Startup Culture Memes: Do You Have A Duck Of Awesomeness?

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Startup Culture Memes: Do You Have A Duck Of Awesomeness?


The following is a guest post from Tom Critchlow. Tom is head of search for Distilled, a London and Seattle-based SEO company. 

Have you noticed how as people spend time together they develop certain attitudes and practices unique to them? That's culture.

"The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group" - Culture defined at wikipedia

Working environments force people to spend a lot of time closely interacting with each other and startups even more so! This close interaction leads to the emergence of culture.

In my eyes there are two ways of identifying the emergence of culture within your business. Behaviour and language.

I'm no linguistic scholar but I believe the two are very closely related. Behaviour affects language and language affects behaviour. A feedback loop that is constantly molding the culture within your business.


Within Distilled there is a rich set of language that’s unique to us. Here’s just a few:

  • breakfast of champions
  • getting shit done
  • delivering change
  • the duck of awesomeness
  • getting close to clients
  • phone ninjas
  • the skiing trip
  • labs
  • you can't outsource giving a shit
  • actionable insights
  • communication solves all problems

Within our company these are used often and with a rich history of experience behind them. Here's a brief explanation for a few of them:

Phone Ninjas: About 6 months ago I wanted to persuade our consultants to spend more time on the phone to clients so I implemented some game mechanics internally to give out points everytime you made a phone call to a client. Simple and effective. I believe it took off however because the highest level you could reach was called "Phone Ninja". Over time, the points system became less used but I'm not so bothered about that because the concept of spending time on the phone and the phone ninjas term has stuck around. Here's a few pics of @PaddyMoogan (Distilled) and @SamuelCrocker (ex-Distilled) as phone ninjas:

The Duck of Awesomeness: We've had various schemes within Distilled aimed at recognising and rewarding exceptional behaviour. Unfortunately, none of the schemes really caught on. People would forget about nominating others for good work or we'd suck at feeding back to everyone who had done what. All of that changed when we bought a blue duck with stars on and called it the duck of awesomeness. It moves from desk to desk as people do good things. The combination of the duck and the name has been a huge success and the duck often moves between desks once every few days. It's a fantastic way of keeping people motivated and providing recognition to people who do good work.

Hopefully you can see how the language here is more than just words. The rich culture that goes along with the language shapes behaviour. These words and phrases mean more to us than they do to an outsider. They have become memes.

‘Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. [...] When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.' - Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene

The power of these memes lies in the feedback loop between language and behaviour. Sure, the concept of breakfast of champions hasn't changed the company that much, but the concepts such as getting shit done (more details here), or the duck of awesomeness most certainly have.

Let's take another example. SEOmoz. They have a wonderful set of beliefs laid out by Rand eloquently in this blog post. That's all very well, but is this set of beliefs simply empty promises or a half-forgotten blog post? How do we tell how strongly SEOmoz believes in them?

We know this set of beliefs has been deeply ingrained in the SEOmoz culture because of language. The single word TAGFEE is part of the SEOmoz vocabulary. The staff use the term all the time and it's come to mean something very important. You'll often overhear an SEOmoz employee say something like "Should we do that? Doesn't feel very TAGFEE".

There's no specific reference to Rand's post and the wording of the specific beliefs. In fact, if you did a spot survey of SEOmoz and asked "what does TAGFEE mean", I bet you'd get many different answers. But that doesn't matter, because it would mean something to everyone. TAGFEE has evolved. It's a meme.

Actionable Insights

One of the up and coming memes within Distilled is “actionable insights”. As with all memes, it’s a part of our culture rather than a clearly defined rule. I apply “actionable insights” to all kinds of things from meetings to presentations I give (aside: I wish we were big enough to afford a meeting fairy).

For example I’m putting together the slides for our upcoming Link building conference and as I’m building my deck I’m constantly trying to ensure the audience will get actions out of my talk. The phrase “actionable insights” bounces around my head over and over again. The language is influencing my behaviour.

I also apply actionable insights to blog posts. The takeaway message from this post is as follows:

Pay close attention to the language used within your company. Any behavioural change within your company will have an associated change in language. And vice versa: Any language change within your business will have an associated behavioural change. Think carefully about how you name initiatives, present training or what you call your internal tools. Language is powerful.

There’s a corollary to this insight as well. Language is powerful and this works both ways. Negative language can shape negative behaviour and negative behaviour can shape negative language. You’re likely already watching out for negative behaviour but make sure you watch out for negative language too, this can be just as dangerous.

Language Envy

Memes are difficult beasts to tame. Trying to control them is like herding cats. I’ve had some success with creating and shaping internal memes to best suit the behaviour I want but there’s always room for improvement. Here’s some language I’m envious of from companies and communities I’m closely involved with:

  • Fail fast - from Reevoo, a developer heavy startup. I’d love to ingrain this in our culture, a wonderful phrase that symbolises at once innovation and determination.
  • TAGFEE - mentioned above from SEOmoz, although we have a manifesto internally at Distilled it’s not become a meme. We need an idea internally that defines our ethics.
  • Hustle - the Hacker News community always talks about hustle and although we have a very similar meme with “getting shit done” I’d love the single word hustle to make it into our lexicon as a way of persuading people to constantly step outside of processes to get things done no matter what.

