Company values: how we defined our core values at Hotjar (and you can do the same)
When we started Hotjar in 2014, the four co-founders and I knew what we wanted from each other: the ability to move fast, stay lean, self-manage, and take ownership. We didn’t need to write any of it down as our official company values: we just acted in line with those principles and kept one another in check every day.
Fast forward to 2019, when we’ve grown into a company of 70+ people spread across 19 countries. At this point, company values play a crucial part in how the company is shaped and grows—and, as the CEO, it’s my job to own these values and the culture of Hotjar.
In this article, I’m sharing what I’ve learned about company values in the past five years at Hotjar: why they are important, where to look for inspiration, and how to go about articulating and implementing them.
Table of contents
What are company values?
Company values (also called corporate values or core values) are the set of guiding principles and fundamental beliefs that help a group of people function together as a team and work toward a common business goal. These values are often related to business relationships, customer relationships, and company growth.
Why are company values important?
From a business perspective, having a core set of company values makes it easier for a company to make decisions, quickly communicate principles to clients and customers, and hire employees with the right attitude.
The way I see it, creating a business is a bit like creating a community: if you want the community to act as a group, you need a shared code/vision/identity/ethos that drives whom you choose to invite in and how the community functions as a whole. If you don’t own, define, and care about the values of your community, they will evolve on their own, potentially in ways that hurt your business.
4 elements of effective company core values
1. Lead with your vision statement
A vision statement describes an ideal vision of the impact a company will have on the world. When we started Hotjar, our vision statement was to “change the way the web is built by democratizing analytics and feedback.”
Your company values are the principles that support this vision: before you can articulate effective company values, you need to think about what impact your company can have on people (even if it’s a tiny niche) and write a sentence that sums up that ideal scenario.
2. Keep your values unique
We’ve all heard values like ‘think big’ or ‘be curious’ from a handful of giants like Netflix and Amazon; it’s not unusual that smaller companies are influenced by them and end up having pretty much the same values.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. But an effective company value should be unique to your company and experience. It’s easier to hide behind sweeping formulas that sound great but don’t really apply to you—so if you are a 100% profit-driven organization, embrace that. Use your values to make sure you hire people that think the same, unique way.
3. Make values simple to understand and remember
There’s no point crafting the perfect set of values if nobody in your company can recall them. A short, bullet-point list of simple, single-sentence values will be easier to remember in everyday working life and help guide your teams’ decisions.
For example, right now our longest company value (be bold and move fast) is just five words long.
4. Evolve your values over time
When your company grows, the values you wrote early on might not be completely relevant to where you have arrived. You’ll see what I mean in the next section: dynamics change as the number of employees grows, and different things become more or less important.
Re-examine company values as your team grows and get feedback from existing employees to help guide the process.
70 company value examples from 10 of the world’s largest organizations
Google has a list of 10 company values called “Ten things we know to be true”:
- Focus on the user and all else will follow.
- It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
- Fast is better than slow.
- Democracy on the web works.
- You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
- You can make money without doing evil.
- There’s always more information out there.
- The need for information crosses all borders.
- You can be serious without a suit.
- Great just isn’t good enough.
Amazon defines a list of 14 leadership principles that influence decision making:
- Customer Obsession
- Invent and Simplify
- Are Right, A Lot
- Learn and Be Curious
- Hire and Develop the Best
- Insist on the Highest Standards
- Think Big
- Bias for Action
- Earn Trust
- Dive Deep
- Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
- Deliver Results
At Uber, company values are called “cultural norms”:
- We build globally, we live locally.
- We are customer obsessed.
- We celebrate differences.
- We do the right thing.
- We act like owners.
- We persevere.
- We value ideas over hierarchy.
- We make big bold bets.
Nike uses a simple mission statement (“Bring Inspiration And Innovation To Every Athlete* In The World *If You Have A Body, You Are An Athlete.) alongside a short list of values:
- We dare to design the future of sport
- A team that’s empowered, diverse and inclusive
- The world is our community
- A fair sustainable future for every athlete
Netflix defines their company values around the core philosophy of “people over process”:
Apple lists their company values on the footer of every page on their website:
- Inclusion and Diversity
- Supplier Responsibility
VW developed their company values with the involvement of staff across the world:
The Walt Disney Company doesn’t use a single list of company values but instead combines their mission and value statements:
“The mission of The Walt Disney Company is to be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information. Using our portfolio of brands to differentiate our content, services and consumer products, we seek to develop the most creative, innovative and profitable entertainment experiences and related products in the world.”
