How To Shape Startup Culture Using Archetypes: Matt Buckland of Forward Partners

Walking into
Forward Partners, you might be forgiven for thinking an interior designer took some random liberties. I mean, a cat's tail hangs from a box on the wall, an orange pigeon perches upon a neon Tesla sign, murals of pre-historic creatures adorn the walls. And then there's the whip and the lightsaber, but we'll get to that...

They may seem random to some, but to Forward Partners these are beacons that guide decision-making. From investments to hiring, strategy and fund raising, these objects serve as a constant reminder of how their behaviours and actions are held accountable by a defined set of values.

We only really wanted to know about the lightsaber. But
Matt Buckland, Head of Talent at Forward Partners, kindly gave us much, much more...

David Bushby: Hi everyone. Welcome to today's podcast. Joining us today we have a special guest who is the resident cardsharp here at Forward Partners, also known as the Head of Talent, recruiter extraordinaire, Mr. Matt Buckland. Thanks for joining us.

Matt Buckland: Hello.

David: How are we on this almost glorious London Friday?

Matt: Good. It's been a Friday so I'm enjoying it so far. Cramming as work in as possible before the weekend.

David: Good stuff.
Today we are talking about how a startup or your business can be shaped using archetypes. In my hand here, I am holding ... In my left hand, a lightsaber and in my right hand I have a whip. The question's got to be asked: What is it about Forward Partners? Are you into a jedi-type of sadomasochism?

Matt: Definitely. Definitely. Who isn't? You have to have a hobby, right?
No, these are some signifiers of cultural archetypes that we got to from an off-site that we did. Big long exercise that we distilled down. These are, if you like, the reminders, physical reminders, in our office that allow us to tap into that memory.

David: An archetype, for those of us that don't know it, 101, what are they?

Matt: Archetype has been around for years and years. Where we're calling on them from is the work of a philosopher called Carl Jung. Jung said that in all of the stories ever told by man, there are a number of archetypes. There are these archetypal stories. So if you think of a creation myth or a fable or a fairy story or anything that's handed down, there might be a hero, for example. Someone fights, someone wins, they're the hero. There might be a jester. There might be a lover, a mother, a caregiver. Someone who's just a normal, everyday guy.
Throughout all these stories across time, across cultures, there are these same familiar types of things and they are archetypal. They become sort of larger than just that once instance in that one story. You can spot them across time and scale.

David: What companies are using this type of framework to shape their culture? Any known brands?

Matt: I first came across this when I was working with a lady at Criteo. They used a branding agency that wanted to make companies retouch on their cultural values. They have grown in scale or they weren't really having those discussion yet. Culture's just something that's accepted. It's all around you, "Yeah, this is our culture."
I find that it's becoming more and more important in talent and in hiring because people are saying, "We hire for the culture." Then you look for the signifiers of that culture and what they're actually saying is, "We have foos ball tables and beer on Friday."
Those things aren't the culture. They might be signs of a culture, but actually drilling down into that, this exercise has been fantastic. We're very, very good at looking at other people and knowing what we're not. We're absolutely lousy at knowing what we are. It's hard to turn that lens on yourself a lot of the time. This exercise is just a way of being able to reframe it and focus on yourself.

David: Are there any examples of some household names that are out there that have an archetype associated with them?

Matt: Absolutely. It's very easy for you to apply archetypes to someone else. If I was to say, "The hero archetype is someone who exudes power and strength." In ancient Greece this would be Hercules or Achilles. You've all of these great heroes of the myths.
If I was to say, look at how Nike advertised their running shoes, their sports clothes. It's never someone jogging in the morning and then going to work. It'll be a slow pan of someone in the middle of the desert running and then it pans back and you see they're in the middle of nowhere. There's no one for thousands of miles. You know they're going to run and run and run. They're the hero in that story. They're calling on the same meaning.
Archetypes are a great way of providing shortcuts to understanding. We all know these stories and it's often without being consciously aware. You can call on them quite quickly to make meaning in the mind of the receiver.

