Documenting culture

Episode introduction

Episode Transcript

Michael Mizrahi: Every year for many years I think, I don’t know if they do this post-Amazon acquisition, but Zappos had a pretty unique culture and they published this culture book annually where they’d asked everyone in the company, from warehouse associate, all the way up to exec team, what does Zappos culture mean to you.

Michael Mizrahi: I think it was a pretty straightforward blank question, and people just would either write a few sentences, they’d write multiple page essays about it, they pull all this together and put it into a published book, and that’s the culture book.

Michael Mizrahi: It’s just interesting to see what the company means to people and how they capture that with such an open-ended question. I might be getting some of the details wrong, it’s been a while since I cracked it open.

Michael Mizrahi: But this is essentially that. It’s crowdsourcing and understanding what our culture actually is from the people who are living it everyday across all the different topics that might exist.

Ben Grynol: I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health, and this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is A Whole New Level.

Ben Grynol: I sat down with Miz, Michael Mizrahi, Head of Operations at Levels. And Sam Corcos, CEO of Levels he had asked Miz and I to document what Level’s culture is like. And not just to do it independently, but to do with the existing team members.

Ben Grynol: The idea was to go over the different values, the different principles that we have that are not prescriptive. They’re things that we live every day as a team, and things that we do remotely to all stay connected.

Ben Grynol: The idea was to get a lens on, A, are we aligned collectively as a team, do we communicate these principles and values clearly and in a cohesive way within our team. If so, will this create content, will it give us as a team some content that resonates with us, that we can share publicly with other people. And as well, content that we can really share with new team members, “Hey, this is what it’s like to work with Levels. This is the way our team thinks about things, the way we communicate.”

Ben Grynol: And so Miz and I sat down and really worked through the process of documenting what we’re going to do for this documentarian initiative, how we’re going to do it, what it even is, what are some of the benefits of doing it in one way and executing quickly, versus doing it another way.

Ben Grynol: So really interesting exercise. Pretty meta to record a podcast and document the process, but here it is. We worked through it, we talked through it, and this is where we picked up.

Ben Grynol: We’re going to record a podcast that we don’t even know if this thing is going to go out. We’re just going to record our process in trying to figure this out. And what we’re doing is Sam had tapped both of us to come up with five pieces of company culture that we might want to include in onboarding, right? So for new hires who come onboard.

Ben Grynol: So, I think what we’ll do is let’s work out sort of the what, the why, and the how and then just go through these principles and see if it makes sense. So, whether or not we launch this as a podcast, who knows, but here we go, we’ll dive into it.

Michael Mizrahi: Sounds good. One thing also just to say upfront that I think is a helpful framing that I also mentioned for Sam is that as much as this is helpful for onboarding, it’s also for current employees, right? We’re 20-something people now and the culture is being built as we speak and changing everyday. And so it’s not just for new people joining, but also kind of cementing some of the things we’re already doing amongst the team.

Ben Grynol: Yeah. So, maybe let’s dive into that alone. So, culture is an interesting thing that I’m sure we could digress pretty deep into. But culture is not what you say, it’s what you do, and culture is built around the conditions that are created, right?

Ben Grynol: So, it’s like we can’t be like culture is telling people to work hard. That’s not how you have culture, people aren’t going to work hard from that. They’ll work hard or they’ll put in a lot of effort based on showing the principles from the conditions that are created.

Ben Grynol: So, autonomy, freedom, execution, things that are valued, that’s how culture is built around factors such as those.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah, that feels right. And I think that we want to often document it and put in place a policy, have some writing that captures it. But in practice it works a little bit differently.

Ben Grynol: Exactly, exactly, and less of, to push back on it, maybe less of a policy because I think that’s almost the opposite of culture, right? Is documenting something, saying that this is our policy and then expecting culture to be born from that.

Ben Grynol: I think it’s more a matter of documenting it for visibility and for optics so that everybody can rally around what those north star points are and agree and say, “Yes, we understand that this is what we’re all striving towards.” As opposed to being prescriptive and saying, “Our goal is to move fast.” That’s meaningless.

Ben Grynol: It’s like showing people that we move fast and here’s how we have moved fast and continuing to do so is what will get everybody doing, putting one foot in front of the other at the same time.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah, that makes sense. I think we can take the world of policy and just kind of curve it out. Policies are for larger organizations that need to control a lot of people through systems instead of through culture. And we’re a small company. We can use guidelines and policies as kind of guardrails in the right places if we’re talking about expense policies or travel or reimbursement, things where it makes sense and there’s a reason to protect something versus the culture of how we work is entirely different and not necessarily also need to be prescribed top down.

Ben Grynol: Exactly. That’s exactly it. So, if we dive in, this is going to be the most meta podcast there is. It’s a podcast that we’re recording about working something out in real time including the next step.

Ben Grynol: So, that’s what’s pretty funny and the point of this podcast which brings it back to it being meta is that this is really an inside look at us building the company in real time. So, here it goes.

Michael Mizrahi: Sounds good.

Ben Grynol: So Sam wanted us to interview team members through either videos, they could be asynchronous Loom videos or in an audio format, which is a voice message or even a written format to get their take on either what they view the five principle of culture to be within our team or to get their take if we work out, “Hey, here are five principles that I think we’re pretty aligned on as a team, they feel right, we can get feedback from team members.”

Ben Grynol: But we can also say, “Hey Tom Griffin,” Head of Partnerships. “Hey Tom, what does velocity mean to you?” If velocity happens to be one of those principles. Does that feel like it’s in the right direction?

Michael Mizrahi: It does, yeah. I think we basically want to capture how people work so that folks who are joining the company understand how we work. They can observe that overtime and kind of pick up on cues from their peers, but we want to have something a little bit more formal to put in front of them to share and to show how we actually do things and how people get their jobs done well in ways that we appreciate and ways that we think are good markers of our culture.

Michael Mizrahi: There was a good example this week where Mike Haney, who is our Content efforts was reaching out to myself, to Mercy, to Brayden, and to the support team, asking for members that he could interview for potential blog posts that were coming up.

