After my startup Speek raised a large round of seed funding, we began to build out our full-time staff. This was a key undertaking, as every hire was critical to improving or degrading the natural culture the company had already started forming. As we went through this process, I couldn’t help but think back to another great culture which I’d been lucky enough to be a part of.
I went to DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. There is no place of which I am prouder. At DeMatha, they've figured out how to instill the expectation of greatness. Winning isn’t a bonus—it's presumed.
At DeMatha, All-Americans, Merit Scholars, and nationally recognized musicians surrounded you. Every morning over the loudspeakers you heard about championships won, awards earned, scholarships signed. No one ever said, “Man, I really hope we win it all this year” because it didn’t need to be said. Anything less than winning it all was a failure, an embarrassment.
I made the varsity baseball team as a sophomore (which was rare) and felt extraordinary pressure—pressure I'd never felt before, even after having played for multiple state championship teams.
When I attended DeMatha, I lived in Centreville, Virginia, and wasn’t old enough to drive, so I took a series of buses and trains and then walked a mile carrying my books and baseball gear to get to school. Then the Filson family—who lived close to the school—was kind enough to let me live with them during the week.
Looking back at that commute and living away from home, it sounds really hard, but it wasn’t. I wanted to be a part of DeMatha. My graduating class had fewer than 200 kids, but a hefty majority of those kids were great at at least one thing. We had several athletes who went on to play professionally—11 football players alone got Division I scholarships. An astounding rate of graduates matriculated to Ivy League colleges or military academies.
If you weren’t great—if you didn’t win—at DeMatha, you didn’t fit in.
This expectation of excellence didn't apply to students only; it applied to teachers as well. DeMatha retains the best teachers around. Most of the teachers I had while at DeMatha had been there for decades and were masters of their craft. The younger teachers were expected to get great quickly or find their way to the door.
Creating a culture of expected greatness is difficult. I am still not entirely sure how DeMatha did it. There was nothing overt: I never heard the school administrators giving talks about greatness, never got memos under the subject “Re: Winning.” There were no consultants. Greatness was intrinsic to the culture.
And maybe that’s the secret to making your startup more like DeMatha. It isn’t overt, it’s intrinsic. Not explicit, but implicit. It’s not posters with eagles and buzzwords like “Perseverance”—it’s a crystal-clear understanding of high expectations. It’s leading by example. It’s giving more than you ask for, and asking for a whole hell of a lot. It’s not “solidarity retreats” at some faux-rustic Sheraton in the woods where you play name games and do trust falls, it’s inviting the whole dev team over to your house for the weekend while your wife and kids are away for a programming marathon—fun and team-building, sure, but also incredibly productive.
It is doing everything well. It is learning from every experiment, considering carefully every choice. It is doubling down on every hand you play, going all in.
At most 9-to-5 corporate gigs, employees are constantly looking around for approval, like a kid making sure mommy saw him poop in the toilet like a big boy. It can’t work like that at a startup. Excellent work is expected, not a cause for celebration, and certainly not a reason to brag.
Jockeying for position, for influence, wanting to sit at the cool kids’ table...these things are fine in the corporate world (and in most high schools that aren’t DeMatha), but at startups, politics and posturing cannot be tolerated. “Prestige”, such as it is, correlates directly to results. If you produce, you’re a rock star. If you don’t, you probably don’t belong here.
Ultimately, what DeMatha taught me is that when it comes to talent, like attracts like. Great people want to be immersed in greatness. “A players” want to work with “A players”...as opposed to “B players”, who want to hire “C players” to keep looking good. Greatness begets greatness.
And that's a great place to start.
Danny Boice is the Co-Founder and CTO of Speek, which provides super simple conference calling with no dial-ins, pins or downloads. After studies at Harvard, Danny worked as a software engineer for various startups before founding Jaxara, which he then led successfully to acquisition. Danny is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Fast Company and PandoDaily as an expert on startups, product, technology and user experience.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.