CEO Insights on Building the Culture You Want in Your Startup – The Parable of the Blue Chair

The impetus for this blog is an email from Wayne Embree, Rev1’s Senior Advisory Partner. Recently, at a Rev1 event, Wayne had a dinner conversation with Eric Whitney, founder and CEO of Cardboard and developer of Kandoop.

Wayne wrote, “Eric and I were talking at dinner tonight about an experience he had in a prior startup that I will only refer to as the “the blue chair.” It’s really important to hear the story and how we discussed this as a thought exercise for many, many things that founders and CEOs face when building their companies.“

Eric Whitney is also the author of Old Coder Guy Book 1, (It’s edgy, eye-opening, and based on experiences from his career that he swears is 100 percent true.) The Blue Chair is one of Eric’s stories that, as it turns out, is an ideal introduction to Rev1’s Q3 blog series about building culture from Rev1 founders and CEOs. (Subscribe to our blog to receive future posts.)

The Parable of the Blue Chair

“Managing people and the complexities of humans in a workplace takes keeping people more or less happy at the same time,” said Eric Whitney. “About twenty years ago, I had a technical services startup that sold programming to companies like American Express and others. This is a story, a parable, which has to do with office furniture and people’s challenges with the perceptions of fairness and what they believe they were owed and due.”

Whitney’s business was in a little office in Delaware, OH. One of his objectives was to stay lean and profitable by resisting accumulating things, from printed copies (expensive and undesirable, even before virtual documents were standard) to office assets and real estate. Employees had a phone, a small filing cabinet, a desk, and a chair.

“I implemented a rotation plan,” Eric said. “People moved through the office to the next seat. That kept us portable with clean desks and meeting new people.” The company grew.

The rotating desk policy was working well—until company growth required more desks and chairs.

“They didn’t have exactly the same chair,” Eric said, “so we got a similar chair with the same structure and padding. The original chair was black; the new chairs were blue.”

As time went by, Whitney began to hear a side conversation brewing. “People thought the blue chairs were better,” he said, “the question was, did the blue chair belong with the person or remain with the desk?” The question was reasonable, Whitney said, as the phone and desk stayed put. The filing cabinet rotated.

“That meant that If the chair stayed with the desk when you moved into a spot, you would be using a blue chair, but if the blue chair moved with you, you had a blue chair in perpetuity,” he said. “The blue chairs became the seed of sadness. There was employee dissatisfaction in whoever didn’t get the blue chair.

Leadership and Culture

The message for founders and CEOs is that when you are building a company, there are textbook risks and milestones you know you will need to address. (Our recent Toolkit series by stage is an excellent place to start.)

And then, as Eric observes, “There is this whole host of attributes of human beings that you never saw coming—the “blue chair” rebellion. The outcome mattered to our business. If it was something that people cared about, it doesn’t matter if you think it was worthy of concern or not, how you manage it as a leader and a manager matters.”

With the blue chairs, there was the material issue of comfort and perhaps novelty. And there was the deeper management issue of how the company will address the things that matter to employees. The real question behind blue chairs could well be one of fairness and transparency.

Employees—especially employees today—want to know how and why decisions that affect them are made. They want to feel considered and communicated too. They want to know how their assignments and responsibilities impact the company’s goals.

“Not every employee can win with problem resolution,” Eric said. “In business, especially in startups, there is a spectrum to decision-making and no perfect answer. That’s the test of leadership.”

And that’s our message as we kick off our multi-part blog series over the next few weeks about culture-building in startups.

One of the important things about building a company from scratch is that, as a founder, you can create the culture you always wanted to have.

It pays to be intentional at an early stage. Get started here.

More culture insights in small bites.
Building the Culture You Want – The Parable of the Blue Chair
The Business Case for Culture here
Video: Leadership: Culture, Change, and Conversations