Chateau and Vineyards in Napa, CA (Matthew Roth / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cultivation: Intentional Growth

To be cultural, to have a culture, is to inhabit a place sufficiently intensive to cultivate it — to be responsible for it, to respond to it, to attend to it caringly. — Edward S. Casey

Agriculture — the science of cultivating plants and livestock — was a key milestone in the development of civilization. Early humans were hunter-gatherers: in order to eat, they followed herds (for hunting) and sought edible plants (foraging). Around 10,000 years ago, humans began to domesticate plants and animals as a way to make food supply more accessible and predictable. As a result, humans evolved from nomadic hunter-gatherers into clans and tribes that settled into fixed locations. These settlements developed into the towns and cities that formed the basis of modern-day society.

Likewise, the intentional development of company culture can evolve a burgeoning startup into a scalable, enduring business. Much has been written about company culture and its importance in growing an organization. But what exactly is Culture? Culture is the set of customs, norms, and behaviors of the group; it’s how the team members interact and collaborate to achieve their common goals.

It can be tempting to think that Culture forms organically on its own — that as you scale a team, optimal behaviors will rise to the surface in Darwinian fashion. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most productive and optimal culture doesn’t emerge organically — it must be thoughtfully considered and planned. Culture should be intentional.

By establishing cultural norms and behaviors, a company defines its criteria for hiring, developing, and maintaining alignment among its team members.

Vineyard in Napa Valley (Brocken Inaglory / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Terroir

Viticulture — the cultivating and harvesting of grapes — dates back nearly 7,000 years. Viticulture is intricately tied to winemaking (vinification), and has been an integral part of human history since the end of the Neolithic period. Evidence of wine produced from grapes has been found in China (7000 BC), Georgia (6000 BC), Iran (5000 BC), Greece (4500 BC), and Sicily (4000 BC). Successful cultivation of grape vines is determined primarily by terroir — the climate, soil, and slope of the vineyard; this is why the best vineyards (and winemakers) are clustered in specific regions across the globe.

The success of a vineyard depends on the conditions of its terroir. The climate should provide 1500 hours of sunshine during the growing season and 27 inches of rainfall throughout the year to produce grapes suitable for winemaking. Soil appropriate for vineyards is slightly rocky or sandy, has pH just above 7, has good drainage, and is moderately rich in nutrients. The slope of the land determines how evenly and intensely sunlight is distributed onto the plant canopy; vines planted on slopes benefit from more direct sunlight and are less prone to frost.

Earlier this year, I decided to join Carta* for its unique business terroir:

  • the market opportunity (a big piece of the financial services industry)
  • the mission (to create more owners)
  • the momentum (to propel into new market segments)

These are crucial factors for cultivating a company and making an imprint on the business landscape.

Climate

Among the aspects of terroir, climate is the most important factor in determining the inherent quality of cultivated grapes.The majority of the world’s wine-producing regions are found between the temperate latitudes of 30° and 50° in each hemisphere.

A viticulturist closely monitors the effects of temperature, rainfall, and sunshine on a vineyard. Similarly, company leaders need to understand the levels of ownership, collaboration, and engagement of their team members. Gauging the climate of an organization is crucial for identifying obstacles and maintaining a feedback loop from the team. Taking the pulse of the organization can be accomplished through one-on-one conversations and formal employee surveys at regular intervals.

During my first 30 days at Carta, I began to get a sense of the culture that would help the organization achieve its goals. Within my first 90 days at the company, I had spoken with over two dozen Directors and individual contributors to get a pulse of the Engineering team. From these conversations, I learned a lot about the Engineering organization:

  • Team members joined for our tech stack and our company size.
  • Employees stay at Carta because of our team and learning opportunities.
  • We are doing well at improving our code and growing our company.
  • We can do better at hiring and communicating across the growing team.

In May, I shared these findings with the entire R&D organization. One month later, we provided the results of a more formal Employee Survey across the entire company. Our employees give the company high marks for each of the following:

  • Alignment & Involvement (88%): I know how my work contributes to the goals of Carta.
  • Company Confidence (87%): Carta is in a position to succeed over the next 3 years.
  • Engagement (87%): I am proud to work for Carta.
  • Management (86%): My manager genuinely cares about my well-being.

These results indicate that the climate is right for sustained growth; conditions exist to grow a thriving organization.

