🧃Culture Creator: Brie Wolfson
Recipe Development at The Kool-Aid Factory and Author of Founder Fodder
In This Edition
🔭 Find and fill the gaps on work that intrigues you
🖋️ Approach internal communications as a poet or scribe
✂️ Create your work scrapbook
Brie Wolfson has worked for tech companies of all shapes and sizes, most recently Figma (Figma for Education) and Stripe (BizOps, Stripe Press). Now, she's working on The Kool-Aid Factory (part research project, part consultancy on the topic of company culture) and writing Founder Fodder, a newsletter about the quirks and quandaries facing startup founders.
What sparked your interest in culture?
In my first five years out of college, I worked at five different companies. The allure of Silicon Valley pulled me in, but after a handful of pretty meh jobs, I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about. I thought I was destined to be a person that just didn’t like work much.
Then, in 2015, I joined a random little payments startup in San Francisco called Stripe, where things felt different. The first thing that blew me away was the employee onboarding process; specifically, how much content was dedicated to expectations for an employee’s contribution to company culture. This manifested in all sorts of interesting ways; some leader-driven, but many employee-driven. Over my subsequent half-a-decade working at Stripe, the company 10x’ed in size and the value of the relentless focus on principled culture-building revealed itself over and over again. I’d heard the trope that company culture was up to everyone to build, but here we were actually doing it. Stripe was a Big Mood and we were all in. On all of it.
This tingly feeling that something magical was happening set into motion diligent note-taking on Stripe organization and an obsession with reading and talking about how company cultures come to life. I started devouring books, podcasts, and essays on the topic and talking to friends and colleagues about manifestations of culture at their companies. I quickly realized that there wasn’t much good, tactical writing about the craft of company culture-building on the ground level (ie-stuff I can implement tomorrow if I want to push company culture in a given direction). So, over the 2019 end-of-year holiday, I feverishly started writing to fill the gaps I saw and haven’t stopped since.
Now, 18 months into this work, still energized as I was about the topic on day 1, I realize that it’s personal. I benefited so much by working alongside some amazing colleagues who helped me do my best thinking and making. I want to help others unlock that same thing in their lives. And, leaders to help establish the environments that make that not only possible but likely, for anyone that wants to!
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished?
One of my favorite projects I worked on that I don’t talk about much is Figma’s About Us page. When I joined the company in late 2019, I noticed we didn’t have one. So, I jumped on it (and got some friends with much better design skills than I have to tag along for the fun). I’m really proud of how it came out because I think it reflects Figma’s spirit as much as it reflects their product offering.
How have you collaborated with Internal Communications in your work?
All kinds of ways! One of the highest-impact lessons I learned from working closely with Stripe’s then-COO Claire Hughes Johnson over the years was that the rollout counts for just as much (sometimes more!) than the content of the work. “And how are we going to bring people along,” she would always say. I learned over and over again that accounting for the perspective of my stakeholders in the rollout not only made it more likely that the work would catch on, but also made the content of the work itself better. Ultimately, I think ‘internal communications’ is part of everyone’s job and great internal communications professional coaches (and models for) their team members what great looks like.
The other role I see great internal communications professionals play is that of a company poet/scribe. I think a lot about this letter George Saunders wrote to his students in the pandemic–he puts forth what I think is a really beautiful question around "who will write this?" I've definitely noticed that companies are getting more excited about "writing this" (as in, documenting their lore, putting pen to paper on operating principles, articulating the company pulse at a moment in time, etc.), and turning that “job” over to internal communications. This often runs into my work partnering with companies to produce some of these artifacts.
What is one of your favorites from the list of incredible employee resources you’ve perfected over the years?
My favorite is definitely the scrapbook of things I’m proud of! This is exactly what it sounds like; a collection of things I’m proud of. It’s a running list and hodgepodge of formats (screenshots, emails, pings, feedback, etc.) with no real organizational structure.
Mostly because it’s such a joy to look back at. Often, I’ll end the day or the week thinking, what did I even do!? This can lead me to be a little hard on myself or try to build in more structure to optimize my time or work harder. But when I open this file, I mostly get filled with the feeling of “you’re doing alright, Brie. Keep going.” And that’s a nice feeling (especially when you’re a team of 1).
How do you continue learning about culture?
I literally cannot stop reading about this stuff. Lately, I’ve been turning to corporate histories (they’re not as boring as you might think, I promise!). I'd recommend Creativity Inc or Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens, or anthologies like Built To Last and Troublemakers. For more of my favorites, I keep a list in Brie's Workplace Culture Bookshelf.
If you’re looking for an introduction to “not boring” corporate histories, give Acquired Podcast a try! It’s a slightly less pop version of How I Built This. Also, company blogs :) And Twitter. Lots of Twitter (too much Twitter?)
Can you tell us about your Founder Fodder newsletter?
I started this newsletter to scale the insights I was sharing in 1:1 conversations with founders with a broader audience. If you were to click on the ‘what is this place?’ tag, you’d read the following context:
I spend just about all my time researching, writing, and thinking about the ways organizations coordinate. I came to this work because being a part of great organizations like Stripe, Figma, and Google changed my life and I decided to make it my life’s work to help company leaders bring those same benefits to their people.
I've never been a founder and I don't aspire to be one. I'm not a venture capitalist or a recruitable employee either. I can't speak from any position of any real authority or status, but I do speak from the perspective of someone who cares a lot about this stuff. And I can tell you about the questions real founders are asking when no one they are trying to impress is watching and match them up with the tactics I've seen great organizations rely on. Perhaps most importantly, though, I can tell you what works for those of us who work from the corners of an organization, trying to do great stuff that matters.
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