I went spelunking for the first time last week. While I am not a spelunker by any stretch of the imagination, I enthusiastically descended hundreds of feet into California's largest cave complex in support of one of my portfolio companies. The company is called Splunk Technology -- aptly named after the task of debugging complex system failures by "spelunking" log files. Splunk enables IT organizations to more easily traverse the massive IT datasets created by the heterogeneous infrastructure of today's enterprises. In honor of the company's recent financing and launch, Nick Sturiale of Sevin Rosen and I went cave exploring with Splunk's founders, team members and advisors. I am pleased to report that Nick and I lived to tell the tale.
It is fair to say that I took my spelunking very seriously. I suppose that is a bit of a misstatement. I did not take the actual spelunking trip seriously. Anything but. It was all in the name of fun. But it was also very much in the name of team building. And that is serious business. I don't think that I can overstate the importance of community, team work and commitment in a startup. Startups are hard work and take a lot of sacrifice over time. They require teams of people to deeply believe in what they are building and the mission at hand. And in order to engender that sort of commitment to a company, team members have to view it as more than just a job, it has to be personal. To my mind, that is precisely what distinguishes startups from most big companies and what gives startups an unfair advantage.
Over the years I have seen lots of team building activity at startups. There is, of course, the obligatory company t-shirt, sweatshirt, hat, frisbee, pen, USB storage device, cocktail shaker, keychain, temporary tattoo . . . . While I've made fun of the t-shirt culture of Silicon Valley in the past, the truth is that nothing is more affirming than wearing your company colors. I am always hugely encouraged when I visit one of the companies in which I have invested and find people wearing the company gear. It suggests to me that the team is fully engaged -- people aren't just there doing a job, they are there working together in the name of building a great company, and they are literally wearing that commitment on their sleeves. To my mind, company t-shirts are a must have in startup culture.
The beauty of having company t-shirts is that you can then wear them to other team-building activities for your company. Over the years I've seen a wide array of group activities done in the name of camaraderie and corporate culture. Companies have long used ropes courses to challenge teams and force groups of people to work together more effectively. While these sorts of activities can be fun, they are often too contrived to get past the cynicism of Silicon Valley culture (plus, one of the entrepreneurs with whom I work recently nearly broke her knee trying to catch a colleague in a "trust fall" -- it's all fun and games until someone loses her knee). Along the lines of a ropes course, I've known a number of companies to attend cooking classes together. The group prepares a gourmet meal and eats it as a team (usually accompanied by good wine). This activity has always been a winner -- people love to eat and drink and the "be merry" part just seems to follow naturally.
Outings are another great solidarity builder. One company I worked with rented out a theater on the opening day of one of the Star Wars movies. Needless to say, this one went over big with the geek crowd. As does the Matrix and the Pixar movies. But don't try taking your technology startup to a screening of Enchanted April and expect to get much good will out of it (although you may engender team cohesion around their shear hatred of the movie). I've also known companies to rent out Kart Racing tracks, take cruises around the Bay, go disco bowling, take an outing to Great America and otherwise engage in group activities that we are all probably too old for but still thoroughly enjoy.
The key is to engage the company in some shared activity that brings them together as a group. Depending upon the team and the culture, that activity could be pretty much anything. I work with one company that has a spectacular Halloween decorating competition every year. The company is divided into groups by department and each department decorates its cubicles in a particular theme. As the years have progressed, the themes and decorations have grown more and more complex. Members of each group dress in theme-appropriate costumes, bake theme-related goodies and build massive structures to support their montage. The competition and party around it have come to characterize the friendly and creative culture of the company and ultimately serve to unite a disparate group of people around the shared goal of producing the best company they can. The Halloween competition is both a unifying and defining act for the company, and it has served the company well.
All startups are different. Not all companies could get excited about a Halloween decorating competition, or a spelunking trip for that matter. But all corporate cultures have unifying characteristics that can be strengthened through some group activity or other. There is no question that rappelling deep into a cave and crawling around its bowels with lighted helmets has brought the Splunk team closer together. It won't guarantee that they build a better platform for managing IT infrastructure but it will help the team to work together, united around that goal. I just pray that my next investment isn't in a company called SkyDive Systems or Bungee Enterprises.