David: I guess turning to Forward Partners. Can you run us through the process of how you got to your archetypes and eventually what they are?

Matt: Absolutely. We had an off-site and had a workshop. I think it's quite important that we were away from the office. Again, it's that reframing. It gives you some psychological space to actually be introspective about these things. Forward Partners had gone through a journey of being Forward Ventures, Forward Labs, Forward Partners. We were quite keen to see what was the greater meaning of that. There's a meta-level of understanding there, which is what was the Forward Partners-ness? What are those things that make that up? And I thought, if we're talking about it, what stories do we tell about ourselves out there in the world that make this interesting?

We went through all the archetypes and we made sure that everyone understood them and gave examples of companies that were the archetypal advocates of that archetype. The hero for Nike ... We had Land Rover and Gillette there as well because he shaves his face, goes off and flies a plane. That's the hero in that story. The magician would be someone who has a magical effect on something. If you look at Lynx or Axe deodorant, he sprays it on, suddenly all women are attracted to him. It's a magical effect. You've got the jester. People like Ikea, those brands that aren't afraid to laugh at themselves. They are more the jester in this. It's very knowing. The lover, you think of Cadbury's chocolate, smooth as silk, this kind of stuff. Bailey's over ice. Slow motion, all of that sort of stuff.

So we go through all of these archetypes and, amongst the group, come up with these companies that are absolutely archetypally that. We know it because we've been sold to them for tens and hundreds of years almost in some of these cases. They're always telling the same story about themselves. From there, we took it companies that we've actually invested in, the portfolio. We all know these big brands because they have billion dollar budgets but what about the companies in the room? Who should they be like? Stylect is selling shoes to ladies. That's great, but what story are they telling about that? We decided amongst us it's that lover. It's almost the fetish object and the shoe becomes bigger than just the shoe. It's like you love that and you want that, and it's that desire that they're trying to call on.

It's very easy for us to do this to other companies. Then came us. The Forward Partners logo comes up on the screen and everyone went quiet. What we did, we made ourselves some Top Trumps-style cards of the archetypes and just said, "Have a discussion amongst yourselves and then a little bit of back and forth amongst the group. What do you think they are?" That discussion was facilitated. What we found, really strangely, was they're so similar. People came up with exactly the same ones. And that's a great rejoinder for it. This is what they must be because this is what the people who work for the company are saying they are.

It wasn't someone imposing a culture. It wasn't Nic in a leadership position saying, "This is our culture." And similarly it wasn't utopian uprising of the mass workers, saying, "No, this is our culture." It was actually everyone saying, "I think this is true."

What we go to ... This is our whip and our lightsaber. I should explain, we used very popular cultural references to really key into this understanding. For the hero, we had Tom Cruise. For the jester, we had Jim Carrey, this kind of stuff. Our archetypes were the explorer, because we feel that we go out of our way to discover things. We're out there in the world trying to find deals, trying to find things. Explorer, adventurer, to us that's Indiana Jones.

David: Hence the whip.

Matt: Hence the whip. It's a big bull whip, I should explain.

David: It's not a fetish whip. It's not something you'd use in the bedroom.

Matt: It's kind of hard to miss when you walk in as well.
We also found that a lot of the way we help companies is through expertise that we have in-house. That we thought was more like the sage. The sage archetype would be ... If you seen any of those old 70s kung-fu films, the sage is the guy you learn kung-fu from. He's the master, he's going sit there with a long beard and teach but have all that knowledge. There's a zen to it as well, which we really liked, resonated a lot with us. Our sage archetype was Yoda. We went with Yoda as the archetypal sage. Hence, a whip and a lightsaber.

David: Brilliant. When you talk about team, give the listeners a sense of how big the team is, how many are there in Forward Partners.

