I want to talk about core values, the importance of building core values into your business, and how we created eight company core values that we will pretty much die for here at Proof.

It’s my belief that, once you get two employees, it’s time to have core values.

For the most part, companies don’t do this. They push it off. They say, “we need product market fit or we just need to write code. We don’t need values. That’s kind of corporate-y.”

And, that’s what I used to think about core values.

I thought — as a company — once you’re big enough, you just had core values like integrity, hard work, passion magically appear in your business model. It’s a stupid thought now, but at the time I didn’t value core values.

I was wrong, and over the years I’ve learned core values are incredibly important to building a business and it’s worth putting sincere thought in building them into your business.

Companies with amazing core values

As I had this epiphany that I needed to focus more on core values, I began to study some great companies that came before me. And during the journey, I noticed that all of those companies had a common mission and common values at the center of everything. It wasn’t that they randomly arrived at a set of core values — they directly built core values into their business models.

Gusto’s core values

There are certain companies that I think absolute master the art of a core value-driven culture. Consider AirBNB or Gusto. These two companies have core values that everybody on the team seems to rally behind.

AirBNBs core values

When I looked at the Glassdoor reviews for AirBNB, employees were talking about these core values. 

Glassdoor review citing AirBNB core value Be a Cereal Entrepreneur

Or when I looked at their press releases, they would be mentioning them in there. It seemed like the values were an integral part of the business — from recruiting to marketing and beyond.

AirBNB organized study aligns well with Core Value #3: Embrace the Adventure

Creating the Proof Core Values

About a year and a half ago, we seriously down and we created the first version of the Proof core values. Our overall vision at Proof is to help businesses grow using honest marketing strategies and to build really great digital marketing tools — and we used that as a stepping stone to write our first real set of core values.

When you look back five years to when I first started a marketing agency — the business that was the precursor to Proof — we simply sat down on day two and we started writing out the core values and, essentially, we just ripped them off of Whole Foods.

Whole Foods core values

In all honesty, I think we were actually working at Whole Foods that day and we looked at the wall, we’re like, those seem pretty cool. Those values totally represent us. But, we really never talked about them again because they weren’t truly our core values.

We waited about two and a half years before addressing the topic again. We had started this agency and subsequently gotten rid of that agency… Sold off a lot of those clients to other people, and started a substantially different business. And, so at that point, it was about two and a half years later, it wasn’t so much, who do we want to be?

Instead, we could sit down and ask:

  • Who are we?
  • What is the identity that we currently have?
  • How are we currently passionate about doing things?

I think that’s where core values need to come from.

It’s not this idea of taking that from other people or, asking what do we need to do. But, it’s saying, who are we already?

And in hindsight, we already had an identity forming:

  • We liked to treat our customers with respect.
  • We hated scummy, crappy marketing.
  • We believed real friendships are more important than making money.

We already had strong opinions. We just had to sit down and actually map them out. And so, it was about a year and a half ago, as Proof was getting off the ground. I invited my co-founders, JP and Chris over to my house, and we sat down with this whiteboard and we just started listing off things.

The OG Proof Basement office

What are the things that we believe to be true about the business that maybe other people don’t believe?

Why do we believe these things?

We filled up a whole whiteboard and we started crossing off certain items and consolidate the list.

After a two hour brainstorm, we had circled on eight core values that we believed would take us to the next level:

  • Be customer obsessed
  • Play the long game
  • Swing for the fences
  • 80/20 everything
  • Know thy numbers and obey them
  • Honesty, even when it hurts
  • Protect our people and help them flourish
  • Have fun and be yourself

The Musk of the Week trophy

We didn’t want it to be this thing where we just wrote them down and locked them away in some documents somewhere.

We wanted our core values to be the catalyst that drives growth and performance at Proof. That led us to make an award that you could win when you most well representing the core values.

At the time, we thought there was one kind of role model we had in the business that we were really looked up to: Elon Musk.

He’s a once in a generation entrepreneur, and his mind set on building a company is something we respected.

Musk of the week trophy

We wanted him to kind of represent the core values, and where we were headed. And so, I was Googling, and I found this Elon Musk bobblehead.

I bought it, and we created what we call, the Musk of the Week award, which is the most coveted award here at Proof. It’s given out once every two weeks to whoever represents our core values the best. Everybody votes on it — and it’s an honor to win it.

I recommend companies do that. It’s been huge for us to, not give out awards based on performance or based on this or that, but based off of who’s actually truly supporting these values. And so, that’s one of the ways that we’ve kind of implemented this and the kind of made the core values a deeper part of what we’re doing.

The eight core values

1. Be customer obsessed

It’s funny, looking back, this actually wasn’t one of our core values from the beginning. This was the one that we added. I think when we started the company, we weren’t thinking about the customers nearly enough.

