Culture and Revolution - Startup Grind Conference 2017


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This post is written for Women Who Code – a global non-profit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers.

The post is based on a talk given by Ben Horowitz at the Startup Grind Conference in Redwood City, CA from Feb 21-22, 2017. It is about what companies in the 21st century can learn about culture from the only successful slave revolution in history.

Haitian Revolution started in 1791 in the former French colony of Saint Domingue. In 1803-04, after more than a decade of warfare, European forces finally evacuated their troops and the colony declared its independence as Haiti1. The Haitian Revolution has been the largest and the only successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere2. Who was responsible for this? It was because of the leadership of one man - Toussaint L'Ouverture - a middle-aged, five foot two, ex-slave who was able to reprogram the slave culture resulting in a booming economy and world class culture, Haiti had more export income than the USA, they
defeated the Spanish, the British and ultimately the French (under Bonaparte).

There are many things that the entrepreneurs can learn from this revolution and their leader. However the points in this article are limited to what the companies in the 21st century can learn about culture from the slave revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. The points in this post are based on the talk-Culture and Revolution, given by Ben Horowitz at the Startup Grind Global Conference on 2/21/17.

What is culture?
It is the collective behavior of everyone in the organization.
It’s what people do when left to their own devices.
It’s the organizations way of doing things.

Here are the four key points about what companies can learn about culture from the slave revolution:

Learn from the past to create the future. Keep what works.

In 1792, L’Ouverture formed an army from thousands of ignorant and untrained blacks to fight the European troops. He managed to train his people who at first could not even use the guns they captured or speak French. In order to face the enemy with numerical superiority, as part of his strategy he made use of one of the strengths of the slave culture i.e. music. They developed a method of attack where the slaves used songs to communicate with others in the group. Women were placed on the outside, who sang songs encoded with exact maneuvers, based on which the men would then take action. As a result, L’Ouverture had more advanced form of communication based on the slave culture and that is something he kept and helped him win in the end.

In the 1970’s, vertical integration for a technology company was a norm but soon after, the tech industry decided that it was not a feasible option as you could buy what you need from other companies. You may think why make your own processors and OS when you can buy from others? In 1994, Apple began to license Mac OS to some selected vendors to use the OS. The clone manufacturers made low cost machines that cannibalized Apple’s most profitable product line. It became apparent that it wasn’t such a great idea. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, they were weeks away from bankruptcy. However, on his return he killed the licensing program and brought back the culture of vertical integration and that sparked years of innovation.

Jobs understood the importance of a vertically integrated company. Some can argue that the companies that are vertically integrated are best equipped to innovate because they participate in many of the production and distribution activities in which change can occur3. Bringing back what worked laid the foundation for the products to come including music store, iPhone and iPad.

“Our competitors try to do it cheaper, our strategy is to innovate4”- Steve Jobs

In order to change the way things are done and change people’s behavior, you need rules that will make them question it.

One big problem during those days was that there was no loyalty. You lived in an environment where tomorrow didn’t matter. L’Ouverture really cared about the culture and he knew how backward the slave culture was. He wanted the community to be more cultured and civilized and in order to do that, he did a few things. He opened schools, encouraged catholic religion, insisted on moral principles and a lot more. In addition, he also created a rule – his officials could not cheat on their wives. He favored legitimate children and soldiers who were married. Why did he do that? He said - you gave your word when you got married
and if you cant keep that word and be honest with your wife, how can we trust you to keep any word? All over the island he was known as a man who never broke his word.

“I would rather relinquish my command than break my word.”
– Toussaint L’Ouverture

In the early days of Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg came up with a motto that every engineer had to follow – “Move fast and break things.” With this mantra, developers at the company made sure that speed was the key and some bugs along the way were acceptable. “Move fast and break things” made developers at Facebook stop, think and question what it really meant to break things and they realized that they didn’t have to worry about breaking things, they just had to do whatever it took in order for them to be innovative. For them (and may other visionary companies), innovation is more important than breaking things and getting into trouble. This motto at Facebook created the shock value that helped in creating the innovative culture.