What’s the lexicon of your startup? What internal memes are there? Which memes are you most jealous of? I'd love to discuss in the comments or on twitter.

If you liked this post, follow me on twitter or book tickets for our upcoming Link Building Conference in London 18th March, New Orleans 25th March.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, Feb 16, 2011


We give a golden chest full of golden $1 coins to new employees for their first paycheck. The whole ritual has a very pirate feel to it

posted on Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 12:28 PM by Andy Cook

Great article. One important thing i will add is that your early customers drive some of that internal culture at startups. I have a customer who strives on being perfect. It has driven our design and developer team nuts but this customer single handedly changed our culture in 2 months than any of the internal behaviours.  
We have a couple in our startup at Vaayoo:  
1) Throw them a bone: used to describe the minimum functional product that shows great progress but gets customer off our back for couple of weeks. 
2) Iterate: Everything that we do is never completed but iterated through. Concepts, UI designs, Requirements, implementation..This shows visible progress in our products almost everyday. 
Btw, a shameless plug for Vaayoo's idea2AppNow mobile application framework. If you have a great idea and want to create a killer mobile app out of it, try Vaayoo: ..We have helped several non-tech entrepreuners turn their ideas into market-leading and money making mobile apps. You just need an idea..Leave the rest to us.

posted on Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 12:37 PM by Ranjit Sawant

@Andy - love the concept of a chest of coins! Great idea. 
@Ranjit - throw them a bone is a fascinating one, feels like quite a negative phrase but I'm sure keeps your guys focused on the right things.

posted on Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 2:04 PM by Tom Critchlow

"you can't outsource giving a shit". This one will stick with me for a long time.

posted on Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 2:13 PM by Zakir Hemraj

Definitely a great article. I like the idea of "throw them a bone" because too often people get hung up on the principle of something and reminding them to throw the customer a bone can enlighten them.

posted on Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 8:29 PM by Jay

Memes can also be negative... like when support turns a routine support issue over to programming instead of knowing it or figuring it out themselves... "premature escalation"

posted on Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 12:02 AM by Andrew Thomas

At my work environment, we use "I'm going under" when we need to buckle down and "get shit done". It means "I'm putting in my headphones, don't bother me, I gotta rock." 
It's just among the 3 of us sitting around me, but it works and builds some fun and rapport. And everyone knows what it means.

posted on Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 8:15 AM by John

Great post Tom! 
I am a big fan of both Distilled & SEOmoz. Your post really hit home because I see this happens at our startup "naturally"; however, I think putting some thought & focus behind would be hugely beneficial. 
Love the hustle you adapted from Hacker News too.

posted on Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 10:44 AM by Mark Simon

@Mark - thanks! 
@John - love that phrase. We have a very similar concept with little flags we attach to our monitors to signify we're interruptable.

posted on Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 10:51 AM by Tom Critchlow

Great post, consider this the "Comment of Awesomeness" ;)

posted on Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 1:01 PM by Chris Miller

I love the Ninja Game Mechanics and the Duck of Awesomeness. You made my day!

posted on Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 6:51 PM by Matt Trifiro

I like these quotes because they shortcut alot of the overblown wordy rubbish that 'big' corprates spout. 
My faves 
The 2 most important things to our business is 1: Customers 2: Read rule 1 again 
You can only sell one thing at a time ( really useful when you are figuring out how to approach a brand new client)

posted on Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 2:35 PM by MassiveMessage

This is the decade where culture becomes king...awesome guys. Some brilliant very specific (and simple!) examples here too...

posted on Monday, February 28, 2011 at 9:29 AM by Malcolm Scovil

A piece of "jargon" that I've picked up around where I work: 
"Grenade in the oatmeal." The act of throwing in a comment, idea, action which upsets the status quo, for good or ill-typically works best at morning discussions (where the subject of delicious oatmeal may be more on one's mind.)  
Used in a phrase as, "I don't mean to throw a grenade in your oatmeal here but, we need a new approach to this plan...and more oatmeal."  

posted on Monday, February 28, 2011 at 10:46 AM by Nick Salvatoriello

@Nick - that one really made me laugh. I love little phrases that sound so inane, yet are so effective. I'm going to have to adopt that phrase!

posted on Monday, February 28, 2011 at 10:47 AM by John

@nick - that's genius. I'm totally using that in my morning meeting today!

posted on Monday, February 28, 2011 at 11:12 AM by Tom

I love everything about this article - I naturally had some favorite moments, and I can't wait to re-hash what start-up experiences I have and add some of these ideas in my next spot.

posted on Wednesday, March 02, 2011 at 8:17 AM by Steve

Great article - I have a question on how you approached introducing the duck to the team without it sounding like a "management" game?  
The terms that come up through regular usage especially from the team itself is easier to put to use but when you want to drive certain behaviour like how the duck does, it requires a certain skill to sell the idea to the team without seeming like trivializing the work or the effort that the person put in. The selling seems to be key - wondering what  
people have done for improving its desirability/acceptance?

posted on Wednesday, March 09, 2011 at 4:09 AM by Sachin

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posted on Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 4:39 PM by altın çilek

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