We were actually thinking about ourselves and how we can grow the company and we’re in a fight to stay alive.

We had the wrong mindset about that. And so, be customer obsessed became this mantra every time we were about to build something or ship something or create a marketing campaign.

We created an internal goal of being the most customer-obsessed software company in the history of the world. My dream is that Proof will be a city on a hill that other companies would look at and think that is exactly how you treat customers.

How do we apply Be Customer Obsessed at Proof?

The biggest way is that everybody does customer support at Proof. We have 17 people on our team right now: mainly engineers, a couple of marketers, a couple of support folk.

Recently, we started having everybody sit down and do customer support power hours. And, we’re kind of early on in this experiment. We started this project because we thought people were just too far away from the customer.

When we think to when we knew the customers the best — it was at the beginning of the business, when we had three or four people on our team. We realized, as we started hiring people, they would come in and they might know the technology, they might know the product, but they really didn’t know the customer and what was going on there.

Review of Proof from Customers

In response, we started to implement these different customer support shifts. We have five different teams — Monday through Friday — and each team will sit down and do customer support for two hours together right after our daily huddle. We call them power hours.

It’s been a really, really cool time for everybody. They get to know the customer better, engineers learn a lot about where their code is going, and more importantly, the customers are reacting well to it. 

We also are able to support our customers a lot faster because we’ve got all hands on deck doing support now. We have pictures of customers around our office, and then we start every conversation with what would the customer want, instead of what’s going to help us grow.

2. Play the long game

We are going to be around for a hundred years.

Of course, I think that’s one of the key differentiators at Proof. You are not going to beat us because we are willing to do this longer than anybody else. I remember hearing this quote from Will Smith. Essentially he says:

“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there's two things: You're getting off first, or I'm going to die. It's really that simple, right?”Will Smith

And, I think when we’ve stretched our time horizon out further and further, we’ve realized that allows us to do a lot different projects here in the short term.

How do we apply Play the Long Game at Proof?

First off, we don’t talk about selling Proof. We’re not trying to get an exit in the next few years. We’re not just propping up vanity metrics so we can kind of get to the next round, or so that some other company will look at us and think, that’s really cool.

We’re really digging deep. We’re trying to be very transparent and trying to build a company that will last the test of time.

Secondly, we make bets that aren’t going to pay off until a year or two down the road. Right now, we’re heads down working on a new product that’s taking quite a while to build out, but we think it’s going to be the future of Proof.

And, if we were trying to sell in a year, I wouldn’t even bother with any of that. And so, we’re really trying to kind of push out the time horizon and say, what can we do that’s not going to matter until five years from now?

What can we do that’s not gonna matter 10 years from now, 20 years from now?

3. Swing for the fences

We believe in trying to do really hard things. In fact, I think it’s easier to do hard things than it is to do easy things.

When you do hard things, you start to shift your mindset around thinking of big ideas

Perhaps, think: How do I not grow two times next year, but instead how do I grow 10 times next year?

And so, we kind of have tried to apply that to everything that we’re doing here and ask, let’s not just go small. Let’s not try to hit singles.

Let’s try to go really, really big. And what we’ve seen is, that that rallies the team. That gets people really, really excited.

How do we apply Swing for the fences at Proof?

At Proof, failure is expected. If you’re not failing in your role at Proof, you’re not taking risks.  You’re playing it safe.

Playing it safe is not an option.

If people are playing it safe, we’re going to push them and say, hey, we need to start seeing more risks out of you. I feet like you’re just kind of going through the motions, just kind of hitting some singles.

We also always ask questions like:

How can we make this plan 10 times better?
How can we delight our customers 10 times more?
How can we grow 10 times faster?
How can we build a 10 times better product?

4. 80/20 Everything

The 80/20 principle is also called the Pareto principle.

80/20 Principle

It’s this idea that if you look throughout the world, 80 percent of the results of the system typically come from 20 percent of the inputs. And so, in our company, 80 percent of the revenue and the monthly recurring revenue (MRR) comes from about 20 percent of the customers.

This guy named Vilfredo Pareto was looking out into the world and they saw that about 80 percent of the peas from a field came from 20 percent of the pea pods.

How do we do apply 80/20 Everything at Proof?

We’ve recently been working on an MVP for a new product that we’re going to release here over the next couple of months.

So, we listed out the MVP and everything that we thought made up the bare-bones version of it. Then we thought, how we can get this done in four months.

I kind of stopped. We realize that’s not an MVP. That’s not an MVP at all. So, how do we kind of cut this thing down? What’s the 80/20 of it?

How can we get 80 percent of the value of that MVP with 20 percent of the work? And, essentially, we ended up cutting it down to about a two and a half week project. We released the project, and we’re already seeing value in it.  