Michael Mizrahi: And so he put out this content to say, “Hey, if you guys come across anyone that seems interesting, let me know. Would very much appreciate it.” Which, we get these kinds of requests often and a lot of companies … There’s a lot of requests flying around in a lot of different directions.

Michael Mizrahi: And so we replied and we said, “Great, we’ll keep an eye out, we’ll keep you posted.” And then three days later, so on Friday or so, Brayden and Mercy replied back on the thread and they said, “Here’s a notion table. Here’s six to 10 customers that we’ve spoken to over the last few weeks. We’ve looked through the conversations that we’ve had. These members would be great to talk to and here’s the reasons why.” With the full metrics and just delivered what they said they would pretty well and thoroughly. And I stepped back for a moment, I was like, “Great. They said what they were going to do. They kind of delivered beyond the ask or the expectation.”

Michael Mizrahi: And I pointed out to them. I was like, “This is a great marker of culture. You guys did something on a short timeline, delivered for another team and were consistent and thorough in your work and you partnered up to do that.”

Michael Mizrahi: And so it sounds obvious, it sounds trivial but it’s nice when people do what they say they will. Capturing that simple email chain, for me it’s like let me put a bookmark on this one, I’ll label this email chain. If we ever build something around culture of here’s how we work across function, here’s how we deliver when we say we will, this is a good example of that.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, it’s funny that you say that because one of the … We’re all going to have roughly the same viewpoint on what these cultural factors are that we really value as a team.

Ben Grynol: Semantically we might label them differently like speed versus velocity, it’s the same thing, right? But talking about exceeding expectations, defaulting to velocity and then closing the loop, those are three distinct things that we talk about time and time again closing the loop.

Ben Grynol: And that’s what you mentioned with Mercy and Brayden is that they followed through and that was like closing the loop for Haney. “Hey Haney, here’s what you asked for, here is us executing on it. There you go. Hopefully your job … Hopefully we just saved you three hours of trying to find people through search because this actually took us 15 or 20 minutes.” I think that’s always-

Michael Mizrahi: We can do all of your work.

Ben Grynol: Exactly, exactly, because we try to get away from tribal knowledge. We try very, very hard, and that’s through our documentation process. But no matter how well we document anything and no matter how well any company does, the person who first documented it has the best lens where if there was a six-page memo and you had to read through the whole thing, and I was like, “Hey Miz, the TLDR is we’re going to reach out to subscribers because we’ve now hit 1,000.” You’d be like, “Cool.” If that’s the main takeaway, right?

Ben Grynol: Always making somebody else’s job easier so that they know when and where to invest time is super important to our team to maintain that velocity.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah, that makes sense and there’s something interesting on the close the loop piece that I wanted to chat about, which is there’s a nice alignment with our product there that is kind of fortuitous. We got lucky with it.

Michael Mizrahi: But we’re all about closed loop feedback systems. We talk about how important that is in behavior change or building good habits in the glucose sense. Our app is kind of built around that with activity logs, zone scores, the catalog.

Michael Mizrahi: There’s something nice about doing that internally as well and being able to say we believe in closed loop feedback systems. If we run an assemblage like our virtual offsite, we’re going to send out a feedback survey, which again most companies do, but we’re going to integrate it in these ways. We’re going to constantly pull out what we’ve learned, bring it back in.

Michael Mizrahi: If someone opens an email tab, we’re not going to leave things open, right? We’re going to make sure we followup. And sometimes just building that habit, doing it consistently starts to feel really good.

Michael Mizrahi: There’s an alternate path where you’re at a company that’s larger, where there’s a lot of initiatives, and there’s so much going on that you almost fall behind in closing the loop and you’re only focused on your team’s priorities or what’s on your plate, and even sometimes those drop and you build a habit in the other direction which is things are going to drop, there’s going to be a million things going on, and we’re always just going to keep moving forward and do whatever is most urgent in front of us.

Michael Mizrahi: And so I like that we’re building the positive habit here, at least at this point.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, and one thing that I think we’re trying to maintain, and this is what happens with larger organizations where they start to get slow is, a, recency, and b, focus. So, recency meaning it’s not that everything is on fire, everything is equally as important because it just came up.

Ben Grynol: Okay, that’s not the way to execute, right? That is where people feel like they’re doing meaningful work but they’re actually just doing lots of little tasks that are busy work.

Ben Grynol: And the second is focus, knowing when to say no so that … And everyone can always get better at this everywhere, right? It’s like knowing when to say no and when to deviate from saying no because it’s really easy to start exploration of everything that it seems like it will get us to an end goal but in the end it becomes the opportunity cost of time, right?

Ben Grynol: Every minute that we spend on something that is not related to our north star and if our north star is creating the best possible member experience and getting to launch, then it’s like what are the activities we have to do to get to that point and knowing that our longterm goal is always creating a movement, creating an unbelievable experience and building this MPS unicorn that we often talk about.

Ben Grynol: I think that’s where we are trying very hard, especially as a remote company, to do things differently than larger organizations where it’s like, okay we’ve got all these initiatives going on and everything is important and then like you said, your time gets diluted and there’s not really a cohesive focus that everybody is trying to maintain.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. The key is, at this point, not trying to do too much. Making sure that the focus is clear across the company and the priorities of teams are aligned. In a large organization you have the OKR format for example which is setting those big objectives at the company level and making sure that each team’s goals cascade into that, and then each individual’s goals cascade into their team goals.

Michael Mizrahi: We don’t yet have that kind of massive alignment necessary because it’s just simpler at this point. We know what the product we’re building is, the future is fairly scoped and then this comes back to documentation and alignment.

Michael Mizrahi: We have good docs, at least quarterly, that lay out the product strategy, that lay out experimentation strategy. And reading those brings you up to speed on the thought process that went into that such that you can then go do your job and understand where it fits in the context of the larger company goal at this point in time.

Michael Mizrahi: And so at least when I started, which was in the fall of 2020, so the last six, eight months or so ago, reading those documents through the onboarding and even the recruiting process gave me so much insight into what stage the company was at such that even before I got in and before I got started, I had a pretty good understanding of what the priorities were for the operations functions as a whole, what needed to be done in order to make the dreams of the strategy docs closer to reality.