Matt: There were 12 of us in that group. That the Partners team. We are growing a little bit so there will be a few more. What's interesting is when we've added people to the team, we haven't had to explain Indiana Jones and Yoda to them. We've said, "Tell us about Forward Partners," and they come up with these themes of expertise. Once you've established that theme, it bleeds out into the rest of what you produce. That's copy on the web site. It might be a video you produce. It's even how you tweet and how you want to be seen. If you're the every man, you probably wouldn't tweet from a logo. You'd have a picture of your face because you're the every man.It's how those things then go on to shape the rest of your output. It kind of bleeds through everything. Then you get a very joined up message for all your marketing.

David: In terms of the day itself, it sounded like you got a lot of buy-in. Workshops can go either way. Did the staff really buy into the process? And now that you've done it and they're living and breathing it, you still feel they have that same buy-in?

Matt: I was quite fortunate. I've obviously got a massive but fragile ego, so if I died it would be terrible for me. I think because it was so different and because we went very, very broad: "Think of these big companies, think of smaller, now think of us." It was a very logical process, which everyone got behind. The off-site gave them the space to do that as well. They had nothing else to do. No phones going off, that kind of stuff. For us, I think there was a lot of buy-in. There was great debate around how we want to see. And it's great for start-ups to do this because they are going through that process of introspection anyway. "Who are we? What is our product?" All of these are parts of a broader question, which is, "Who the hell am I and where do I fit in the world?" You're always asking yourself those questions. I think it went down quite well. It was quite interactive. No one could escape. Which is always a good thing.

David: Lots of coffee and tea , maybe a promise of beer afterwards.

Matt: People were caffeinated, which is good. I think it's about reminding them of these things. I said, right at the start, we have a whip and a lightsaber hanging on the wall, as you would hang your coat on the wall. That's the thing. They're hung on coat hooks because Indy and Yoda are in the room. That's the idea behind it, so that they should be there. The other thing is that on the top of the monitors of all of the Partners team, you'll see Indiana Jones and Yoda in Lego.

David: I've seen that.

Matt: Yoda and Indy are in Lego form attached to the top of the monitors as well, just to remind people. If we had come up with a lover, we'd have had to find a Marilyn Monroe Lego figure, which would have been quite rough.

David: It would have been difficult. A square Marilyn Monroe figure.
You mentioned start-ups earlier, even small businesses. Can a start-up or a small business be too small for this type of exercise? At what point does it become most useful?

Matt: I think it's always useful. It's more useful the earlier that you do this stuff. A lot of the start-ups in the room will come to us and they'll say, "I need a logo," for example. You could go on Fiverr or 99designs and come up with something, and there's a logo. You can write a brief around it, saying, "We're a travel company. We need a wave" or something like that. But if you start to think about the archetypes and how you want that to be perceived at a broader or a deeper level ... How are you making meaning in the minds of the people who perceive that logo? It can sound like you're over-thinking it, but all you're doing is clarifying your own thought processes. No one else who looks at that logo, who isn't the CEO, should be thinking anything different than what you think that logo should mean to them.That can be things like, if the typeface is big and blocky, what does that actually mean? Is that about power? Is that about control? If I look at the logo for Hilton Hotels, for example, it's big, strong letters. It's a massive, global brand. Some hotel chains have the little crown above them. That's like prestige. There's royalty there, there's this kind of stuff. It's not there out of chance. Someone has thought about this.

For a start-up to go through similar processes, to get to a level of understanding of themselves, as they would for a large multi-national, is brilliant. It's a brilliant help for them. And, subconsciously, it bleeds through into everything they do.

We see it. For example, we had a travel company that works with us at the moment and they changed one thing. In the email that says, "Your booking is complete," they changed one word to say, "Congratulations. Your booking is complete." Which is so much nicer. Now you've won something. You've not just spent money, you're a winner, so how does that make you feel? That was after they did this process.

David: You mentioned the CEO just before, and I wanted to touch on that. There is a school of thought that talks about culture being really just a reflection of the CEO at the end of the day. Can a company do this type of thing to actually shape it? What's the thinking there?

