“Culture is, before all things, the unity of artistic style, in every expression of the life of a people. Abundant knowledge and learning, however, are not essential to it, nor are they a sign of its existence; and, at a pinch, they might coexist much more harmoniously with the very opposite of culture— with barbarity: that is to say, with a complete lack of style, or with a riotous jumble of all styles.”
In other words: Culture is first and foremost about the unity of artistic style in every aspect of people’s lives. Knowledge and learning do not, by themselves, create culture and they are not essential to it. Knowledge and learning might just as easily be found in an uncivilized society with a complete lack of style, or many inconsistent styles.
“Culture” developed its modern meaning in the 19th century as an out- growth of the nascent field of anthropology. Application of the term to business organizations began in the 1980s, and today many consider the analysis and active shaping of organizational culture a central aspect of successful entrepreneurship. While Nietzsche was referring to the culture of nations, his views also apply to business culture. Is it reasonable to think of the employees of a company as “a people”?
They undoubtedly spend more time together and have more interactions with each other than they do with their neighbors or other members of their geographic community. They have a degree of shared purpose that is rare among broader groups. They often have unique terminology and behavioral norms that bind them together while distinguishing them from individuals in other organizations. “Artistic style” shows up in a business in a variety of ways. The best user interfaces, out-of-box experiences, product designs, and web- sites incorporate a strong artistic component. The interactions that employees have with customers, vendors, and the general public—in how they answer phones, in how they handle negotiations, and in the style of the Twitter feed—leave a distinctive emotional response. Development of the business as a whole is a creative endeavor that begins with an entrepreneur’s vision expressed in a distinctive, concrete fashion.
Consider the cultural differences between Apple and IBM. Apple exhibits a clear unity of artistic style, and everything about their products, stores, advertising, and customer interactions exudes this style. This unity is also true of IBM, though the style itself is stodgy and uninspired.
Consider companies that do not have a unity of artistic style. What does their brand mean? What do you expect when you interact with them? What kinds of products will they offer in the future? If their culture consists of a “jumble of all styles,” something important is missing, even if the team members are smart, motivated, and collaborative.
In all your thinking about company culture, apply a lens of artistic style, and make sure that style is consistent and unified across all the company’s activities.
For some subtleties regarding cultural unity, see Groupthink and Right Messages.
A Narrative from Tim Enwall
head of misty robotics
When I first read this quote and essay, I had a strong and negative reaction: in a business, culture is what one hires for, promotes for and fires for and brand is what the public sees as the company’s essence. A strong culture and a strong brand are crucial to success, and both must be built proactively, but they are distinct.
I’ve long been a proponent of being very active in the development of company culture. Don’t let it “grow organically,” because that will result in that “riotous jumble of styles.” People will work subliminally at cross-purposes, which radically impedes teamwork and success. Intentional brand image is driven by a small fraction of the company, and rarely do great brands let “just anybody” touch the image the public sees. Thus it’s rare for a company to hire, promote and fire employees because “they’re not luxurious enough for our luxury brand” or “not funny enough for our humorous brand.” So, the notion that “culture is the unity of artistic style… of a people” was jolting and at odds with my world view.
Then I remembered the crisis at Google related to the public airing of a male employee’s memo on their gender diversity efforts. This exposed the notion that despite our best efforts at separate brand building and culture building, the quintessence of the company shines through in myriad ways—imbued by both the internal culture and the external brand. This caused a deeper retrospective on my part into situations from my past.
What immediately popped to my mind was the “culture” of Nest—the company that bought Revolv, a company I helped build.
Nest was founded by Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, both key members of the original iPhone team at Apple, and joined by a large cohort of ex-Apple people. I once worked at Apple and recalled it as having a highly combative culture where the smartest, loudest, brashest people were promoted. A company of supreme arrogance. And a wonderful culture of design ethic, customer centricity, and pride in engineering wizardry and perfection. Apple’s ethos is dominated by the fact that they build hardware—which requires exactitude frequently enacted years before a product is in a customer’s hands. A single hardware mistake, made 18 months before product debut, can have disastrous effects on the bottom line. One ex-Apple Nest employee related, “Our saying at Apple was ‘we polish the underside of the banisters.’” Why? Because someone might look there, and that’s high-quality perfection.
Along comes Google who plops down $3.2B to purchase Nest. They infused their new acquisition with cash and talent to propel it to greater heights. This included a large cohort of, now, ex-Googlers. Google’s culture is built around Internet-connected software, with its instant billion-user marketplaces, rapid product iterations, “permanent beta” products, and “20% time” where engineers could spend a day-a-week on whatever software project they thought might lead to future Google success. The idea of locking down an aspect of the product 18 months in advance is as foreign to most Googlers as is the idea of inventing new features 3 weeks before product launch to most Nesters. This core dichotomy—“perfection” v. “adaptability”—caused untold subliminal strife. Most people couldn’t put a finger on the cause; they just knew they were frustrated when “those crazy anal folks” (at Nest) spent vast hours and dozens of meetings on which exact plastic type to use for a connecting cable, or they were frustrated when “those fly- by-nighters (from Google) just tossed any old thing out to the market.”
Because Google had bought Nest, many Googlers thought they were just transferring to another Google unit. Yet Nest was clear from day one that it would be “independently managed and operated.” This, too, caused untold challenges. Googlers brought their accustomed hiring practices, corporate network assumptions, vendor choices, and budgetary habits to Nest. The Nest team chafed at the assumption that “of course” these practices would be adopted. Where was the independent creativity for “us as Nest to guide our own ship?”
This brings us back to Nietzsche’s quote. At Google-Nest I saw up close and personal a “riotous jumble of styles.” Nest was “polished,” Google was “fluid”; Nest “disciplined,” Google “experimental”; Nest “premium,” Google “ubiquitous.” And so on. The travails of Nest after the acquisition are well-documented publicly in many press pieces. Many of these challenges can, in my opinion, be traced back to this disunity of artistic styles, which brazenly crossed that boundary between culture and brand.
Ultimately, the totality of these artistic styles (like it or not, brand marketers and human performance professionals!) is what a company’s culture is. One style can’t be hidden from the other; they ooze out of the pores of every nook and cranny of the business. All one needs to do is go back to review how Google’s “brand perception” was affected by the public exposure of its “internal culture.”
Dave Jilk is a former serial entrepreneur and startup CEO in information technology. He is author of several peer-reviewed papers on artificial intelligence as well as two books of poems, “Distilled Moments” (2020) and “Rejuvenilia” (2018). Dave earned his bachelor of science degree in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and currently lives near Boulder, Colorado. When not writing he is likely to be on a mountain somewhere.
Brad Feld, co-founder of Foundry Group and Techstars, has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Brad is a writer and speaker on the topics of venture capital investing and entrepreneurship. Brad holds degrees in management science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also an art collector and long-distance runner, and has completed 25 marathons as part of his mission to finish a marathon in each of the 50 U.S. states.