Microsoft has a list of 6 core company values:
- Diversity and inclusion
- Corporate social responsibility
- Trustworthy Computing
Slack lists 6 core company values… with emojis:
- ❤ Empathy
How to define and implement company values: how we did it at Hotjar
In the first six to nine months of Hotjar, we didn’t have any formalized values: the four co-founders and I were working together and figuring things out as we went. One of the things we were aiming for was being lean and shipping fast, and we didn’t need to write it down—we just made sure everybody was being lean and shipping fast, and corrected as we went.
Hotjar’s company values, round 1 (2015): articulating values for an early-stage startup
Things started to change when we prepared to hire our first team members. Defining our values became crucial because we needed a set of principles to help us choose the people we wanted to bring onboard.
Step 1 - speaking with individual co-founders
I started off by having an informal chat with each of the co-founders, talking through what we liked and cared about in the way we worked together.
Talking one-on-one was very important for balance. In a group situation, when you have a mix of people who like to listen and people who are more talkative, the conversation might go in the direction of the more dominant speakers. I wanted to avoid this and make sure our values would be balanced and reflect all of the founders’ personalities.
Step 2 - looking to others for inspiration—but proceeding with caution
Being fast and lean was important to us, so I spent time reading about lean principles in books like Selling the Invisible, which explains why speed of service and speed of acting are so important. I had also been recommended Delivering Happiness, which is about creating a happy culture and a profitable business.
On top of this reading list, I looked at the values of companies like Basecamp, MailChimp, Atlassian, InVision, who were kind of ‘breaking the rules’ back then, in terms of not really sticking to the status quo and to the typical way companies had been built before. A lot of these were either bootstrapped, capital-efficient, or remote, so I knew we had something in common.
Of course, I had to remind myself that Hotjar was still really, really small. Values that inspire hundreds of people in a big organization might not make sense for a tiny group of people who are working to survive. It’s a big mistake I’ve seen before: small companies get carried away with inspiration and then end up with these fluffy, amazing-sounding values… that mean nothing to the team.
Step 3 - bringing the research together: Hotjar’s 8 values (2015)
As I ran my research and chatted to the co-founders, I kept collecting notes in Evernote so I could prepare a list that we’d tweak together.
It wasn't a very sophisticated process, but it did mean we got what we needed: eight values we could use to start hiring straight away because now we knew exactly what to look for:
- Always be HONEST
- Always be LEARNING
- SPEED wins
- We aim for GOOD
- Eliminate ‘IN PROGRESS’ work
- Get FEEDBACK early
- Create WOW!
- Show RESPECT
Here is an example of how this helped: we’d get candidates to do a task as part of their interview process, and look at their work and deliverables in light of those principles. Could they develop things speedily? How receptive were they to feedback?
Once hired, we would also run quarterly reviews where each person would get a 1-5 rating on how well they were performing for each value. The values were written and shared with everybody as part of our team manual:
Hotjar’s company values, round 2 (2018): company values for the scaling stage
As Hotjar’s team grew into the double figures and passed the 50-person mark, those initial eight values started to lose some of their relevance. For example, “speed wins” was crucial early on when the whole point of existing was shipping and fixing things fast; but with 50 people and counting, building things ‘right’ might become more important than just building them ‘fast’.
This time around, I wanted to remove my own bias from the process—as a CEO, I tend to look at where we want to be, but the values need to encompass a lot of where we currently are—so we decided to bring a consultant on board.
Step 1 - surveying the team
The consultant helped us survey the entire company to understand what values the team thought described Hotjar, and which of the existing eight values resonated the most (in the image below, it’s the column on the left).
Based on that feedback, the consultant grouped the values together and came up with a list of four values (the section on the right):
Step 2 - presenting the results & getting feedback from the team
When I saw that initial take on our values, I thought it was really well done. This is the reality for a CEO: you're busy, there are a million things on your plate, someone writes something that reads wonderful and you think it’s great.
We were excited to share the results with the team, so we asked the consultant to present the findings to everybody during an afternoon Zoom call. We also used Slido.com so the team could ask questions throughout the presentation:
After the call, we surveyed the team to get their reaction to the new values—and something interesting happened. Around half of the team was fairly positive, appreciated the fact that there were fewer values, and thought they described the company better than the previous set.
