From Zero to Nine: the culture journey @ Crayon

Published September 28, 2021   |   

When you start a company, you pretty much have a blank slate. You have to think about the picture you want to create on it. You have the opportunity to decide what you want to bring people into – the culture, the value system that they will grow with.   

Company culture is something you live and breathe. And it must be scalable as your company grows. A small group of people cannot be the custodians of culture. Invariably, there are little rituals that create this culture.  Some of it is word-of-mouth: you pick up cues from the way people behave. What I’ve also seen is that when there’s something in place, new people take that and run with it.  

people values

The culture journey at Crayon has had 3 phases, thus far.  

Years 0 to 3: When things were new and exciting 

Setting our value system in place was a priority for us from the very beginning. The founding team charted the first grid of values in a coffee shop in Chennai. It was exciting to build a company with a unique character. We decided to be a flat organization, and we walked the talk. We started off in 2012 with no roles or titles. No one had cabins or cubicles (we still don’t). The open workspace meant that even the CEO needed to find himself a spot to work.  It was this combination of visual cues and actions that came together to create the culture.   

We had nine values at the start. Values that we thought would promote free thinking, and active curiosity, including ‘mission is the boss’ and ‘responsibility with freedom’. ‘Freedom to fail’ ensured that there was a culture of experimentation in our young startup. We also had ‘hypothesis-led action’: you did what it took to prove or disprove a hypothesis. A lot of it was about creating a space where Crayons had freedom of expression, of curiosity.  

Years 3 to 7: The growth phase 

This is when our existing values began to be interpreted more loosely. The challenge comes in when you try to scale, scale across locations, and in a model where you do not have people together in one place. We faced this when we grew from a handful of people to over 100. Much of the culture and values transfer was happening through observation and word-of-mouth. And while we still managed to create a strong, tightly-knit community, there were some not-so-healthy aspects.  

For example, when we said ‘freedom with responsibility’, we said you don’t have start or end times, as long as you get the job done. The original concept was that you had to work together to get things done, but the journey was up to you. It got translated into the notion that at Crayon, you can clock in whenever you want. We had people strolling in at all odd hours, taking WFH without keeping their teams informed. They had embraced the aspect of freedom, without the necessary accountability of getting things done and being considerate to your team mates.    

That’s when we realized that some of the values that had guided us through our early years may have to be relooked at for our growth years. And that they had to be codified to ensure that they maintained their integrity while we scaled.  

Company values

Year 7 to present: A clearer picture  

And so, we regrouped. Unlike the first set of values that were crafted by just the founding team, we brought together a bigger group to come up with Values 2.0. Old timers, new-comers, people across locations, across functions. And we debated, discussed, argued, agreed to disagree and finally aligned.  

We took a fresh look at all our values. Freedom is great, but you really do need accountability in a large team. Experimentation was great in the early years.  How do you now go deeper, create the space to experiment, build and take it to market. It was really, really important to everyone that ‘mission is the boss’ continued. And while hierarchy wasn’t needed, structure was required. As you grew, people wanted to know where they belonged, what they were doing, and what they were being channeled to. 

The Values 2.0 handbook that we released in 2019 speak to the culture that we now wanted at Crayon. Values that still protect our original core but speak to us as we scale. And most importantly, we discussed the rituals that would be needed to absorb and spread these values as we grew. 

Actions > Words 

Having a framework of values is one thing. How it is practiced is what counts. When we released Values 2.0 at Crayon, we also tried to see how we could embed our values into our everyday. We made them part of our inductions, townhall meetings, performance reviews and recognition mechanisms. All of this also coincided with COVID and the era of forced WFH. In some ways it forced us to be more particular about our value system – given that all of us were remote and dispersed. We absolutely had to institutionalize values in our daily systems.  

So, what lies ahead for us? 

More growth, more changes.  The challenge of ensuring that we move ahead in formation, while permitting differences in velocity. Assimilating people from diverse backgrounds, each with their unique perspectives. And culture, clearly, is the glue that binds us.