In conversation with

Brie Wolfson

Founder of The Kool Aid Factory

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Alongside “disruption” and “collaboration” culture might be the buzziest word running the brand circuit. Like with many of these words, it’s buzzing for a reason. But if you’re having trouble defining it, you’re not the only one. In this week’s interview, Brie Wolfson gives us her take on company culture and explains how her site, The Kool-Aid Factory, explores the idea. The Kool-Aid Factory is a resource for those trying to harness the habits and practices that make great organisations successful. This sprawling web of rich hyperlinked information, in the form of “Zines”, will leave you inspired and energised to effect organisational change.

Question and Answer

What do you hope companies can take away from The Kool Aid Factory?

There have been and always will be efforts that bring ambitious people together to achieve ambitious goals. We all have our favorites; Space Race, Bell Labs, Pixar, Apple, Tesla, the list goes on. When the stories of these organizations are told, team culture is always cited as a critical success factor but it’s often described as some magical combination of forces that can only be articulated once it’s already in place. In reality, though, culture is created through an ongoing series of actions and I think those actions can be encouraged and prescribed.

The Kool-Aid Factory shows leaders, managers, and operators how. It embraces the kaizen philosophy that continuous improvement of a system is everyone’s responsibility and happens by way of both local and systemic changes.

So, the goal is that, at minimum, anyone who stumbles across a zine should have a blast reading a few sections and come away with concrete ways they can positively contribute to their company’s culture now. At maximum, the full set of zines is designed as a set of building blocks for creating a company culture that enables employees to work at their fullest potential and satisfaction while servicing the collective goals of the company.

More importantly, though, I hope it makes more people have an awesome time at work.

Tell us the story behind the name, and why it works.

You know the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” right? In common parlance it’s used to describe a delusional obedience to something or someone. It’s primarily used in a derogatory sense, though some people do refer to it as a point of pride. While its meaning has evolved, the phrase was coined following what became known as the Jonestown Massacre in which a cult committed a mass suicide by drinking poisoned Flavor Aid.

I chose the name for my project as a somewhat cheeky attempt to reclaim the chide, “drinking the Kool-Aid,” oft-deployed at overzealous tech employees. I hope I can help rebrand being (healthily) obsessed with work as a cool thing, not a dangerous thing.

Was there a moment that sparked your personal interest in company culture?

The idea emerged as more of a slow burn than a light switch turning on, but once I got going, I couldn’t stop. I joined a random little payments company called Stripe in early 2015 when the company was only ~200 people. Prior to Stripe, I had worked at tech companies of various shapes and sizes- from a 6-person YC-funded startup to Google- and I could tell immediately that Stripe was different. The office was pretty quiet (people were cranking). We were encouraged to write everything down and then share it with the entire company (whether it was a meaningful strategy document or a mundane user email). The mission, they told us, is to “increase the GDP of the internet” (but what did that even mean?!). There weren’t any company happy hours or sales gongs. People talked about whitepapers over dinner. When writing emails to customers, we were told not to use phrases like “thank you for your patience” (too presumptuous) or “as mentioned earlier” (passive aggressive).

Over my five years working at Stripe, the company hired over 2,000 more people and we had to build new things in new ways for our users. The work evolved but the way we did it never wavered.

Company culture can be a tricky thing to put your finger on, but I felt a pull towards understanding exactly what was so special about Stripe’s. I wondered if culture was something that could be prescribed a priori, not just described post-hoc. My gut said yes and that I was on the receiving end of a leadership team who had cracked something about culture-building.

That hypothesis set into motion some very diligent note-taking on Stripe’s organization and the questions our users were facing (many of whom are scaling startups themselves). I studied how other ambitious organizations known for having a strong culture built theirs (think: Apple, Amazon, Space Race, Bell Labs, Pixar, San Francisco 49’ers, DARPA). My research was further bolstered through my work standing up Stripe Press. I devoured >100 books, podcasts, and essays on the topic and have talked with friends/colleagues about their company cultures. I also played a role in some of Stripe’s culture-shaping initiatives like standing up our company-wide planning process, helping integrate newly-acquired teams into the company, drafting our first inclusion principles, and creating a forum for Stripes to share their personal history with each other.

This all led me to believe that a tactical, prescriptive, playbook for building company culture could exist… but didn’t. So, I feverishly started thinking and writing about how to fill that gap and haven’t stopped since.

“I chose the name for my project as a somewhat cheeky attempt to reclaim the chide, “drinking the Kool-Aid,” oft-deployed at overzealous tech employees. I hope I can help rebrand being (healthily) obsessed with work as a cool thing, not a dangerous thing.”

How did you land on digital zines as the best medium for exploration of culture?

My time working on Stripe Press taught me how important the artefact of the work can be to the content of the work. Even your most favourite article doesn’t end up on your coffee table, desk, or bookshelf! It feels different to hand over a thing than send something over an email. A strong visual identity, thoughtfully crafted, brings another dimension of intentionality and depth to the project. It was important to me, for example, that the content I was working on did not feel heavy or dense to consume.

The zine felt like the perfect fit. The format is designed for maximum snackability and shareability. They have a strong visual identity and embrace a do-it-yourself philosophy. They’re a great bridge for philosophical ideas and ground-level behavior. They’ve historically been deployed by renegades to influence culture in a somewhat playful format; it’s the perfect metaphor for ambitious techies with a knack for (ideally thoughtful) “disruption.”

What three questions should businesses be asking themselves when it comes to building internal culture.

  1. What behaviors earn respect and praise here (actually)?
  2. What behaviors hold you back here (actually)?
  3. Is this working today and will it work in three months from now?



How and why do businesses need to adapt for the next generation of employees?

I think the same things that have always worked for high-performing organizations will keep working; treat your employees well, help them do their best work of their lives.



Complete the sentence: culture is…

How it feels to get the work done.

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