How Algolia built a Culture-First Company around Ownership
Culture is critical to who we are and how we work at Algolia. When we ask candidates for feedback regarding their experience with us, most of the time they mention their surprise at seeing all team members aligned on the company culture and its importance.
On day one, Julien and I spent a lot of time discussing our goals. We didn’t focus on the product then, we both knew that there was a good chance we’d need to pivot eventually (and we did!). We wanted to make sure that we had the same values, that we envisioned how we would work with each other and future employees in the same way. We see ourselves as a culture-first company — Algolia wouldn’t exist at all if not for its culture.
Too many founder teams break up because they don’t share the same values. In 2012, Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman studied 10,000 founders for his book “The Founder’s Dilemma.” His research found that 65% of startups fail as a result of cofounder conflict. That’s higher than the divorce rate. We didn’t want that to happen to us.
Two things really helped us in finding this alignment:
- Our past experiences — Each of us had worked for other companies and had experienced other cultures… In a way, we knew what we didn’t want! We had also worked together two times in our career (a couple of years at Thales and 6 months at Exalead / Dassault Systems) and these shared experiences helped to make sure we were speaking the same language.
- “Freedom, inc.” — We had both read it in the months before founding Algolia and really loved its content. It served as a reference in our discussions to make sure, again, that we were completely aligned. It is a really inspiring book and to this day we still recommend it to every new employee so they can better understand how the culture came to be.
These early discussions helped us define the cornerstone of what would become Algolia’s culture: ownership. We want to create a company where every team member takes initiative, gets out of their comfort zone, is empowered to make decisions; in short: is free to be their best. We want owners, we want people who act as if it was their company, people who realize that, actually, it is their company.
And along the last few years I had many occasions to see that in action: engineers owning support, Maxime building the search for Laravel doc (which would later lead to our DocSearch project) or Sylvain building a costume of our alien mascot!
But the best memory I can recall was when I did an AMA session at NUMA. Right after the event, one of the founders attending told me he was surprised to see me, because he thought the “other” was the founder and CEO. I found out that the other was in fact Gaëtan, who had recently gone there to present our partnership. He was so in it, so acting like an owner, that this attendee didn’t even think he could be anything else than a founder. It was probably the best feedback I could have hope for!
Back in 2012, our seminal discussions culminated in our decision to create the company together. We didn’t hire anyone for another year, but, right then, I feel like we created Algolia — not the product, but its culture. A culture-first company. The next day, I gave my notice.