But the other half had a very negative reaction. They thought of these values as too ‘fluffy’, argued that they did not describe how we worked, and were, in fact, worse than what we already had.
In removing my own bias, I had introduced that of an external person who didn’t know and care about the company as much as we did.
Step 3 - re-owning the process
I took my time to process the feedback and came to the conclusion that, as a CEO, I needed to re-own the process myself. So I went back and checked in with the rest of the leadership and executive team to understand what was important to us, what was not important, and how to describe it.
I’m not going to lie: the process took months, but it was a wonderful exercise that led us to (re)prioritize the values and articulate them in a very intentional way. And at the end of the process, we got to the final version that exists today:
Step 4 - embedding the values
The work doesn’t end when you articulate the values: you need to embed them in the company to make sure they succeed.
The first step we took was making sure the team would remember the values. During our recent Tenerife meetup, we split the Hotjarians into teams and ran a Jeopardy-style quiz where teams would win points by uncovering and remembering values.
Immediately after, we launched a company-wide video challenge and asked the team to submit a 30-second video tying it back to one of Hotjar’s core values:
Moving forward, we have started to become more intentional about rewarding success by attributing it to values—for example, we will congratulate a team for ‘being bold and moving fast’ rather than for ‘signing off on a big client’. Our leads are re-iterating the values and giving feedback to each team member based on them, and the team can challenge back and question how certain actions relate (or fail to do so) to a specific value.
The role of founders in articulating company values
It's interesting to compare the two versions of our values. The first one from 2015 was very obviously founder-driven, with the input of five people and done through a quick process. The second one from 2018 took into account 60+ team members and included an external consultant, two rounds of surveys, a presentation, more feedback, and then me working closely with key stakeholders.
Notice that I'm not mentioning speaking to the founders anymore. As the company keeps growing, the founders’ thoughts are completely redundant. If the founders have hired people who have hired people who have hired people… you see where I’m going. Obviously, as a CEO I am responsible for the future of the company and what needs to happen, so I have sign-off on the values, but the final product came from all these sources together.
🔥Our fully articulated company values are live for everybody to see. Check them out!
Other examples of company values from cutting-edge companies
Basecamp’s values, as published in their manual “what we stand for”
- Be Straightforward.
- Be fair and do the right thing.
Mailchimp’s values, based on their “How our employee radio station embodies our company values” article:
Atlassian don’t hold back with their list of 5 company values:
- Open company, no bullshit
- Build with heart and balance
- Don’t #@!% the customer
- Play, as a team
- Be the change you seek
InVision has a list of 6 core values:
- Question assumptions
- Think deeply
- Iterate as a lifestyle
- Details, details
- Design is everywhere
At Hotjar, we have a list of 5 core values:
- Obsess over our users
- Be bold and move fast
- Work with respect
- Build trust with transparency
- Learn by doing
The team at Wistia also uses emojis to express its values:
- Long-term company thinking 🤔
- Creativity 💡
- Presentation 🖼
- Simplicity ✂️
Automattic’s values are based on what they call “The Automattic Creed”:
- I will never stop learning.
- I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me.
- I know there’s no such thing as a status quo.
- I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers.
- I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything.
- I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation.
- I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.
- I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day.
- Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.
Zappos has a list of 10 core values:
- Deliver WOW Through Service
- Embrace and Drive Change
- Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
- Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
- Pursue Growth and Learning
- Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
- Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
- Do More With Less
- Be Passionate and Determined
- Be Humble
Company values FAQs
What’s the difference between a code of conduct and company values?
A code of conduct is a list of dos and don’ts that dictate how people must behave (for example, a list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors), whereas values are a set of guiding principles that define the mindset people should work from when making their own decisions.
How many core values should a company have?
Company values need to be clear and easy to remember, so it’s best to have a small number of broad values: between 3 and 10 is ideal.
How to develop company core values?
Small-size companies develop company values simply by working together and understanding what is important to the teammates, what they care about, and how they want to function together.
As a company keeps growing, it becomes more important to articulate the values clearly and write them down so they can be shared; the process can involve specific actions like surveying the founding or management team, bringing a consultant onboard, and/or surveying each individual team member.
How to teach company core values to new employees?
Once company values are clearly documented, their importance should be emphasized to new employees during their onboarding process. Values also need to be embedded into company culture so they don’t get forgotten by long-term employees.
Note: thanks to my colleague Louis who interviewed me about my experience, and Fio who researched the 100+ examples listed and edited the piece into its final version.