Corporate Culture In An Age Of Unicorns and Disruptors

Poor, poor Travis Kalanick, CEO of UBER.  

The last time I witnessed a senior executive combust so quickly and so publicly it was Jeff Skilling.

And, remember, Skilling was being ousted for the largest bankruptcy in US history, the loss of billions in investor dollars and over 20,000 employees losing their jobs, and their life savings, in the process.

Am I sickened by the revelations of rampant sexism and a broken “culture” at UBER?


I’ve two daughters and I would be livid if they had to contend with a workplace like that.

Am I saddened by the trail of questionable, debatable and borderline-illegal activities that UBER have conducted over the past few years while blazing a trail as THE anti-establishment, trustbusting, anti-regulation transportation company?


 But here’s what I’m NOT.


I’m not surprised in the least actually.

We have created the environment in which being a “Disruptor” is the most sought-after accolade any CEO can aspire to. Musk, Thiel, Zuckerberg, Chesky – these are all household names.

The same “Celebrity CEO” Cult that’s immortalized ironic quips like Skilling’s one about Enron “We’re the good guys. We’re on the side of angels” and Kalanick’s "We have to bring out the truth about how dark and dangerous and evil the taxi side is”

We’ve created an entirely new categorization of business – Unicorns – that, as the name suggests, are a mythical bunch of companies with a valuation over a billion dollars and no performance history to validate that amount. How crazy is it that? Vaunted business publication Forbes actually publishes an annual Unicorn List that, guess who tops in 2016? You got it – UBER. 

A unicorn, in the world of business, is a company, usually a start-up that does not have an established performance record, with a stock market valuation or estimated valuation of more than $1 billion. (Investopedia)

Amusingly, while Kalanick and UBER were being villified in the media, the same group of reporters were breathlessly reporting on the upcoming Snap Inc IPO and a valuation that was bouncing between $25 and $30 billion before finally settling closer to $20 billion.

$20 billion.

For a company that warns they may never be profitable, is hemorrhaging users, acknowledges their core customers aren’t brand loyal and, in their own prospectus, goes so far as saying ““We face significant competition in almost every aspect of our business both domestically and internationally”

Its hard not to agree with L2’s Scott Galloway who contends Snap will ultimately be a social media loser.

I think we’re glorifying the wrong thing people.

I seriously question why aren’t we celebrating business leaders who are creating deep, meaningful, fulfilling cultures AND disrupting established businesses?

We’ve grown accustomed to technology being the yardstick by which we evaluate, and anoint, business disruptors.

I’d contend that an organization’s Culture is potentially just as powerful a disruptor as any digitally-driven business transformation.

Culture as a Force of Disruption

Here are three examples where Culture, not technology, was the disruptive force.

Zappos : A Billion Dollar Culture

In 2009 Jeff Bezos, a man with quite the reputation as a disruptor himself, paid $1.2 billion dollars for another online retailer. Not because there was anything unique in the way that Tony Hsieh sold shoes, not because the Las Vegas organization had some whizzbang technology Bezos needed. No, it was because of the fanatical customer service culture that Zappos had created and nurtured. A customer service culture that drove unparalleled levels of customer loyalty.  

Jeff Bezos has made no bones about why Zappos was worth that amount of money

Zappos has a customer obsession which is so easy for me to admire. It is the starting point for Zappos. It is the place where Zappos begins and ends. And that is a very key factor for me. I get all weak-kneed when I see a customer-obsessed company, and Zappos certainly is that.

Zappos also has a totally unique culture. I've seen a lot of companies, and I have never seen a company with a culture like Zappos'. And I think that kind of unique culture is a very significant asset."

Like all good “Disruptors” Zappos continues to innovate and refine their core product – their culture – with bold experiments in Holocracy, a culture ethos intended to flatten operating hierarchy and accelerate decision-making. And they’re not above making money from teaching other executives how to build a world-class culture either. Smart business extension if you ask me. 


NETFLIX : From Unknown David to Culture Goliath

If you want to talk celebrated “Disruptor” you’d be hard-pressed not to consider Netflix as a quintessential example. Let’s be honest from toppling Blockbuster to becoming the defacto original content creation studio with massive global hits like “House of Cards” “Orange is the new Black” and others, to pushing regulation on Net Neutrality, Netflix is one of the original technology Disruptors. And one, which in the words of CEO and Founder Reed Hastings, owes a tremendous amount of their success to a unique and cogent corporate culture.

In direct contrast to UBER, there are no hall passes for high performers”. There is, however, a well-documented and much admired primer on the Netflix Culture eloquently titled “Freedom and Responsibility” which, if you haven’t downloaded and studied, I would strongly encourage you to.

There is something truly elegant about the very first slide in that deck

“We Seek Excellence. Our culture focuses on helping us achieve excellence”

Patagonia : Winning At Retail By Not Selling Stuff

Few, if any, retail manufacturer would get away with literally telling customers not to buy their stuff and still seeing their brand and business grow exponentially. But Patagonia has. The retail sector is full of “win at all costs” cultures where organizations and employees are in figurative battle to eke out another sliver of margin and turnover rates are high and employee engagement is low. Patagonia seems to escape all of that. And their culture is regularly praised as the reason they enjoy sustained growth, while many of their competitors are struggling, and “freakishly” low employee turnover while others in the sector face perpetual churn.  

Let’s be honest, how many organizations in such a grueling category as Retail would be ballsy enough to talk about an anti-growth strategy?

Ultimately, there is no single path to success for any start-up. No disruptive silver bullet.

Often the opportunity does lie in a clever application of new technology to serve customers more efficiently, effectively and profitably than before.

But technology alone isn’t enough as UBER is discovering and Snap Inc investors may be poised to learn in the months ahead. You need something more compelling to attract people to your organization – and to get them to stay. That, my friends, is your Culture.

So, I’ve just one request for all you wanna-be Disruptors and Unicorns out there.

If you genuinely want to go and create something unique and valuable, why not create a world-class culture.

Now, that would be truly mythical.