If somebody had asked my dad what his company culture was, he would have locked them with a 1,000-foot John Wayne stare.
That would sound like a bunch of woo-woo-woo hippie stuff to him, one of the last stoic sons of the West.
But in truth, the family excavating business did have a culture. It was written on the back of his business card: "The bitterness of poor quality and workmanship remains long after the sweetness of the low bid is forgotten."
In that phrase he told all potential clients that he and my brother and mother hustled. That they were fair and committed. That they believed in quality.
Still, he would have thought that's just how you run a business, not some fancy business school lingo about culture. I might have agreed with him until I sat this week with Ross Sanders, the executive director of Bizdom, the Detroit-based startup accelerator founded by Dan Gilbert.
We were talking about startups, and Sanders declared the biggest mistake they make when launching is not defining company culture: "You can Google an income statement, but what we teach is an emphasis on culture and core values. This is the foundation everything else is built on."
He gave me Detroit-based Chalkfly as an example. It had $2 million in revenue last year selling office supplies online — and it expects to double revenue this year. Part of its success, he posited, is its focus on company culture.
He told me that Chalkfly's culture is about how it still sends handwritten notes with invoices. It delivers flowers to clients' administrative assistants on Administrative Professionals' Day. It nails the customer service because that is what the founders believe in.
I got it. Company culture isn't just for tech entreprenuers with all the resources handed to them in fancy incubators and accelerators. It's for every small business owner, regardless of how tiny. It's about how you greet customers in your store. How you speak with clients on the phone. It's who you are and how you present yourself.
It's even for a man who is more comfortable digging in the hard rock of Colorado than in government bonding and bidding meetings. It explains why he taught my brother to put on a clean shirt and nice boots before you go.
He just called it acting like the owner, not the help, even when you were both.
This article first appeared in Crain's Detroit Business