In this interview I chat with Ben Moore, CEO at Pixel Union, a growing e-commerce company specializing in products and services for online merchants using Shopify. As one of the platform’s biggest partners, Pixel Union has helped tens of thousands of digital brands and entrepreneurs launch and grow their online stores. In addition to being the Chief Executive Officer of a growing and thriving technology company, Ben is a dad, a poet, and loves to fly (in his hang-glider).

Ben, what does culture mean to you? What are some of the things that come up for you?

The easy answer to that question is, well, there is no really easy answer to that question! [laughs] What immediately comes to mind is the life force in your team. Culture is the way your team communicates, the way it thinks about itself, the way it works together. The way it approaches different challenges. Culture is less a thing that you can clearly define and more like a quality that surfaces through day-to-day activities and interaction. This makes it a really tricky thing to build and a really tricky thing to protect, and yet I think it’s probably the most fundamental and important quality of any team.

If you have a strong culture then people are more likely to work hard. They’re more likely to support one another and collaborate. They’re more likely to stick around longer. If you don’t have a great culture, then people don’t have that loyalty either to the company or to each other.

Without a great culture, you haven’t given people much reason to be here other than a paycheque, which doesn’t get you very far nowadays.

Ultimately culture is about tapping into or at least aligning with individual contributor’s intrinsic motivation for why they work and who they work with and all that kind of stuff.

You talked about how tricky it can be to build and protect culture. Is culture something you can control?

I’ve put a lot of thought into this and it’s really hard to dial it in. I don’t think it’s something you can actually control all that well.

You can pick certain people who align with culture, but culture is just a byproduct of having a group of people. There’s always culture. But the nature and quality of that culture is dictated by a bunch of variables, many of which you don’t actually have that much control over. You create the environment for culture, for certain kinds of culture through a mission and a vision, a value system that reflects the way you think about things. You bring certain people into that who you think will espouse a culture that you want: good communicators, kind, empathetic, hard working. But then there’s this big X factor variable that you don’t actually have any control over, and that is still a really critical ingredient to the culture that you end up getting served. It’s a bit of an unknown.

What would some of those elements look like that you can’t control?

One of the ways a team’s culture or a company culture is exhibited is circumstantial, so a team faces a problem and how that team goes about solving that problem and what that team experiences through the course of solving it both shows and reinforces or breaks down the culture that binds that team together. There’s the technical. Everybody brings a certain level, all the contributors on a team bring a certain level of technical ability. Then underlying that is a cultural piece that prompts them to leverage that ability into something more than the sum of its parts.

To me that is the culture. You have a culture that thinks creatively or values creative thinking and values open communication and radical candour and so forth. That team facing that problem reinforces those things and shows it. How those actually come about, you don’t actually necessarily have control over. Often in business you’re faced with challenges that you didn’t see coming, or the exact nature of which or the exact solution for which you can’t really understand right away.

You have a bunch of people that you know, and you know you like them, and you know you want them on your team. Then you throw them into the circumstance, and whatever happens as they go through that process is going to reinforce something in the culture. It’ll say something about who we are. At a certain point you can’t control things. The team is going to go through whatever they go through. Things are going to break down where they break down. You just have to allow that to happen. Then you respond to it however you do. You have to relinquish control.

I think culture is a product largely of humans, their emotion, their intellect, and that’s a big basket of volatility. Humans are volatile, and so it’s not like it’s a controlled compound that you know exactly how it’s going to react at any given time. It’s like, well, it’s reacting fine today and then someone’s cat dies. Now it’s not reacting well anymore, and that becomes a thing next time.

Culture is just this stew that’s the byproduct of all these interactions and all these circumstances. You don’t actually know the real recipe for. You might throw in a bunch of stuff, but how those compounds interact always is a bit of a variable you can’t control.

Ben Moore, CEO, Pixel Union

What’s your perspective on how and why cultures can suddenly change?

It doesn’t even take crisis, it can just be growth. For us, we added 37 people to the team since June 2018. That growth has the potential to drastically mutate or evolve that culture. I’d say evolve because mutate makes it sound like it’s going to be a bad thing, or ends up looking really ugly. I think in small organizations a lot of the binding parts of that culture come from the shared history.

We’ve all been through a bunch of experiences together. We know each other. We’ve all seen each other sing karaoke, and so all those shared experiences come into the workplace, and they bubble up in the way we as a team deal with each other, ourselves, conduct ourselves, and tackle problems, or just tackle whatever work.

You add 40 people to a company that’s 2,000 and there won’t be that much of an impact. You take a team, in our case, of 50 and you add 40, and suddenly that shared history isn’t there anymore. New stories are getting written, and a lot of things are outside even your line of sight let alone control.

It sounds like you are seeing the culture at Pixel Union change, particularly since the big hiring. What are some of the areas where you want the culture to evolve?

Yeah absolutely it’s changing. But even with 40 new people coming to the team there was enough of a bedrock here in the cultural flavour or tone that the new people entering the team will pick up on that and espouse it. It’ll grow. It’ll evolve. It’ll evolve at least in a linear way.

I knew we were going to grow, and I knew that in order to grow sustainably we need to bring in better reporting, better planning, better budgeting and oversight, more accountability, and better data throughout the teams. We need to be able count on people to make their own decisions and not bring everything up to leadership to decide, so more distributed, data-driven decision-making.

Do you feel that Pixel Union has a fairly healthy culture today, and if so, how do you measure or gauge how healthy it is?