Michael Mizrahi: And so that’s where the documentation really, really shined for me was very early on being able to read through, understand thought processes. And that in itself was strategy and memo but there was also a fair amount of culture, seeing how the disagreements happened, seeing how the conversations unfolded, understanding different perspectives of people on the team.

Michael Mizrahi: All that happened in the past way before I was reading those docs. I was able to kind of get up to speed in a way with really, really high fidelity that wouldn’t be possible in other contexts when there’s just an output of these are the key objectives X, Y, Z and here’s how we’re executing them.

Ben Grynol: Yes. It’s a funny thing to think about because I’ve never thought about it this way but can you read culture? It’s a weird thing to say but you actually can because I felt a similar thing where you feel like you’re amassing yourself in the culture or the conversations as a fly on the wall because we do everything, almost everything, 95% of things are done asynchronously and because we’re a remote team.

Ben Grynol: And so the byproduct of that is reading through documentation which are the conversations that occurred asynchronously, right? And so you feel like, oh, I was part of this meeting, I was part of this process, I understand the culture.

Ben Grynol: And to your point of when there are differences in opinion, that can come through in comments and you can see, oh this is how it was resolved in a very transparent way. And that idea of being able to read culture and almost feel like you have a bit of a pulse on it before starting is a really neat way of thinking about things because I can’t think of another company where you would have this much transparency into what it might be like to work with the team.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. The big key that you’re touching on there that for me is a pretty essential piece of it is transparency. In other contexts, I don’t think companies or founding teams or whatever it might be, would feel comfortable opening their books and basically showing you how some very key decisions were made like here is our fundraising strategy, here’s the firms that we think are aligned with us and why we might go with them.

Michael Mizrahi: That generally is going to happen between founders, between an exec team, behind closed doors, in a meeting, not even documented amongst themselves. And for new hires to be able to join a company of 20 and understand what the fundraising strategy was and why we did what we did and kind of how and when we choose to raise, being able to read that and then using that transparency principle across all of our documents, products strategy, all the memos that we write, because they’re default open in most cases, you can see how the sausage was made.

Michael Mizrahi: And because we’re async, it’s all written in and in context there. And so those are things that are pretty tough to find in other companies that you join even if they’re small. A lot of those decisions are made, you live and work with the outcomes of the decisions. You may or may not understand all the pieces of the strategy that went into it.

Michael Mizrahi: In our world, being able to really, really just go into that history and understand it is incredibly valuable, and is part of the culture, right? We have this default public culture. We’re doing this podcast that people may listen to in the future and we have that in mind, which has pros and cons. I think there’s a flip side to it that’s also worth thinking through and discussing and it may be a conversation we have internally as well.

Ben Grynol: Yeah. I think that flip side that you’re leaning into is exactly what I started thinking about, which is it’s great to be transparent. I’m a huge believer in it subjectively. It’s whether or not everybody agrees, and I’m not saying within our organization, outside of our organization there might be people who have a different lens, which is totally fine.

Ben Grynol: The challenge with having so much access to information especially as a new team member coming in, is that it’s like, oh my goodness, where to start. You get cognitive overload and you get overwhelmed. You think, “Oh my goodness, should I be reading all of this documentation? How far back historically should I go? Should I be reading the January 2020 docs, right?” You don’t know at what point you should stop because they’re diminishing returns on digging into the content.

Ben Grynol: I think that’s natural. It’s just the by-product of the further along we get in this journey, the more team members we bring on board, the more communication overhead there is, and the more content there is to digest.

Ben Grynol: And so I think it’s a balance of setting expectations around here are the top 10, or top 20, top X number of docs that you should refer to. If you choose to dig into other ones or come across them serendipitously in the future through linking, great. Feel free to glance at them but no need to digest them.

Ben Grynol: I think that’s the challenges without giving people direction. People who are ambitious will come in and they’ll be like, “Okay, I’ve got to download the library into my head.”

Ben Grynol: And so you’re sitting there almost trying to study everything and being like does this pertain to the scope of work that I have day-to-day and it might be something so long tail like a clinical strategy and if you’re in ops that might not be something that you need to spend an hour reading.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. It’s interesting you mention that because it’s come up in the last few new hires that we brought onboard. We have this onboarding project that links to a bunch of key documents along the way.

Michael Mizrahi: And in the past, so part one, the volume of that is increasing, right? Like every that passes we have a few more memos that are out and so just the back catalog is just getting bigger and bigger. There’s more and more to digest.

Michael Mizrahi: And so what worked, let’s say six months ago in terms of having people get up to speed, is just a much bigger task today and there’s so much more going on. Every new hire brings new perspective. So these docs are just getting longer and the number of docs are getting larger. And so that’s one piece.

Michael Mizrahi: The second it comes down to just different styles. You mentioned someone who is super ambitious might come in and just download the whole thing and have to read through it over a course of a few weeks or weekends.

Michael Mizrahi: I think people learn differently. Some people really thrive off of getting into those docs, understanding the details, learning the lay of the land deeply and then zooming out and getting into their functional role.

Michael Mizrahi: Other people might work better when they have a question and then they know that they can find the answer and go research it later on. And so there’s just different learning styles there that we need to consider that maybe we haven’t. We’ve had this approach that’s just like, “Here’s everything, get up to speed.”

Michael Mizrahi: But the last point that you mentioned around pulling out the top 10 docs to read, I think from a high level it’s very easy to say, “Here’s the growth strategy doc that’s recent, here’s the content strategy doc from the last quarter that you should catch up on.” Those are easy to pick up as the top 10.

Michael Mizrahi: But the devil is in the details of culture are in those other strategy docs that might not be relevant to a function but if we’re doing a clinical research memo that’s from six months ago, seeing how a conversation unfolded in an area that’s not relevant is interesting too.

Michael Mizrahi: And that’s where a lot of those cultural details, I feel like are picked up on. They’re not necessarily always in the flagship memos, but they’re in those other ones. And so the question is how do we give people exposure to enough of those so that they understand how we do things.

