Every organization has three types of values:
First are the individual qualities the organization selects for, either explicitly or implicitly, while hiring.
Second are the organizational qualities that emerge from the behavior of a group of people working together every day.
Third are the persistent structural principles that typically remain unchanged through the life of the company (such as Jeff Bezos’s desire to make Amazon “Earth’s most customer centric company”).
These values evolve at different rates. The hiring values can (and properly do) change most frequently, as an organization’s needs evolve. Changes in the hiring values have a follow-on effect of modifying the organizational values, although more slowly. Finally, the guiding principle changes much less frequently, if ever. As someone designing an organization, it’s critical to recognize these differing rates of change — too often founders remain dogmatic about hiring values long after they should have evolved, or fail to ever establish the structural values that frame everything the company does.
This post is about the first type of value, the individual qualities we seek in the people we ask to join us at Even. We arrived at these by evaluating the qualities of our early team, and asking ourselves which strengths we would want to amplify, as well as what weaknesses we would want to mitigate.
Even though these values will evolve over time, while they are in place, these four values are non-negotiable for anyone joining Even. No amount of brilliance can overcome a poor evaluation on one of these measures.
Outside of these four values, we consciously seek to have as little overlap as possible on our team. Our team will be better if we are made up of people with a wide variety of lived experiences and qualities. Our work there, as in many things, is both inadequate and incomplete. This last part is important for us to acknowledge as well — the work we have done to describe these values and build fair and rigorous evaluations is only the start of our ongoing effort to build a strong and diverse team.
This foundational value is one of the reasons a user researcher was the first person we hired after raising our seed round. If we are to build an effective product to serve people far from the bubble of Silicon Valley, we must build a desire to understand and accept the perspectives of others into the DNA of the company. Jane’s research, and the excellent work of our advisors, makes sure that those perspectives are always front and center in our office — quite literally, they’re usually up on the wall or being presented and reviewed before we start the design of a new feature. But that presence will be useless if we are not a team that is predisposed to consider and internalize those perspectives. This value has the added benefit of acting as a more rigorous filter for what other companies sometimes call the “no jerks rule” — having a desire to understand and accept the perspective of others, whether it’s your peers or Even’s members, is incompatible with most forms of “jerk” behavior.
To be very blunt, we think most of the alternative products available to people we serve (like bank overdraft “protection”, and payday loans) are terrible not because they are malicious, but because they are simply lazy implementations. This is a perspective shared by others, such as Lisa Servon, who have done deep research on the ways that the financial system breaks down for people who need it most.
If we are to do better than these broken products, we must possess a deeply held willingness to persist through complex, difficult slogs in order to build better products for our members. This is the type of value that absolutely cannot be implemented at an organizational level if it is not held, universally, by the members of that organization.
There’s a second reason we look for this trait in the people we hire. Lots of companies talk about wanting to hire smart people. That’s a fine goal, but it’s about as useful as saying “we only hire A players.” Everyone wants to hire smart people, and almost no one has a durable competitive advantage in doing so. Most of the ways we measure smartness are flawed, and are instead just reflections of the exact set of problems Even is trying to solve. So instead, we look for persistence. We may not outsmart those that have come before us, but we will certainly outwork them. When hiring, we care deeply about finding people who will amplify this trait, not diminish it.
A fundamental challenge all companies (and managers) face is how to balance the need for extremely high standards with investing in the growth of your individual employees. Setting a high bar for the quality of output is valuable, but it can also create unintended consequences that are hard to correct — employees who are incentivized to hide issues, a failure to invest in developing people from nontraditional backgrounds, etc.
People who join Even will have many different baselines for output and experience on day one. It would be silly to expect the exact same quality of work from a 15 year veteran as we expect of someone entirely new to Silicon Valley and in their first job. What we can do is hold both of those people to the same standard of hunger for improvement. Because the best senior people are always still hungry to learn and grow, and the best junior people are intensely driven to close the gap between their own skills and the excellence of their more senior peers, this can be a value truly shared across an entire organization.
Even’s founding story is a little different from many startups, in that the four founders didn’t have any history together prior to starting the company. Instead, all of us oriented around a theme (income volatility) that we cared about working on. At the time, this was perceived as a big risk. Investors value teams that have preexisting history and cohesion, and we had neither. In the end, this quirk ended up being one of our biggest strengths, but only because it forced us to be incredibly rigorous about our communication and reasoning from day one. This was critical, because we (especially Jon and I) are people who love to poke and prod at ideas, and we can both be pretty stubborn while doing so. This could have been a fatal flaw — in a startup, you need to be able to quickly and rigorously challenge ideas, arrive at the best possible decision given available information, and move forward. Early on, we instituted this test — were we trying to find the truth, or were we debating for the sake of debate? It served us well in mitigating what was otherwise a pretty bad habit by two leaders of the company.
This value has an added benefit that becomes apparent the more our team grows. Often, the person best able to understand the truth on a given problem is relatively junior at the company. For example, one of our advisors might identify a flaw in our payments logic that caused an overdraft fee for a member, and bring it to the engineering team’s attention. Or, a junior product engineer might spend weeks researching the best approach in building a new feature that one of the cofounders also has a strong opinion on. In both cases, it’s likely that the person with the highest quality information is the most junior person in the conversation, and this places two burdens on our team: The more senior person must set aside any ego and elevate the perspective of the more junior person, and the junior person must be willing to strongly advocate for their own perspective. We look for both qualities when we interview potential new hires for the team.
As I mentioned earlier, this post is about the type of value that can (and should) change most frequently. In fact, you can read the first version of our hiring values here. I’m grateful for Jenny being the catalyst behind reevaluating those original values as the company grew, and to many people on the team (especially Carter and Jane) for providing the kernels of each of the values described here.