We’re already seeing our funnel conversion rate increased because of it. We’re already able to do some really powerful things with the software.

5. Know thy numbers and obey them

Be very data-driven. There are quite a few metrics that we track at Proof. Here’s a few of them:

These are some of the numbers that we’re reporting on a daily and weekly basis. And, when people come to meetings, they come with ideas. We don’t allow you to just say, I feel like this is happening, or my gut says we should do this, or go this direction because it feels right.

Know Thy Numbers

How do we apply Know thy numbers and obey them at Proof?

We don’t make a lot of gut decisions around here. I think there is a place for that and I think that place needs to be built on top of data. And so, we ask people to live by the numbers.

Show me the metrics behind that. Don’t just tell me qualitatively what you hear from customers, pull some numbers and get quantitative data to support that as well. We really push everyone to be very data-driven and to obey their numbers.

6. Honesty, even when it hurts

We try to be honest with our products. We try to be honest with our customers. We don’t build things that will hurt the end customer, and this is the origin story of Proof.

Externally, we wanted to be more transparent with our website customers. We wanted to show our visitors exactly what was happening on their site.

Honesty in action at Proof HQ

How do we apply Honesty, even when it hurts at Proof?

Internally, we try to be really real about confrontation and we’ve tried to be real with feedback. Don’t take that home with you. Don’t let this drag on.

We try to be really, really honest, even though it’s really uncomfortable a lot of times to do that. How? 

  • We don’t use false scarcity.
  • We don’t say the doors are closing unless they really are.
  • We don’t say there are 10 left if there’s actually an infinite supply.
  • We try to do things differently.
  • We’re trying to rewrite the playbook for the marketing world.

7. Protect our people and help them flourish

Our people, our unit, our team here is everything. If we don’t have a tight crew, if they are not protected and flourishing and growing and thriving, then we have no chance of delighting our customers.

Proof team at our 2019 retreat

So I spend a lot of time thinking, how can we help our people here flourish first, but the same time, if you go out in concentric circles, how do we help our customers flourish?

How do we protect our customers?

Once you’re a customer of Proof, you’re in the crew, we think of customers like that — they are on the team, on the squad, on the inside, and you’re rolling with us and we’re going to protect you. So, we are constantly looking for ways to improve and help people thrive here at Proof.

How do we apply Protect our people and help them flourish at Proof?

Instead of a yearly review process, we do a six-month review process.

We are trying to speed up that cycle time, give people raises quicker, give people feedback more frequently and help them flourish.

We have something called the Proof Way, which is a kind of development track inside Proof — if you read eight books that are all tied to the core values and do a couple of other little assignments around that — we give you $3,000 a year that we’ll invest into you and your career, so you can earn more development dollars.

And, really we try to have a good work-life balance. I mean, we are a small startup. 17 people is time to grind, but we also think, you’re not going to build well, you’re not going to come in and thrive and be flourishing, if we’re burning you out. And so, we try to have good work-life balance, make sure people are getting refreshed and rejuvenated.

8. Have fun and be yourself

We really try to have a good time at the office. We try to hire interesting people, and when people come to Proof, we don’t just say: “hey, here’s our culture, fall in line.”

We ask:

What can you add to the culture?
What do you think we should be doing here?
What’s something fun that you like to do?
What’s something unique about you?”

How do we apply Have fun and be yourself at Proof?

And so, we have fun times in the office. Some people wear costumes on special occasions. Our Head of Operations, AZ came in wearing a shark costume for a meeting.  

Head of Finance, AZ Moyer, in a shark costume at All Hands

We have happy hours together more than once a week. We play some Super Smash Brothers around here and have little tournaments. There’s a ping pong table in our office. It’s not that we’re trying to be startup-ey, these are just fun things that we sprinkle around to make the team closer.

Ping pong games are serious business around here

And we like to get together outside of the office. We had this event the other day called Proof in the Park, which was on a Saturday morning. We all just met up at this park here in Austin and we played spike ball and had coffee and talked. At the end of the day, we’re just a big group of friends, and it’s amazing. Almost everybody in the whole company came and almost everybody brought one or two people with them because they wanted them to be part of what’s going on here.

Here’s the deal: it’s going to be really hard to build this company that we’re talking about, so let’s have some fun along the way and have a good time.

We live by our values

These are the Proof eight core values.

We live by them, we die by them, we breathe them.

Everybody here knows them — we talk about them all the time and I would encourage you to do that with your values as well. Don’t feel like you’ve got to take our core values.

They’re likely not going to fit with you anyway. This is what’s true about us. And, it was true to the culture that we have established here. And, I really believe that your company is only as strong as your core values.

Your revenue might falter, your trial conversion rate might mess up. You might have a whole lot of things go wrong, but I think as long as you have this bedrock of your core values, you’ll be in good shape.