Yeah, I do feel we have a healthy culture. In terms of actually quantifying it, we do employee satisfaction scores and we measure e-NPS (Employee Net Promoter Score). We measure high, very, very high on that. But honestly, part of it is just gut and observation. I know what this place feels like. I know when things are working. I can’t know everything, but between me and the leadership team there’s a sense of things are firing on all cylinders, not just operationally but the team is working well together.

We also are seeing the things that we value, such as our core values of trust, integrity, communication, results, accountability, really surface daily without fanfare and without prompting. It’s more qualitative but you see it and you feel it and there’s a feeling I get when things aren’t right.

A culture that’s working well, or a culture that’s reinforcing the work we’re trying to do is one in which I can see people communicating well, collaborating well, supporting and being kind to one another, conducting themselves in an empathetic, high EQ way. Those are all qualities of the culture.

What are some of the questions you ask yourself when you do a more subjective or qualitative evaluation of the health of a workplace culture?

Do people seem happy? Do they seem happy and is the work getting done? When shit is hitting the fan and things are getting messy and we’re asking a lot from people, do they do that? Do we have to force them into that or do we not have to ask at all?

You can get low employee churn by paying people triple market rates. That’s not a good culture. You’re just buying loyalty. It’s a lot more flimsy and it wears off. That’s extrinsic motivation being applied to a workforce that’s becoming more and more intrinsically focused and motivated.

People care more and more about things like, does my work have meaning? Do I like the people I work with? Do I feel like I belong where I work? Am I supported as an individual as well as a contributor? All those things, that’s why people stay and why they go above and beyond when the situation calls for it. You need to get money to the point where it’s no longer a problem.

It sounds like staying in tune with your people and understanding their motivation and engagement is key to keeping tabs on the health of your culture. What are some of the ways you keep your finger on the pulse of the organization?

Yeah, we use a few different tools, not all at once. We tie in with a few things like engagement and satisfaction surveys on a quarterly basis. Then we use a tool called 15Five which gives people a way to provide feedback on a weekly basis. It’s just five questions, although you can tailor it. People rate how they’re doing globally on a scale of one to five every week. That gives us a really quick pulse to see how we’re doing. We do other things like a monthly town hall. Leading up to that, people nominate each other for great work, and ideally tying it back to our values. Those nominations really surface the kind of work people are doing and the kind of things they care about, and by really celebrating it in front of the team then we show we’re reflecting that back.

It’s not always the obvious stuff. I really like it when I see a little thing someone did for someone else that that wasn’t just delivering on a big project, but rather looking out for their teammate. We make a point of surfacing those as well.

The Pixel Union offices in beautiful Victoria, BC, Canada

Given some of the growth you’ve seen, new team members coming on board, and anticipating more growth in future, how do you make sure the new people you’re bringing in fit or align with the culture at Pixel Union?

I think a lot of people make the mistake of mixing up culture with a homogeneous personality type. “We have a good culture because we’re all hip”, or, “we’re all millennial hipsters who value good coffee and handmade woolen clothes [laughs]”. To me that might be a fun friend group. A good company, a healthy organization needs to be able to handle and embrace and welcome in a huge range of personalities and background types.

In an ideal world you have 30-year veterans of multiple industries working alongside those super-smart, technically savvy hipsters, working alongside feelers, working alongside quants, working alongside everybody. Because our organization needs all these things. Some people just come with a big personality. Depending on the role that they get slotted into they will have some influence, or more or less influence on culture and team.

Our culture has always been a lot more, “Let’s do what feels right. Let’s not worry about the business.” In some ways I’ve sheltered the team from having to deal with or look at the realities of being a business, and instead just focused on being creative. With all the new people coming in, anyone new and in a position of influence will have to be sensitive to that. Sometimes you can have someone like that come in and wanting to do, in many cases, the right thing, but not being experienced about how to lead cultural change.

It sounds like you see the culture at Pixel Union needing to evolve, and you see the need for the right people to come in and help with that evolution. What are those people like? What are some of the necessary characteristics of these people who will help drive change?

The reality is that to do what we need to do as a business in the future and to operate as a 100-person company, or later a 200-person company, we need to shift. We can’t just fly by night and use our gut. In order to make that shift happen and stick we need cultural leaders. We can’t have someone come in with a really good plan, or a really good idea of what needed to be done, but too confident in their own ability, too impatient from a pace point of view, and not a cultural leader.

Culture leaders need to take the time to build the trust of the team and to really ingratiate themselves with that culture before starting to try to manipulate it and change it.

I don’t think cultural assassins or killers are in themselves necessarily killers. I think there are certain types that if you as a leader are not aware of how that is going to influence the mix or influence the culture, it can become a killer. There are things you can do to mitigate that damage.

I think that’s the key of what we’re trying to do here at Culture Assassins is to bring not only your thoughts and other’s thoughts and stories to life, but also to bring the things you’ve learned.

Absolutely. I really believe you can make and break a business with this stuff. Because we’re not building widgets anymore. We’re in a creative economy where people want to belong. They want to do something. They value their own time and they don’t subscribe to the idea of just earning an income and going through the motions. There’s a good book on this, Drive by Daniel Pink. He talks a lot about how you need to tap into people’s intrinsic motivations.

That’s what will keep them around, their loyalty to their team, their belief in their work, and the culture that’s supporting it all.

Especially in tech, it’s not our market as employers, it’s theirs as employees. They have a lot of options, and so the culture that you create or that you reinforce or at least that you try to corral is what’s going to bring people in and keep people there.

Thank you so much, Ben, this has been super awesome. I appreciate you taking the time to share your experiences and insights with us!

Thank you!