What my time at Amazon taught me about company culture

Culture isn’t a “soft? thing. It creates value- and startups that get culture right early on can chart a much higher trajectory. Pieter Kemps distils three lessons from Amazon Web Services that early stage founders can leverage to define and articulate their culture early on.

Pieter Kiemps

Published December 7, 2017


I’ve worked in many organizations where the company culture was spelled out in a few high-level statements emblazoned on ID badges. I can’t remember any of them.

The exception is Amazon. They don’t just have a few statements (and they aren’t on a badge). They have 14 guiding principles like “Customer Obsession,” “Ownership,” and “Disagree and Commit,” which are baked into every aspect of the company.

A strong, dynamic culture is the cornerstone of a successful organization. While at Amazon Web Services (AWS), I saw how culture can drive a collective understanding of who you are as a company and help propel you forward. I see this thinking mirrored across Southeast Asia’s startup ecosystem, where a growing number of young companies are defining and articulating their culture early on to serve as an engine for growth.

Here’s what I learned at AWS.

Create leadership principles to live by and die for

Amazon’s success largely lies in its “rituals” or way of doing things—its ability to do away with process and instead leverage its leadership principles to guide employees in their day-to-day work. In meetings, you’d hear people say, “From a customer obsession viewpoint, we should do this.” In a status report, you’d read about frugality and how a team had been scrappy.

Your success at living these principles was core to your appraisal too. Sure, you’d get points for delivering results, but you’d also lose points if you don’t do it in a true “Amazonian” way. The principles clearly defined the culture, serving as the de facto rule book that guides how things should be done.

I saw an example of how important it is to nail down culture early on during a board meeting with Funding Societies, a digital lending platform in Southeast Asia. A lot of time was spent going back and forth on key topics, often without full clarity of direction.

The “aha moment” came when we sat down together to face the question, who are we? The co-founders, Kelvin Teo and Reynold Wijaya, were triggered to embark on a major exercise to capture, encode, and articulate their culture so it could serve as a lightning rod that unified the team and shaped how they approach business decisions.

The company had a unique culture; it just hadn’t been clearly defined. They went deep and spent six months before landing on five key principles that framed their company culture. Teo recently said that this exercise was the most valuable investment they had made to date, given that their team is spread across three countries. Teams are now speaking the same language, the sense of camaraderie is up, and employee retention is higher.

Culture isn’t a “soft” thing. It creates value. Startups that get culture right early on can chart a much higher trajectory.

Hire right, from day one

Hiring right is core to culture building. When I joined AWS, I was pretty surprised to be put into a full-day workshop on “Making Great Hiring Decisions” on my second day. I quickly saw why this was such a big priority. Amazon knows that you can only be a legendary company if you hire well.

Early-stage startups, especially those that started out of a college dorm, are typically staffed with “people who look like me.”

Every candidate is interviewed by at least six people. Only one person interviews to screen the candidate’s expertise and skills. The other five are assigned two of the 14 principles each, and focus their interview solely on those. This structured hiring process shows that culture fit is valued above all else.

It’s not about looking for people who are the same. Amazon hires people with all kinds of backgrounds. The focus in hiring is on your fit with those leadership principles, which define and drive the company’s culture.

At the same time, an open mind and a wide net are key to attracting new talent and skills that a company needs to evolve. This is crucial when startups need to manage new levels of growth and scale. Singapore-based Carousell provides a great example here. The mobile marketplace is run by a close-knit group of founders, who are all about the same age, have same backgrounds, and came from the same university. The startup grew quickly, but they realized at a certain point that they could do with a little more diversity in skills, experience, and point of view.

They made a first step—hiring an experienced vice president to drive international expansion. They saw an immediate impact on the business growth and quickly started hiring other senior leaders with experience in various markets. They saw the impact across the board, from tech to product, finance, and growth.

Early-stage startups, especially those that started out of a college dorm, are typically staffed with “people who look like me.” Smart founders fix that fast by hiring right from day one.

Create an internal startup ecosystem that iterates fast

Maintaining a culture of innovation is key for any company. As Jeff Bezos said, “Successful invention requires you to increase your rate of experimentation.”

Complexity and interdependency are innovation’s biggest enemies. Creating small, independent units that can iterate at the speed of light helps cement a culture of innovation.

Many enterprises, both big and small, are now talking about micro-services. These enable small, autonomous teams to develop and deploy services independently, integrating those applications with the larger offering through continual iterations and product enhancements. At Amazon, the entire organization is comprised of small, “loosely coupled” teams called “two pizza teams.”

I recently met with a startup in Singapore that used this approach to hack growth. The founder realized different people in different parts of target organizations were using different parts of his application. So, he broke up his app into different products and his staff into different teams.

When I visited his office, those teams were set up at five different tables across an open office, a setup designed around this micro-service strategy. The whole structure, down to the seating plan, was built to drive collaboration yet ensure that autonomy and accountability resided within each product team at each table. Customer growth went up a thousandfold since the founder adopted his version of the two pizza approach.

I’m always excited to meet entrepreneurs who make culture a priority. It can tell the difference between a company with a cool idea and a company built for growth.

This column was originally published on Tech In Asia.