Source: South Park's Twitter account

The Startup T-Shirt Phenomenon: Branding and Conway’s Law

In 1967, programmer Mel Conway wrote a paper called “How Do Committees Invent?” and submitted it to the Harvard Business Review, who promptly rejected it. Luckily for us, the paper eventually ended up getting published the following year in a tech magazine that was popular at the time.

Hidden in this paper was a pretty big idea that gained a lot of fame in the engineering community. This big idea is called Conway’s Law, which goes like this:

“Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

Put in other words, a product will mirror the communications structure in which it arose. To reduce it even further: product and culture end up looking a lot like each other. In 2007, research by management theorists at Harvard Business School found strong evidence in support of this.

GitHub: A Case Study

Source: WIRED

One classic illustration of Conway’s Law resides in the very fabric of tech startup GitHub. In a series of posts, longtime employee Zach Holman summed up GitHub’s culture in three guidelines (paraphrased below):

1. Set your own hours.

2. Avoid meetings.

3. To get creative, get in the zone.

At GitHub, a $100mm+ company, this means that much of the non-essential communication takes place in chat rooms so as to keep distractions minimal. It means that the company hosts happy hours, sponsors gym memberships, and organizes teaching workshops. In fact, for its first two years, GitHub didn’t even have an office — employees worked remotely (and many still do).

Why is this important, and what type of culture, exactly, is GitHub trying to build? Holman puts it this way:

“We want employees to be in the zone as often as possible. Mandating specific times they need to be in the office hurts the chances of that. Forcing me in the office at 9am will never, ever get me in the zone, but half of GitHub may very well work best in the morning.”

Or, in the words of Ryan Tomayko, another early GitHub employee, “Your team should work like an open-source project.” Funny, because a lot of open source projects are powered by GitHub. GitHub is a lightweight, cloud-based tool that programmers use to work on code together. Software for collaboration and open-source projects. Just like the culture and communications structure it has built, GitHub the product is asynchronous and distributed — that is, teamwork anywhere, anytime. 

If you want a slightly more tongue-in-cheek exploration of Conway’s Law in action, observe the sketch below, courtesy of Manuel Cornet: 


According to Cornet’s very data-driven graphs above, Amazon the company is culturally as hierarchical as the product (which is essentially a hierarchy of categories and subcategories containing things you totally need to buy). Google the company is culturally just as structured yet cross-dependent and cross-referencing as Google’s products. And Microsoft, well, yeah.

However, while Conway’s Law explains in some ways the relationship between culture and product, it’s missing a crucial piece: How does this alignment between product and culture get cemented? How does it become formalized, reinforced, and calcified?

Through branding. Namely, through monopolizing language and imagery.

The Startup T-Shirt Phenomenon

A couple years ago, Owen Thomas wrote a profile on Palo Alto, the “small California town where billion-dollar dreams are made.” This is the prototypical startup town, where companies like Google, PayPal, and Facebook got their start, and where many notable tech bigwigs call home. In what is pretty typical of the tech scene these days, you’ll see a lot of branded t-shirts. Thomas makes special note of this fact:

“You’ll often see Palantir employees walking around in polo shirts with the company logo.”

But startup t-shirts on their own aren’t evidence of any reinforcement of Conway’s Law. They are just the tip of the iceberg. In his essay The Anthropology of Mid-Sized Startups, Kevin Simler points to the t-shirts as a small piece of “the many rituals I’ve seen startups use to reinforce trust, solidarity, and company (or team) pride.” He lists out a handful of other ways in which this team-building ritualization happens: team sports, themed dress-up days, wall art, shared meals, and other activities.

We can break these reinforcing rituals down into two categories: images and language. Many successful businesses use these two levers to reinforce both internally and externally their culture as well as their product. One company in particular does a great job of this: Dropbox.

Dropbox and Freedom

Dropbox allows you to save, store, and access your files from anywhere you want. Wherever you go, all your documents, files, songs, and videos are with you. When Dropbox first came out back in 2007, this was freedom for people who had previously been tethered to their floppy disks, CDs, USB drives, and other easily-lost and easily-damaged storage devices.

The images Dropbox uses to represent itself entirely embody this idea of freedom. The company is renowned for its artful, humanistic use of illustrations, instead of the pseudo-industrial aesthetic common with other startups. Even their Error 404 page keeps with the “freedom” branding — you land on the design team’s interpretation of MC Escher’s impossible cube.

The language and copy the startup employs also reinforces the idea of freedom: from the landing page’s “Your Stuff, Anywhere” to the “Keep your stuff safe and accessible wherever you are” located in various locations on the website.

(If you want to nerd out further, more examples here, here, and here).

This “freedom” ethic definitely extends down into the culture of the company. The organizational structure is largely flat and engineering-driven. Dropbox is renowned for its “You’re smart, figure it out” mentality, its wildly creative hack weeks, and its recruitment videos starring muppets with MacBooks.

To some extent, CEO Drew Houston seems to have deliberately designed for this:

“One of the biggest challenges to growth has been something banal– inter-office communication. When the team was small enough to fit in one room, information just spreads naturally. But as we grew larger we had to start deliberately trying to figure out how to get the right info in the right people’s’ hands.” 

Dropbox’s product is all about freeing users; Dropbox’s communications structure is all about freeing employees; and Dropbox’s branding simply reinforces all of this to employees, users, investors, and journalists through imagery and language.

Branding Blind Spots

But all cohesive systems have blind spots; the very strengths they are designed to highlight can create glaring weaknesses. Organizations are no exception.

For example, Uber has gotten itself in trouble countless times in the past year. Perhaps by necessity, a company challenging a highly entrenched incumbent (taxi industry) has a highly efficiency-oriented product, a by-any-means-necessary culture, and sleek corporate branding. The blind side of this product and organizational design might be the reports of sabotaging competitors and naysayers. GitHub and Dropbox have also recently had to respond to their own cultural “blind spots” (GitHub’s institutionalized hostility towards women; Dropbox’s fortification of “frat boy culture”).

The lesson for businesses? Be very deliberate and rigorous about the culture you want to build, because it will show in the product. Then reinforce through authentic branding. In the oft-quoted words of Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, “Your culture is your brand.” In this case, your culture might be your product, too.

We now leave you with an illustration of what SocialRank is all about — feel free to overanalyze it in the comments section:




Wearer of many hats at SocialRank. @AmmarM08

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