Michael Mizrahi: And then the next question is, is there another way to do that? Is it necessarily that everyone has to pick up on those details. Sometimes they can be pretty light to pick up on. Do they have to get that through the memos themselves or can we teach that or document that in some other way by saying, “Here’s how generally we have conversations, here’s how we disagree and commit and build principles, our Amazon leadership principles in that way versus having to show it.”

Michael Mizrahi: So, that could be an approach that we take that lifts the scale a little bit better.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, it’s funny that you mentioned that because take the “top 10 docs”. Most of them are going to have plus ones and 100s and I love this as the main comments, right?

Ben Grynol: There might be some feedback where it’s like at the bottom Miz’s thoughts, X, Y, and Z. And that’s fine. The ones that are meatier in or more thorough, let’s use that word, that are more thorough in the conversation that has happened within probably don’t surface that easily.

Ben Grynol: So, let’s use the, I think it’s called The Levels Transparency Memo, is what we ended up landing on for the title. But the idea was the build-in public memo. And there is a lot of deep conversation between all team members as far as what our stance might be on how transparent we are as an organization and what are some of the benefits to it and what are some of the potential downfalls or the potential pain points of doing it.

Ben Grynol: That has really deep conversation and there is a lot of thorough feedback and it would take a person a while to go through all the comment threads there but I think that would give someone a sense of, hey culturally this is how a team, because I would say that a fair number of our team members have left at least one comment in that doc.

Ben Grynol: And so we don’t use Slack. Slack is not a feedback mechanism. It might be for other companies but we just say, “No, this is not something that is easy to search and reference.”

Ben Grynol: All of our feedback should live in, and this is a much larger conversation, but most of our feedback should live in notion for anything pertaining to a doc. So, it’s interesting that you bring that up because yeah, it’s hard to really get that reference point without knowing which documents to go into and why.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah, it’s almost like the fails memos or the ones that led to a decision that didn’t reach the outcome that was originally set out on. Those are the interesting ones I think. And so yeah, that privacy/transparency one was an interesting one.

Michael Mizrahi: There’s one that you put out early on around engaging the wait list or just converting more members that we didn’t end up going with but the conversation there was gold, right? It’s like really getting into the details of what are we trying to do, why are we doing X, Y, Z and so maybe we should select those. And it’s like the best of that you’re not expecting.

Ben Grynol: Yeah it’s funny because I just started thinking about that and then you brought it up. It was called The Double Opt-in Weight Loss Memo.

Michael Mizrahi: Double Opt-in, yeah.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, and I think as a digression, GM had sent out an email earlier today talking about tapping subscribers. Like hey, should we think about how to really push on subscriptions as an initiative? And we’ve decided many times over and over, we keep revisiting it, but that’s not our goal in the near term is to drive subscriptions for a number of reasons. But let’s say infrastructure is one of them.

Ben Grynol: And that I am almost positive that had come up in that double opt-in memo as well, right?

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: Where it’s like we’ve talked about this so many times through different threads that that’s the lens on it, but how would you ever find that information, right? It’s hard to get to the point where it’s like, “Oh, I can see how all of these different decisions were made with five or more people all contributing to that final decision.”

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah, there’s tribal knowledge about which of our documented knowledge is relevant at any point in time. And that’s okay. There was X many people on that memo at that time six, seven months ago and many more people have joined since.

Michael Mizrahi: And so I think it’s okay to say, “Hey, we actually discuss this a while back. The outcomes may be different today but let’s revisit that conversation that we had there because we spent a lot of time, energy and thought on it.”

Ben Grynol: Yeah. Man, as a side note can you imagine the amount of tribal knowledge that Bezos would have?

Michael Mizrahi: It’s great, yeah.

Ben Grynol: It’s so cool but yeah.

Michael Mizrahi: They documented. Context, obviously we’re reading, working backwards now as a team and kind of taking some learnings from that, but the way in which all of their learnings pull back into their principles is just amazing. They really have built something special there in terms of culture.

Ben Grynol: It’s very cool. It is very cool.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah, that’s another subject for another time.

Ben Grynol: That’s right. Okay. So, we’ve got a bunch of principles. I wrote down a number of them and I think that what we want to do is land on whatever it is, five, eight, it doesn’t matter the exact number, a number of principles.

Ben Grynol: We can go through them and if those ones seem to make sense, then we can run with those. And what we’ll do with them is we’ll get … I think we probably want to have one standardized approach so that it’s not confusing to team members but we can reach out to X number of team members, whatever it is, five to seven team members and get them to record a Loom, a five minute Loom going through what each of those principles means to them.

Ben Grynol: And then we can extract bites and maybe stitch that together into an intro video that’s 10 minutes so that somebody can get, like a new hire could get context for the way our team thinks about these principles or maybe we do it to till Levels announce. I don’t know, I’m riffing on it, but I don’t know, your thoughts?

Michael Mizrahi: That sounds right. I think one compilation of it is an interesting deliverable at the end. The other thing is that each one of those videos or recordings then can live on the memos or the policy pages that exist for a certain topic.

Michael Mizrahi: So, if we’re talking about our vacation policy, we can have two or three videos on that page that explain how different people in the company think about our vacation policy. This brings to mind the Zappos culture book. Are you familiar with it?

Ben Grynol: Not super, but okay.

Michael Mizrahi: Every year for many years, I think, I don’t know if they do this post-Amazon acquisition, but Zappos had a pretty unique culture, has a pretty unique culture and they published this culture book annually where they’d asked everyone in the company from warehouse associate all the way up to exec team what does Zappos culture mean to you.

Michael Mizrahi: I think it was a pretty straightforward question, a pretty standardized blank question and people just would either write a few sentences, they’d write multi-page essays about it. They’d pull all this together and put it into a published book and that’s the culture book.

Ben Grynol: That’s cool.

Michael Mizrahi: Really interesting read. I have the 2009 one. It’s just interesting to see what the company means to people and how they capture that with such an open-ended question. I might be getting some of the details wrong, it’s been a while since I’ve cracked it open.

Michael Mizrahi: But this is essentially that. It’s crowdsourcing and understanding what our culture actually is from the people who are living it every day across all the different topics that might exist.

