being good to one another:

  • Lead with Compassion
  • Be Curious
  • Live Authentically
  • Low ego
  • Own it

It’s true, on their own these words are not ground-breaking, and I’m sure we’re not the first company in history to express these values individually, but, as a whole, what we have here feels real, organic and uniquely ours. 

The Final(ish) Word

We now have a glossy document with snazzy graphics which we've even deemed fit to publish for general consumption. (You can view it here.)

But this wasn't the point of the exercise. We receive frequent feedback from new joiners on how useful the values are in terms of understanding how we work. By explicitly calling out the traits we applaud it takes a bit of the guesswork out of how to navigate those early days in our company.

By explicitly calling out the traits we applaud it takes a bit of the guesswork out of how to navigate those early days in our company.

We’ve also moved from a culture-fit to values-based final interview stage: we’re assessing people based on how they behave and view the world, rather than what they like to drink. Our values feed into performance management and shape the language we use when we talk to each other daily. They really do define who we are as a company. 

Lessons learned / Key takeaways

  • Writing down your values is important but it shouldn't be rushed; it's better to observe the positive and unique attributes that grow organically in your company than to try and figure out which virtues will be helpful to your business.
  • Don't make it into a bigger deal than it needs to be. Just because the books say 'your culture will change, but your values will not', it does not mean that everything you write down is set in stone. You're a startup. You can make your own rules, remember?
  • Values-fit over culture-fit. Hiring people with similar values instead of similar backgrounds creates the opportunity for a more diverse workplace where different ideas spur fresh ways of thinking, promoting innovation and growth.
  • Live your values. It sounds corny, but it's necessary if you want to really see your values taken up.