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Dropbox CEO: Company culture should grow with the business

Last week, MIT alum Andrew “Drew” Houston, CEO and co-founder of Dropbox Inc., returned to his alma mater to talk about “The War for Talent” in a fireside chat with Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review. There, Houston touched on how, as the organization has grown over the years, the company culture has had to grow right along with it.

“The culture of a startup starts as bizarre average of the founders’ personalities,” Houston said. And it evolves from there. Because many of the initial Dropbox team members came from the Cambridge, Mass.-based campus, including Houston’s co-founder and CTO Arash Ferdowsi, “a lot of the Dropbox culture descended from the MIT culture,” Houston said.

As Houston and Ferdowsi brought in new hires with different backgrounds, maintaining an MIT feel became harder, Houston said. “So you have this drift, and you wake up and say, ‘Now we have to really be clear and set down what this culture thing actually is,'” he said.

They approached it as an exercise, trying to figure out, for example, ways to verbalize the characteristics they look for in new hires. “We took it from this implicit thing based on feel and actually wrote it down,” he said.

“What are the written, expressed values?” Pontin asked.

Houston ticked them off one by one:

  • Have the drive to “do important things.”
  • Have an obsession for achieving a high quality standard on everything — from hiring to customer service to product design.
  • Break new ground; be inventive. “We want to do things better than any company ever before,” Houston said.
  • Push the limits (or don’t give into complacency). “No matter how hard we’ve done something, you want to do it better,” he said.
  • We, not I. “We take greater pains than most companies to ensure everyone all over the company is working really well together, including the business side of the house with the engineers and product development folks,” he said. “We overinvest in food and the office space to force people to have more serendipitous interactions. … We frown on any activity where people take credit for something. We only want you to be successful as an individual because the company is successful.”

Those are the five major values; other less-major values include having fun, taking care of users, taking care of the team and building trust. Of course, those values could be altered, stretched or added to at any time. “It will be a living document,” Houston said, adding that Dropbox is in the process of revising this list even now.

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