Michael Mizrahi: And so I’m curious to hear which ones you’ve got on the list to start.

Ben Grynol: That’s interesting as an approach. So, here’s the thing, do we do that? Do we say what does the Levels culture mean to you? Which is going to be open-ended and give people the option to …

Ben Grynol: We can suggest that you can do a video through Loom. You can write out a short response to what it means to you or you can do an audio message, whatever is going to be the easiest to you.

Ben Grynol: So, the upside is that it’s open-ended. The downside is that we are putting a cognitive load on people and the fact that they have multiple decisions. A, this open-ended question of what does culture mean to you. And B, maybe they will think that it’s more challenging than it is because they’re like, okay, well should I record a Loom. If I write, how long does this thing have to be?

Ben Grynol: Whereas if we are prescriptive in the format, that being please record a Loom and answer these, whatever it is, five to 10 principles. A short soundbite on what each one of these means. What do you think is the better approach?

Michael Mizrahi: The medium I think is a personal decision for folks. I don’t know that there’s too much cognitive load there. People might just default to what feels comfortable. I think the open-ended over the leading question, I think we might be surprised at how much the results end up coming to the same points.

Michael Mizrahi: Obviously not in the same structured way. But I think if we give an open-ended question, what does Levels culture mean to you or how do you feel the Levels culture is lived everyday or whatever it might be, we’re going to come back to a few of the same fundamentals, right?

Michael Mizrahi: There’s going to be something about transparency, people are going to talk about the async and remote nature of our work, we’re going to talk about documentation, they’re going to talk about closed loop feedback systems.

Michael Mizrahi: And so we can ask the questions about each one of those things or we can leave it open ended and get the same answers and maybe a little bit more of an organic, less leading question way.

Michael Mizrahi: I think the idea of the open-ended question and seeing, one, how aligned the team is and how much what we think our culture is, is actually what people think it is or not. It might be an interesting learning.

Ben Grynol: Very, very interesting. So maybe a way of doing it is that we can do the open-ended question. I think it would be neat to keep the format standardized only for future execution.

Ben Grynol: So, assume we say, “Please record a Loom,” or whatever it is. Say, “Record a Loom that’s five to 10 minutes or however long walking through this question, what is Levels culture and what does it mean to you.”

Ben Grynol: And then from there we can synthesize the feedback and extract each theme so that-

Michael Mizrahi: We can put it together and do some editing.

Ben Grynol: Yeah. The five themes are like velocity, async over sync, all these things. And then we can create little stitched together videos and summaries for each one and say a new hire comes onboard and it’s like here are the five …

Ben Grynol: We asked our team what they thought Levels culture was, here’s what it is or here’s what everybody aligned on, these five principles. And then there’s a little video that supports the short summary, what does velocity mean.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: Then everyone’s sort of … Again, we don’t have to have every single person’s answer in a video about velocity that ends up being 15 minutes, but we would pick five to keep it as this nice two minute little type video so that in total there’s 10 minutes of videos to watch and a couple of summaries.

Michael Mizrahi: I love it. I think the content will be super rich. There’s a lot we can do with it. There’s a compilation, there is pulling and adding to individual topics and doing some editing there. We need to make sure obviously that we pose that question before we shared any of this recording about what we think the answers might be and we just get fewer responses there.

Ben Grynol: Well we’ll default to velocity. Velocity is one of the factors we’ll get this done quickly.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: So, here are the ones that I wrote down. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s overlap on all of them between both of us or if there’s agreement, disagreement, but I think it will be a good exercise for each of us to do it independently too.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. Go for it.

Ben Grynol: So, as a side note before we jump into it, I think we can also … There are things that we can use this execution tactic for such as vacation policy which vacation it likely won’t tie into a conversation like an open-ended question about what is Levels culture.

Ben Grynol: It might come up loosely but if we wanted to create that as part of the onboarding experience, we could pick out certain buckets and say, “Please record a Loom talking about the way you think about vacation or think week or benefits,” if we think that’s going to make the onboarding experience better.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. I think you’d be surprised how much it does come up organically if we’re asking about culture. At least if you were to ask me today, that would be one of the things my head would go towards.

Ben Grynol: It’s so funny if my head doesn’t go there.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: I think it’s just also everybody has got a different outlook on it.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: I think it’s just also everybody has got a different outlook on just …

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, it’s just so funny. But yeah.

Michael Mizrahi: I’m jotting down a few here that I’m thinking of before I hear yours. But yeah, go for it.

Ben Grynol: Okay. I’m going to read them because I’ve got them as notes, so it’s going to be a little bit dry. But default to velocity. So, ship fast and often and don’t worry about perfection.

Ben Grynol: Make decisions quickly. If it’s a one-way door sink the ship decision versus a two-way door, a non-sink the ship decision, move very quickly, right? So, it’s like that velocity should come in to not just execution but also decision making.

Ben Grynol: Operate with urgency but don’t be reactive, right? So, there’s a big difference between urgency, that being I’m going to get this done quickly, and we have to move quickly as a team and individually on everything we’re working on, but we don’t want to be reactive, we’re getting distracted outside of what we’re trying to accomplish every minute, every hour, every day, every week.

Ben Grynol: React to fires but be passive about recency. So, if we have an infrastructure or an engineering and operations, some issue that is a clear fire, act with absolute urgency.

Ben Grynol: But be passive about recency. So, somebody sends a Slack message, and this ties into the next point, which is being asynchronous, but we all want to act on opportunities when they align with our longterm goals and what’s best for our members but we don’t want to be distracted by it. So, that is my default to velocity.

Michael Mizrahi: Got you.

Ben Grynol: Next one, async over sync. Communicate clearly in default to being asynchronous over synchronous. Pretty simple. That one we can dive into a little bit further, which is try really hard to not have meetings.

Ben Grynol: And I think we do this very well as a company. And that is not just internal but external. It’s okay to have meetings especially anything project-based or one-on-one catch-ups. If it’s deemed that a meeting is needed to make progress because it’s going to take more time to go back and forth, right?

