Mark Geene | Crain's Denver

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mark Geene

Background:  

Cloud Elements is an application programming interface platform. Software developers use it to connect their applications to the cloud services and apps used by their customers. Based in Denver, Cloud Elements has 70 employees.

In January, Cloud Elements announced that it had raised $13 million from venture capitalists, bringing its total backing to $21.2 million since the company was founded in 2013.

The Mistake:

Culture is not self-sustaining, especially as you scale.

Back when I was CEO at a previous company, I learned how quickly your culture can fall apart. Particularly after you expand beyond 40-50 employees, things start to unwind dramatically if you don’t invest in defining and managing your culture.

When we were expanding, I was spending too much time on product, sales and partnerships, and not enough time being CEO. I didn’t center our team around a set of values. I tried to do it later when we had over 100 people. By then, the values of the people on the team were all over the map. They weren’t consistent, and it was really hard to rein in.

We were hiring really good people, just not people who necessarily reflected our views and values.

It made decision-making more difficult. The most important thing about shared values, which are a foundation for culture, is that they guide your decision-making. If you adhere to a common set of values, decisions about what’s important are a lot easier. It was hard to align the team and to focus people’s passions.

It was a recipe for losing focus, losing customers, and losing direction.

The Lesson:

There comes a point in the growth of your company when the founders will not be involved in every meeting. You need to have your core values established before that point. If people don’t have those values as a guidepost, things start going all over the place.

When we were starting up Cloud Elements, we spent the time to define our values early. We have five main values we care about: customers first; iterate to success; freedom, flexibility, and responsibility; passionate contributors; and keep it simple.

Now, identifying values is not unique. A lot of companies do this. It’s what you do to embrace them that sets you apart. When we interview people, we ask a set of questions to figure out if candidates are qualified, but also that they have demonstrated a belief in our values.

So, you start with definition, then you apply it to team members you are bringing in. Finally, you have to reaffirm it. We create everything from training sessions to performance reviews and awards for people who demonstrate adherence to our values.

Mark Geene is on Twitter at @mgeene and Cloud Elements is at @CloudElements.

Photo courtesy of Cloud Elements.

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