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Founding Team Secret Sauce: Scrappiness

Building Culture by doing it the hard way

Early on in the journey of co-founding Rent the Runway, we created a set of Core Values that we continue to live by to this day.
But our Core Values were not created in a presentation built for employee onboarding. Our values were created by our own stories and experiences that shaped our founding journey. It was the early days of begging the local dry cleaner to let us borrow a rack in his shop for our warehouse, assigning each employee a ‘take out the trash’ day, and ensuring that we all packed orders (even on Saturdays). It was the relentless grind of and taking customer service phone calls (rolling over to our cell phones on Saturdays), using our rolling desk chairs to transport items for our office move, buying preowned laptops and desks, and skimping on the cheapest A/C unit which definitely didn’t do justice to our scrappy overcrowded office space.
Looking back, the battle to save every and any dollar we could to preserve equity and buy runway were also the foundation of some of the best memories and moments of our founding days. It was truly the journey and the essence of entrepreneurship packed into each one of these moments that reverberated throughout the company leading employees to adopt grit of delivering orders, packing boxes, sorting dirty dresses and on and on and on and on.
Today, our Core Values live on in the daily stories of our employees, echoing back to the early “can-do attitude” that defined the beginnings of our company.

Entrepreneurship, glamorized

One of the things that I believe makes startups unique is a  core culture of grit and hustle that is formed in early entrepreneurship.

However, we are in a moment where there is a glut of funding floating around the startup ecosystem. Funding that makes it possible to hire large teams and have fancy offices way too early in a company’s journey. As a result, entrepreneurship is glamorized, attracting some to it for the wrong reasons while they forget the fun of the game – the game not being to raise money but to creatively problem solve and relentlessly find a way to make something work against all odds.

Starting down this path is not only inefficient from a capital point of view, it also sets the founding team up to miss the chance of injecting a culture of work ethic that makes or breaks startups as they grow.

Entrepreneurship, realized

Last week I arrived at a downtown office building in SoHo (NYC) to meet with a Series A stage founder and CEO.

The meeting was set for 9am in-person (already a good sign of grit and character). I walked in to a modest office that was starting to wake up with a couple of employees seated jamming away. Someone was washing the dishes and I introduced myself asking for the CEO.

He was the CEO.

The business had raised over $20M from some of the top funds and he was the first one in the office, doing the dishes.

He offered me water and coffee from a modest setup. Nowhere to be seen was the glitz of a snack-filled kitchen or a beer-filled fridge (that honestly distracts from the real essence of entrepreneurship IMHO).

He was making pour-over coffee while chatting with pride about this office they had just moved into and apologizing for the boxes near the door (they didn’t have a receptionist, office manager etc.) He had been there over the weekend trying to get things set up since, ‘everyone likes to come into a clean office on Monday.’

I was fascinated – it was refreshing and real. The office was full by 9:30 – all open work stations, no offices, desk side collaborations, CTO arriving with pastries for the team. He introduced me to most everyone regardless of their level and we sat for our meeting in an open area, pulling up white boards as needed and embracing the raw essence of entrepreneurship.

Hold on the scrappiness (as long as you can)

The refreshing simplicity of this morning meeting was a reminder of how far we have come from these norms. Fancy snacks, free booze, WeWork amenities, fun SWAG, and the funding that enables it all, has blurred the grit and scrappiness at the core of entrepreneurship.

It’s time to course correct.

Hold onto the scrappiness for as long as you can so that it becomes a part of company culture. Here are some tips for founders and founding teams:

  1. Display a hands-on, can-do mentality to solidify the culture of hunger, ambition and grit that you need to reverberate throughout your company.
  2. Lead by example. Do the dishes, take out the trash, be the first one in and last one out. And reward those around you that are demonstrating the desired core values.
  3. Hire for flexibility early on. All around athletes are a powerful tool in early stage companies as fire drills come up and gaps emerge in skill sets on a regular basis. Flexibility also implies a level of humility – someone who is less concerned with title or stature and most concerned with the broader goal of helping the company win. Hire for people who are in it for the game, not the glamour.

Building companies is a long journey. In fact, it’s far longer than most people expect. It’s a roller coaster filled of intoxicating highs and heart dropping lows, hard decisions and hard work.

Passion for this ride fuels culture and makes the daily journey the most meaningful prize of all. That’s the passion I’d bet on any day to find winning founders, companies, and meaningful work.


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