What do long-lasting, visionary companies have in common? Jim Collins in his book Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies writes that they tend to be cult-like around their ideologies. Cult-like simply means a set of practices that company creates as part of their culture in order to create an environment that reinforces dedication to the company’s core ideology5. What was the result of this “cult-like” culture at Facebook? You can see the new products and innovation coming out of Facebook.

“You would never build something great doing it the same way others have done it.” – Mark Zuckerberg

It is a good idea to incorporate people (experts) from other cultures and give them high level positions within the organization

Toussaint was running a slave army. He was a self-taught man who had read (and re-read) complete works for Julius Caesar commentaries. When Cesar built the Roman empire, he did not kill the people he had conquered. Instead he asked them to join him in the government. Why did he do that? He needed someone who knew the culture running that region. Toussaint wanted to do something similar. So when he defeated the British and Spanish, he made those people officers in his army. Doing that, he was able to move the culture much faster than he could have otherwise.

When Google decided to move beyond its consumer roots and enter the world of enterprise cloud, they had no enterprise culture. They had been late in the game. By the time they realized that enterprise cloud is a market they should worry about, Amazon had already taken the top spot. Currently, Amazon is on the top with $12 billion in annual revenue6 followed by Microsoft. What could Google have done to catch up with the top players Amazon and Microsoft? They decided to bring in someone who already knew the space well to run enterprise cloud. They brought in Diane Greene who is known as the queen of enterprise computing
and is best known as the co-founder of VMWare (virtualization and cloud computing software). She was also on the board of Alphabet.

In order to be on the top, it is important to incorporate people/experts from other cultures and adopt their way of doing things. Google did not have enterprise cloud in it’s DNA and in order to grow in that highly competitive and fast growing market, they had to think of an aggressive approach and bring in experts. They brought in Diane Greene – the queen of enterprise computing. Even though they started late, Google was able to gain some major customers including EBay, Verizon, HSBC, Snap.

If you want to be number one in whatever you are doing, you have got to make some extreme decisions

Toussaint knew that work was very important and the salvation of San Domingo was dependent upon the restoration of agriculture. His priority after victory was to transform the slave population into free laborers who get paid by their employers. He knew that the owners of the property could help in preservation of the plantations as they had the knowledge and the experience needed. In other words, they had the right culture, which none of the slaves had. He did not believe in useless bloodshed and instead, gave them work, land and also reduced their taxes. By following this approach, Toussaint’s administration had restored 2/3rd of what it had been in the most flourishing days of the old regime7.

Netflix launched as a mail-rental DVD business in 1997. Netflix’s 2nd act made sense when a decade later in 2007, they launched a hybrid model where the subscribers in addition also got online streaming. What made Reed Hastings (Cofounder, CEO Netfix) make that shift to online streaming and how did he manage that when 100% of the revenues were from the DVD business? Hastings says that the key thing is not getting into the new business but thinking how it can actually grow into a business of its own. Netflix decided to play with the hybrid model first as they didn’t have enough content for online streaming only. During that shift, Hastings had to set priorities and let the people know what was going on. He had to make a hard and extreme decision. He had to stop the DVD team from attending the staff meetings as he realized that they were not adding any value to the streaming conversations, which was the future.

If you want to be number one in whatever you are doing, you will have to set priorities, make some extreme decisions and let the people know.

Today, many entrepreneurs do not really understand what culture is or they think they do. Employees confuse perks with culture. To many people, culture seems something abstract but there is nothing more important. This reality makes it even more important for founders to focus more in understanding what culture is what can they do to make it a world class one. The points made by Ben Horowitz during this talk just made understanding culture easier.

All the 4 key points for this post were taken from “Culture and Revolution” talk given by Ben Horowitz at the Startup Grind Conference. You can also hear Ben Horowitz’s talk on the same topic from the a16z Tech Summit -
If you are interested in learning more about the revolution itself and how brutal the circumstances in which the slaves lived, I highly recommend the book The Black Jacobins or Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life (by Philippe Girard)

Lastly, I would like to thank Women Who Code for giving me the opportunity to attend the Startup Grind Global Conference.

Amrita Aviyente
Product / Software Engineer / Traveler

5 Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1997). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: HarperBusiness.
7 C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York, 1963)

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