Ben Grynol: But do your best to stay asynchronous. That’s a better use of everybody’s time and I think we do that very well as a company.

Ben Grynol: Experiment often. This is something that … I think experimentation is everybody’s job. We want to experiment with everything. And again, this is counterintuitive, this is a juxtaposition between moving fast and saying no to a lot of things and staying focused but also experimenting so that we’re trying lots of things.

Ben Grynol: So, I know in that Amazon book there is a line about plant lots of seeds because you never know which one will be an oak tree and it takes a lot of seeds to actually bloom a tree. I think we need to maintain that same mindset where we are willing to experiment with absolutely everything, take away learnings and keep iterating on it so it’s that build, test, iterate, build, test, iterate, go, go, go.

Ben Grynol: And if we maintain that across the company where experimentation is not a byproduct simply of product development, it’s a byproduct of ops, growth, partnerships, product, you name it, then I think it’s going to get us to a good place.

Ben Grynol: Member centric. Be member centric through the experience that we give people and the support that we offer them. All decisions are made in the best interest of members as opposed to Levels as a business.

Ben Grynol: And this is something that Haney and I actually discussed in the last episode, which was MPS Unicorn, how are we going to do that?

Ben Grynol: It’s counterintuitive because if you’re wearing a capitalist hat, our goal is to provide returns to our investors, returns to the company. But if you’re wearing our experience hat, which is how are we going to build an MPS Unicorn that cares about members and that does the best thing for them, that’s the Amazon lens is that if you do that we think that it’s going to actually provide the returns.

Ben Grynol: I’ve got a couple more here. So scrappy and frugal. Do more with less, understand what time scrappy is and that it’s more important than being money or capital scrappy.

Ben Grynol: Our team’s time doesn’t scale and so we have to find ways to do so, closing the loop again. No matter what we’re doing, we always want to close that loop whether it’s with internal team members about an initiative that was completed or with our members to say, “Hey, you gave us this feedback, here is how we acted on it.”

Ben Grynol: Transparency, we talked about being open. And the last one, this is one that Darren Murph from GitLab had brought up, that Sam and I talk about it often is short toes. Meaning we’re not afraid to work together. We don’t feel like that we’re stepping on people’s toes by trying to help the company get to a better place.

Ben Grynol: And that is very much a juxtaposition to corporate culture, which is like oh no, this is Billy’s lane of work. I don’t want to step on Billy’s toes and then you have people going back and forth about why. You waste so much time worrying about who’s work does that fall under?

Ben Grynol: And so that’s something that I think we maintain pretty well is just all working together to make sure we are making progress. So, that is my list of cultural factors, principles, if you want to call them that.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. To tap on a little bit to the short toes one, the one piece there is that it’s not just worrying about if you’re stepping on Billy’s toes and caring about feelings or making sure that everyone is aligned in how you’re delivering.

Michael Mizrahi: The message there it’s what that’s prioritized over, right? And so I didn’t do project X because I didn’t want to step on Billy’s toes and as a result we didn’t deliver Y for our members, right?

Michael Mizrahi: And so it’s making sure that our priorities of member experience, of product delivery, of putting out features is prioritized over the internal emotional dynamics that we should be mature enough to navigate effectively. Does that make sense?

Ben Grynol: Absolutely yeah. I think that’s exactly it.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. Your list is interesting. I very much align to a lot of the same themes. I think about them differently, from a different level of altitude when we get into the details. And so not to … I didn’t put together a list coming in but I think a lot of the principles are the same.

Michael Mizrahi: There’s definitely one around feedback internally, in the product. I think that’s where something like short toes goes, constructive criticism, a lot of feedback, a lot of thoughts, a lot of input, but still having single threaded leaders and decision makers in that particular area.

Michael Mizrahi: There’s something interesting around time. You mentioned velocity quite a bit. I think there’s also something to being resourceful and smart about our time where a seed stage, venture back company like clock is ticking, we’re spending money here, making sure that we’re spending it smartly which doesn’t always mean frugally, right?

Michael Mizrahi: Sometimes it is smart to spend money to get to an outcome faster because it will save us time, of our team’s time or of our team’s effort. And so if there’s something simple that we can pay for a service or a product not being super frugal there, realizing that we can push the limits here, we’re supposed to find things out fast and it’s okay to prioritize time over money in some cases.

Michael Mizrahi: Obviously we want to be smart about that, but that’s definitely a part of the culture that can feel uncomfortable to people sometimes to dive right into that.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, I agree with that. Definitely agree with that.

Michael Mizrahi: I think a lot of that comes from Sam too. There are sometimes where we have to recalibrate on something like, “Are we sure we want to do this? That’s a big dollar amount.” He’s like, “Absolutely. Here is why.”

Michael Mizrahi: And so there’s been a few of those that come to mind. There’s a big piece around process. In my head I go to specific memos, right? Like memos over meetings or mandatory minimum vacation policy, right?

Michael Mizrahi: And so from the outside something like the mandatory minimum vacation as our policy it’s that everyone should take at least one week off per quarter. So, we have an “unlimited vacation policy” but it comes with a mandatory minimum to make sure that people actually take it.

Michael Mizrahi: There’s two effects to that. So, you can look at it from the rationale of we want everyone to live balanced lives, to be healthy, to make sure that there isn’t a center point that they’re recharging and doing leisure for the sake of leisure, not just to come back better to work.

Michael Mizrahi: There’s that side of it. There’s also the benefits that come internally when people take time off, we learn where there are process gaps, we learn where we’re missing documentation, and those are opportunities to improve.

Michael Mizrahi: And so foreseeing engineer X to take off one week per quarter, if they’re the only person that knows how to resolve a certain issue or outage or alert or run a certain process, then that’s a whole in the company, right?

Michael Mizrahi: We shouldn’t be reliant in that way. Obviously people are going to have specializations and be great at certain things and that’s okay. But because we’re async, because we don’t have an office, and because we’re leaning into documentation, something like the vacation policy really forces that to happen.

Michael Mizrahi: So, on the one hand there’s the employee wellness benefit side of it. On the other is that it makes the company stronger and it builds up our internal docs and our internal culture around being able to run efficiently and have good documentation which we know matters for a bunch of reasons. And so I think through that policy in a few different ways.

