In 2014, three out of the four people working at Hyperscience were founders. For a small, tight-knit staff, writing down the culture and the company’s values weren’t necessary at the time.
“We had a very shared understanding of what we wanted out of company culture, how we thought about work and what we wanted our environment to be like,” said Peter Brodsky, CEO and co-founder of Hyperscience. “We didn’t have to be explicit about it with ourselves.”
That shared understanding and work culture served the team well — for a time. The company’s machine learning solution to automate data entry was taking off, and the company was continuously doubling in size. But, eventually, Brodsky saw some of what he loved about his company culture begin to, as he put it, “dim.”
“People came with their own ideas of what’s right,” Brodsky said. “Given that a whole bunch of new hires had been molded into having different values by their past work experiences, our core values began to fray. Everything began to get diluted.”
Company values are having a bit of a heyday. While they’ve always been a part of corporate America, giants like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have made punchy values — “Think Big” and “Invent and Simplify” among them — an integral part of every tech startup’s checklist. Visit any company’s website and there will likely be a tab espousing its vision and values. To an outsider, it can seem like little more than fluffy marketing jargon.
How much can a few key phrases really add?
Protecting a Workplace Culture
By the time Manya Ellenberg joined Hyperscience in 2019 as vice president of people, Brodsky knew things had to change. For Ellenberg, it was a familiar situation — and one she knew how to address.
“What I’ve experienced at other startups is when the team is under 20 people, you kind of just pick up on values, culture and goals. I joined Hyperscience when we were almost 70 employees, which is around the point where you start to see those cracks from not having values written down,” Ellenberg said.
It seems like a little thing, but articulating standards and expectations in a clear and accessible way can provide much-needed guidance — especially to an influx of new hires. “We wanted to be clear about who we are, the behaviors we expect and what values guide our decision-making,” Ellenberg said. “This is who we are.”
“I actually resisted writing the values for a while,” Brodsky said. “I thought that writing values down had the effect of taxidermying them. You just take all the life out of them. But we began to see some beginnings of behavior that I really didn’t like and felt like it was time to be explicit.”
We wanted to be clear about what values guide our decision-making.”
For example, work-life balance was showing signs of erosion, something that deeply troubled the founder.
“Some people thought that working crazy hours was laudable,” Brodsky said. “But we're a different kind of company for a whole host of reasons. I don't think that model is healthy, and it truly doesn't work for us.”
The Winding Path to New Rules
To protect the team and their own ideals, Brodsky and Ellenberg put pen to paper. As it turns out, writing new values from scratch was no simple undertaking, but tracing the lengthy process does shed some light on how those values are lived daily.
“We took a bottom-up, top-down approach in our values creation, which I think speaks to our culture here at Hyperscience,” Ellenberg said. “We bulleted out some ideas based on conversations that we had across the organization about the culture that we want to continue to nurture and also the areas that need more attention and care.”
After surveys and feedback, and many rewrites, Ellenberg and Brodsky went back to the drawing board. “Eventually, we did what came naturally and just thought about the values that we thought were important to have in terms of steering the company,” Brodsky said.
The Values That Steer HyperScience
- Do a good job.
- There is no way out but through.
- Incremental is not enough.
- Ambition pairs best with humility.
- Imaginative ideas from everyone.
- Tradeoffs create our identity.
- Work-life symbiosis.
- Equality for all.
Finally, after four versions and the better part of a year, Hyperscience had a strong set of values that leadership felt confident in. More than just marketing copy for a website, these new guiding principles have influenced how the team works on a daily basis.
Among those values is “tradeoffs create our identity,” which encourages employees to think carefully about the decisions they make and cling to the ones that are truly worth fighting for.
“Tradeoffs are an inevitable consequence of options,” Ellenberg said. “Whether it’s a hiring-related practice or determining what is prioritized on our product roadmap, we try to make the best decisions by seeking out imaginative ideas from everyone. We’re conscious of the tradeoffs we make, so that when a decision is made, it’s the right one for the company, and we move forward united.”
These values, or “mantras” as Brodsky calls them, provide the team with quick guidance in the form of easy-to-recall lines.
“They’re supposed to be mantras that you can go back to, quick punchlines to remind yourself how to think about something. And they’re being used in that way, which makes me happy,” Brodsky said.
As Hyperscience continues to grow and scale, the new values will set the tone for the next phase.
“These are the values that are going to take us through the next stage of growth,” Ellenberg said. “We take them incredibly seriously, and we iterated on them as much as we did because this is important. This is going to guide business and personnel decisions, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly.”
The Impact of Hyperscience's Values
Positive results have already emerged. One of the most striking is “work-life symbiosis,” which is a direct response to one of the cracks in Hyperscience’s culture Brodsky noticed early on. This tenant makes it clear that employees aren’t simply encouraged to take time for themselves and nurture their lives outside of work, but it is baked into the company’s DNA.
“There’s an understanding that there’s give and take on both sides. We strive to create an environment where the two support and feed off each other,” Brodsky said. “We care about our employees and our employees care about our company and what we’re building. But the company really does have to take care of you. That is really important to us.”
- 100 percent healthcare for you, your family or dependents
- A 100 percent 401(k) match for up to 6 percent of annual salary
- 6 months paid parental leave (or double salary to pay for a partner’s unpaid leave)
- A child care and education stipend up to $3,000 per month, per child under the age of 21 for a maximum of $6,000 per month total
- 30 days of paid leave annually
- Flexible work hours
Hyperscience’s benefits package is impressive, even by tech standards: A six-month parental leave policy, $3,000 per month childcare stipend, 30 days of PTO a year and a generous healthcare plan indeed proves that Hyperscience is taking care of its team. But even so, Brodsky is not fully satisfied with the offerings. “As the company gets bigger, hopefully those benefits get better. I think we’ll be in a good position to improve them in 2020,” Brodsky said.
For Ellenberg, the creation of values has fully cemented what kind of organization Hyperscience is. Her favorite value, “ambition pairs best with humility,” is a bit of an outlier in the ego-driven startup world, yet illustrates an unshakable commitment to clients and teammates alike.
“Our open-mindedness and humility are our competitive advantages,” Ellenberg said. “If we continue to remain humble and help each other out, that is how we are going to move mountains together.”