Lyre trained vines in Napa Valley. (John Morgan / CC BY 2.0)

Planting

Terroir alone is not sufficient for a successful vineyard. It’s crucial to plant varietals that are suitable for the terroir. There are two principal species in the grape family: one native to Europe and another native to North America. The European grape (Vitis vinifera) is characterized by its tight skins and high heat requirement for ripening. North American grapes (Vitis labrusca) have skins that slip easily from the fruit pulp and require less heat to ripen. Each of these grape species has multiple sub-species with their own flavor, color, texture, and size. Grapevines are sturdy plants that can survive 50 to 100 years. Carefully selecting and planting grape varietals in their ideal terroir can spawn a vineyard that spans generations. Château de Goulaine in the Loire Valley has been making wine for over 1,000 years; it is believed to be the oldest known wine business still in existence.

Having both a strong business model and a favorable market position are necessary but not sufficient to build a generational company. It’s important to hire the right team for each stage of the organization, seeding the company with employees to help it grow. The needs of any company — especially a fast-growing startup — change over time:

  • Team members appropriate for the founding stage of a company are generalists — they can kickstart a company from early idea to its first product. These employees will embrace the ambiguity of a company’s earliest days to take it “from zero to one.” This is the most tenuous stage of the company. Most early-stage startups die on the vine, but the lucky ones begin to take root.
  • As a company achieves product-market fit, it gains customers and grows into a mid-stage startup. The burgeoning company will need to hire specialist roles that didn’t previously exist. The ambiguity of the early days begins to subside. Teams grow to the point where full-time managers are necessary; some managers will be promoted from within, while others will be hired into the organization. The company shows early signs of flourishing, and its branches start to bear fruit.
  • The most resilient companies grow to become late-stage startups. Companies at this stage have a base of existing customers that provide significant recurring revenue. It becomes apparent the organization will be self-sustaining for many years. Growth of the organization will be stunted unless hiring starts to accelerate. New branches of the organization begin to form.

As companies take root and grow, employees are hired to provide fresh perspective and industry experience. Planting new employees into the terroir of a successful company results in a complex blend of new and vintage ideas.

Sangiovese grapes in the Montalcino region of Tuscany. (O.S. / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Training

Vine training is the act of building a support structure for grape vines, so the plants grow vertically and have ample air circulation. Training is also used for canopy management: encouraging foliage expanse while preventing excessive shading of the grapes.

Grapes are one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, and have been vine trained since the times of Ancient Rome. In the 1st century AD, Roman writer Pliny the Elder gave advice to vineyard owners about what type of vine trainings worked best for certain vineyards. For most of history, regional traditions dictated what type of vine training was used in a given area. But from the 1960s, New World wine regions started developing their wine industries, and new vine training systems were developed.

Growers must consider the climate conditions of the vineyard when choosing a vine training system. The amount of sunlight, humidity and wind will dictate which training system is best for a given terroir. Vine training ensures the long-term health of a vineyard, and optimizes the growth of its fruit.

Company leaders need to ensure the long-term health of their organization while optimizing the growth of their team members. A well-defined career ladder provides a lattice structure for teams, guiding employees in their professional growth and identifying opportunities for long-term development.

At Carta, we’re updating our Career Level Definitions for all roles within R&D. We revisited our career ladders and revised them to use a common rubric across disciplines. Our version of “vine training” for our R&D team is a career ladder expressed in terms of the following themes:

“Vine Training” for the Carta R&D team

Think of a career ladder as a “trellis” — as team members climb it, they grow within the organization, which in-turn strengthens branches across the company.

Harvesting

Harvesting is one of the most crucial steps in the wine-making process. Timing of the harvest is determined by the ripeness of the grapes — as measured by sugar, acid, and tannin levels. Tasting is the only way to measure tannin levels, which requires experience and skill. Winemakers decide when to harvest the grapes, depending on the style of wine they intend to produce. Harvesting can be done either mechanically or by hand. Premier wineries hand-pick their fruit, which results in gentler handling of the crop and the selection of only healthy bunches of grapes.

Harvesting the fruits of your labor — whether you’re tending a vineyard or building a company — takes time. The prerequisites for success are:

  • choosing a favorable terroir
  • understanding the climate of your domain
  • planting the appropriate varietals
  • creating a trellis to train and grow your crop

After planting a vineyard, it will take time before it bears strong fruit. When fruit begin to appear, you should test them for readiness: select samples from different areas of the vineyard and survey them. Once your vines yield high-quality output, be ready to harvest.

You might transform that vintage into something that spans generations.

Crop of Carta employees from different branches (Recruiting, Engineering, Product, Sales)

* Carta is a corporation formed to track, value, and transact every asset on Earth. The mission of Carta is to Create More Owners, by moving people from the debt stack (payroll) onto the ownership stack (equity).

If Carta sounds like the kind of company you’d like to join, check out our job postings. We hire a crop of new employees every two weeks — help us grow our Culture!

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Ron Pragides

Ron Pragides

SVP Engineering at @Trustly. Led pre-IPO teams at @BigCommerce @Twitter @Salesforce. Follow me on twitter: @mrp