Ben Grynol: I like that. That’s a neat way of looking at it because it’s not often that people look at it from the perspective of oh this is an opportunity for us to identify gaps. And it’s very clearly the opportunity to do that is to say, “Oh, we’ve got a gap here in skillset, in processing, whatever it is, because we’re relying too heavily on that one nail to be holding the board together for the entire deck.”

Ben Grynol: And it’s like probably not a good idea. We have to figure out how to spread that support around.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. That works interestingly too when a company gets larger because a super large company with thousands of employees, people can come and go, someone can leave a role and things get absorbed.

Michael Mizrahi: There’s enough redundancy built in that no process is that proprietary. We’re kind of on the other end of the spectrum where every one person does a bunch of tasks and it’s very easy for tasks to get lost. It’s just something that someone runs every week. For example, every other week I’m doing physician fee payments.

Michael Mizrahi: Not a huge process, takes 20 minutes. But no one really knows how that works. And so a few weeks ago I just spun up a Loom, recorded it while I was doing it, no vacation plan, I’m not planning to hand it off to anyone, but it doesn’t hurt to have that documented.

Michael Mizrahi: And it really makes you think through all the work that you’re doing and making sure that it’s built properly for the company. And so I like those double-edged policies that improve the employee experience but also improve the company side of it. Vacation is a good one where that shines.

Ben Grynol: Agree.

Michael Mizrahi: What else? I think you spoke quite a bit about transparency, or we did earlier at least. And I think that definitely is one of the cultural pillars. And so won’t go too deep there. It’s a topic on it’s own, right?

Michael Mizrahi: But something that we’re pulling back a little bit that I’m curious if you’ve had thoughts on is that we have our stated values of the company. There’s openness, there’s transparency. I don’t feel like we reference those nearly as much as we referenced some of these cultural touchpoints that we’re talking about here.

Michael Mizrahi: And I wonder if there’s a world where we need to bring these into alignment to revisit the company values that were set on the stone tablets when the company was founded and the founders met to kind of set out on building a culture versus how things have actually played out to this point two years in with how things are looking in practice.

Michael Mizrahi: Because I think a lot of the principles are the same but the way in which they’re worded and the way in which they’re practiced if you just pull up our values on paper, it doesn’t exactly align to the exact manifestation of those that you and I spoke about here.

Ben Grynol: It’s funny. I thought about that over the past few weeks where I’ve thought what I know I’ve read the values and read them regularly where I keep trying to revisit them to say are we living these values, are these things that we believe that we all align on internally and not because I think there isn’t alignment, it’s just good to revisit them.

Ben Grynol: And so the values are integrity, ownership, openness, boldness and intentionality.

Michael Mizrahi: Intentionality.

Ben Grynol: I can’t articulate words very well today, intentionality. There’s definitely overlap between what we’ve spoken about so far but I don’t think we’ve referenced these things like let’s look at openness and maybe it’s just changing like it’s semantics, right?

Ben Grynol: Openness is transparency because we talk about transparency. But openness isn’t as salient or memorable in something that we reference as a team. We don’t say, “Well Miz that was great openness.” We just say, “The fact that you were transparent there really helped us with X, Y and Z.”

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. And reading some of this now, one of the sub points of openness is to minimize use of jargon and acronyms, creating an environment where everyone can be understood and understand.

Michael Mizrahi: And so it’s funny because we have an email thread going right now about use of acronyms and I don’t think anyone has referenced the fact that that’s somewhere deep in our values. And so that’s a wake-up point.

Ben Grynol: Are we using them? I haven’t seen too many acronyms flying around but …

Michael Mizrahi: We’re having a semantic conversation about the difference between lingo, which makes people feel welcomed and like part of a group. And I forget what the phrasing was. And it wasn’t acronyms. It was lingo and jargon, and jargon which can be kind of dismissive if you’re not in the know. So yeah. I’d say a lot of this comes from Tesla too or sorry from SpaceX and Job’s experience there with no using acronyms from an Elon mandate.

Ben Grynol: Seth Gordon put out a blog post.

Michael Mizrahi: Yes.

Ben Grynol: I think it was yesterday.

Michael Mizrahi: Yes, it was this weekend, yeah, that actually came up.

Ben Grynol: That’s so funny that you say it because I remember reading that and I was like, “Oh, interesting.”

Michael Mizrahi: I told that in exactly into that thread, I said, “Yeah, weekend reading, here it is.”

Ben Grynol: Nice. Very nice. You had more of these values.

Michael Mizrahi: What else do we have here? Bias towards action. Pursue progress over perfection. It’s definitely something that you mentioned upfront. Take justifiable risks. Yeah, these all feel right. You read them on paper and they sound great and they feel in alignment with what we actually practice.

Michael Mizrahi: But the way in which we have them documented here as core values, if we do that experiment and run that what is Levels culture to you, I don’t know that we would get these words specifically.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, very interesting. What are some of the other principles that you had written down as we were going through them?

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. So, feedback was a big one which has a lot of different things in practice. Being resourceful with time, whether that means making smart decisions, delivering what we say we will, removing the white space between teams and between asks so that things just move along.

Michael Mizrahi: Process generally I think we have a focus on process and documentation and thinking through how we’re going to build things scalable and intentionally, there it is, versus just doing things as one offs, right?

Michael Mizrahi: Everything that we do we’re pretty careful about putting together thoughts on and building a process for it so that it can grow and be iterated on and live somewhere in documentation.

Michael Mizrahi: But the redundancy piece that’s async, that’s memos over meetings, right? All those are little process things that by joining this company you kind of signed up to experiment with. We don’t do things traditionally.

Michael Mizrahi: Things are going to change. We’re going to experiment with different approaches, different tools, different formats, different templates. And being open to that constant change is I think part of our culture at this point.

Michael Mizrahi: Transparency is probably the last big one that I jotted down on paper here. I think with time and with effort, this might look a little bit different. But again, the principles are all there.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, one other principle that I think about often, I don’t know, it must be documented in our values. Yeah, again I think it’s loosely documented in the way that they’re written out, but it’s more a matter of semantically we all hold these values, which is honesty being one and that’s back to feedback and transparency.