Matt: I don't think the culture of an organization begins and ends with only the CEO. For example, Facebook has offices all over the world and there's a certain Facebook culture that pervades even if Mark Zuckerberg isn't in the room. Those things are true. Apple culture is existing even though now Steve Jobs is no longer with us. There is an Apple culture. These things persist and are prevalent in other offices all over the world. They may be slightly different, but again it's still something bigger than one individual. When you're growing, you're a start-up, you are only one individual.

David: One person yeah.

Matt: It's a lot about building something bigger than yourself, so the other thing that I ask them to do is ... A lot of start-up CEOs will think they're too small for this and I say, "OK. Let's imagine a time in the future when you're company is a hundred people. You walk into the floor downstairs, what does it look like?" They're like, "Well, that's a strange question." I'm like, "I'll explain." There's a trading company in Chicago who have a gold-winged victory, the statue of Nike, in their ground floor. It's bigger than the actual one and it's gold-plated. What does that tell you about them? They can tell me. I'm like, "Cool. When I walk into your lobby, when you've made a hundred million pounds. It's your building. What's in the lobby?"

David: What's behind it?

Matt: "Tell me those things." You start to just pull out. A lot of start-ups CEOs has so much going on that it becomes a bit frantic. They take this stuff for granted. It's only when you start to peel back the layers and get to the real meaning of it that they find true value in it and it becomes something bigger than the one individual.

David: Just a final question: You've got your archetypes. You've got the whip and the lightsaber. What next? Is this a yearly exercise? Or do you wait until you've grown to that sort of magic number of 50 employees? What's the process from here?

Matt: There is an inflection point. You do seven, you do 50, you do 150. There is a logical inflection point as the team grows. What I would hope is that the things we produce that are the points or the reference points for our culture would actually have this stuff not explicitly called out, but it would be pervasive. I think if things like HR policy, really, really, dull and boring most of the time. If you don't come to work, we'll fire you, is basic HR policy.

But if you are a sage, what's your HR policy that embodies that? For us, it's if you want a book that's on amazon, you can order it and we'll buy it for you, and when you read it, you put it back on the shelf so everyone else can share the knowledge. That's incredibly sage-like, for us.

What we did was thought, almost like if you were an archaeologist, coming into the office and it's a completely alien place to you, what would you see around? What were those things? We've got very sage-explorer names for our meeting rooms. I mean, we're sat in Schrodinger's Box. We have the Difference Engine and we have Nikola Tesla behind us. I think those things become signifiers of the culture and it's much more important to have those things called out. It's very hard not to be in an environment that has those signifiers and not have some of that work, almost by osmosis, on you as an individual. New people coming in take that culture on board as well. It's not that if we suddenly hired 500 people from Microsoft, we wouldn't have a Microsoft culture, because you would. They would bring it with them because it's the practices and behaviors that embody that culture as well. You can always nudge culture. There's a little bit of environmental in there as well, and the way people behave. The other thing that we did, because this is part of our values, we can hold people up to them as well. If we're making a decision, we can say, "Is that explorer enough? Are we taking enough risk?" That's a great check and balance for your organization, but you have to find those things that resonate with your company and build values and build your culture based on that.

David: As a recruiter, do you hire against these archetypes as well?

Matt: Absolutely. Absolutely. How would you look at sage and explorer for a developer, for example? Very technical mindset. A sage developer might speak at conferences. They might want to be sharing knowledge. They might mentor people. Explorer developer, they might be out at conferences in other countries. They put be putting themselves out there a little bit more. They'll be in the open-source community. They'll be doing all sorts of great stuff. Super good for us. And that's pretty much our developers that we hire. We're pretty good at this stuff, at the moment.

David: At the moment. Fantastic. I'm sure it will continue and thanks again for your time. We'll have to wrap it up there.

Matt: Thank you.