Ben Grynol: But respect, right? So, I think everybody navigates with a moral compass that is pointed north as far as respect goes. Everybody operates with utmost respect for each other and there’s not a lot of …

Ben Grynol: Again, maybe it’s because of the size we are right now where we’re able to maintain somewhat of an utopian culture, if you want to call it that.

Ben Grynol: But you don’t get a lot of disrespect. We will disagree but it’s not in a disrespectful way. Everybody respects each other for their knowledge, for their skills, and I think everybody looks up to each other too.

Ben Grynol: Everybody is like, “Wow Miz is so great at operations. I look up to Miz at how good he is at operations.” Right? Extrapolate that across the team.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: I think we’ve got this underlying theme of respect when communicating with each other and when valuing the input and the work that everybody is doing.

Michael Mizrahi: That’s fair and that’s definitely one that strikes me and I think strikes other people if you pull up a Friday form video of ours which we send out to a group.

Michael Mizrahi: Something that always gets me there is just how genuine everyone is and it’s not a show, it’s not an act. People here are genuinely very nice as compared to places I’ve worked in the past. Feedback, positive comments, using the Woo Channel to celebrate each other’s wins.

Michael Mizrahi: I think there’s other companies that have that and that have those kinds of pieces built in to kind of build “culture”. But what we don’t have here, and I think part of it is a product of our size at the moment is you’re not having the back channel conversations where you’re saying one thing publicly and then sharing your true thoughts somewhere else.

Michael Mizrahi: People are genuinely honest with their thoughts and genuinely nice to each other and gracious to each other as human beings. There’s a certain maturity there that’s great where you don’t have this culture where everyone is kind of competing against each other and positioning and rallying and jerking in a way that I do think you see quite often in other companies and even reading, back again to this working backwards book, this Amazon book there’s a whole chapter about the WBRs that are on the weekly business reviews and how WBRs gone awry looks like an executive running a meeting who’s already calling out the presenter before they’ve even presented their metric or whatever it might be before they’ve even had a chance.

Michael Mizrahi: I’ve definitely been in work environments where that’s been the case. I’ve been sitting in a WBR and feel that kind of wrath coming. We don’t have that yet.

Ben Grynol: Yeah.

Michael Mizrahi: And hopefully we keep it that way.

Ben Grynol: Yeah. It’s attention and I think that as you mentioned it’s fictitious in some companies where it’s like completely enact. Yes, we’re very respectful but then you hear or see these things that occur that are counterintuitive to everything that is being said. And it’s counterproductive, right?

Ben Grynol: And yeah we don’t have that and that’s one thing that by not having this sense of peacocking where everybody is trying to show their plume, show like look how great I am.

Ben Grynol: Nobody is competing in that way and that, I’ve thought a lot about this, that might very well just be a byproduct of being remote where you don’t get these side conversations like, “Look, Miz actually …” I think you and I have talked about this.

Michael Mizrahi: What Sally had for lunch.

Ben Grynol: Yeah, right. Sally came in at 9:30, and Sally left at 3:00. And you’re like, “Yeah Sally …” The rational mature adult goes, “Sally worked 95 hours this week. I don’t care when Sally comes and goes from a chair.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah.

Ben Grynol: That’s really it.

Michael Mizrahi: The side comment even in Jess is like, “Sally is a part-timer.”

Ben Grynol: Sally doesn’t do her work.

Michael Mizrahi: You can’t control those comments in-person.

Ben Grynol: And those become toxic and those do not result in a productive and a healthy work environment. And where it’s really funny is, you and I have talked about it before, where it’s like, “Look Miz and Ben are going for a walk. I wonder what they’re talking about.”

Ben Grynol: And they’re like probably just cycling. They’re probably talking about going cycling together on the weekend. Or if it’s somebody who might be a co-founder of a company or in some leadership position is, everybody looks at things as far as how aligned Miz is with Ben or whatever it is.

Ben Grynol: It feels very much like the Big Brother environment, like Big Brother the TV show. Not that I watch it, but I understand enough of it from Pam watching it that you get that who is aligned with who, right?

Michael Mizrahi: You don’t see it.

Ben Grynol: And we don’t have that because nobody knows if you talked to Sam for seven hours today or not. And it doesn’t really matter. It’s like is Miz shipping work, is Miz contributing, is Miz being respectful, is Miz holding all of these other cultural values close to his heart and the way that he’s executing.

Ben Grynol: And it’s like if the answer is yes, then we’re in a good place. If the answer is no, where have we gone wrong?

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah, it’s very hard to pull remote, to separate remote from a lot of these pieces that we’re talking about. It’s so built in and such a fundamental piece of the culture that we are remote.

Michael Mizrahi: It’s like you’re not seeing the conference rooms walking by and seeing who’s in it. You’re not seeing people going on walks. You’re not experiencing all those pieces.

Michael Mizrahi: And obviously we know there are downsides to software, but there’s so many pros to it as well that play out in a bunch of really meaningful ways. So yeah, that’s a good one.

Ben Grynol: Nice. Well I think we’re in a good place. I think so the next steps, let’s put together a little doc, like a one-pager saying, “Hey, here’s what we propose which is doing a Loom,” or all the things that we talked about, we’ll tap everyone in the company, we’ll stitch it together as a video for new hires, here’s how we’ll chunk it out.

Ben Grynol: We’ll send that to Sam, get some feedback on it and then if all is good to go then we can start by sending out the what is Levels culture as a question to … maybe instead of sending it to the entire team, we can send it to five people to being with just in case there’s feedback that comes in where it’s like oh, this is … think about tweaking it this way just for now, like monopoling everybody’s time.

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah, just using our shot.

Ben Grynol: Yeah exactly, taking one shot and everyone is like, “Man, this does not work.”

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah. There’s Adam and the editing piece is probably going to be we’ll have to see what content comes out of it, but we can lean on Anthony and the video editing contractor we used to pull this together nicely.

Ben Grynol: That’s exactly what I was thinking.