Brace yourself for the main event
Name a rapper (VC) that I ain't influenced!
Ben Horowitz, keynote at Startup Grind Global, arrived on stage wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the words: “General of Rebellion,” emblazoned underneath.
In a morning VC session, GGV Capital's Jeff Richards had cited Horowitz's book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, noting that this book had inspired an investor like him - to change his mindset about being more empathic concerning the hard work that founders go through. For Jeff, that meant going those extra miles to help a founder secure a mortgage so that the founder had one less thing to worry about.
Onstage, Horowitz tells of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian slave who led the only successful slavery revolt in history. To inspire the talk, he asked friends Admiral John Richardson of the US Navy and Shaka Senghor who’d been in prison for nineteen years and given a TED Talk about his experiences, for their definitions of culture and why it matters.
"If you are in prison or the Navy and you don’t do the right things, you … die."
Importantly, Senghor had pointed out how he reacted to the theft of his toothpaste in prison determined how safe his crew remained: if he responded violently, then he’d be creating a violent culture; if he failed to react at all, he would be implying weakness, suggesting his crew is easy to mess with - and therefore putting them all in danger.
Either choice would shape the culture of the entire group.
Beyond these modern day example of leadership, Horowitz dove into history to show founders how vital culture is, and how it's shaped: not by perks like dogs at the office, yoga, and organic food - but by your team's collective choices.
He quoted from Toussaint L’Ouverture history, detailing the horrific treatment of slaves in Haiti during the 1770s. The treatment of slaves amounted to some of the most unrestrained cruelty in the history of slavery, including pouring hot ashes over the skin of slaves, horrific body mutilation, and constant food deprivation.
Yet, despite the disadvantages of being a slave for forty years, Toussaint was able to overcome that terrible prevailing culture triumph in such a way that, by February of 1799, the US Congress authorized President Adams to exempt Haiti from the trade embargoes placed on other slave colonies; this exemption came to be known as the “Toussaint Clause.”
In the period after that agreement was signed, Haiti had even more export income than the US.
So what were the four key ways by which Toussaint changed the culture around him to win against the British, the French, and the Spanish - and to abolish slavery in his country sixty-five years before the US did the same, and how do those same rules apply to today’s startup founders?
1. Keep What Works
From song, Toussaint created the system of communication that allowed his small slave army to win, shared Horowitz.
What was this system? Toussaint placed women workers around the outside of their camp, who would sing their strategic maneuvers in song - a language code that only his small, tight group understood.
The modern practitioner of the “Keep What Works” rule: Steve Jobs who, on his return to Apple, restored the company to its original culture of vertical integration, revolting from the copy cultured that emerged due to Microsoft's market influence. The result: the launch of a wildly successful line of Mac computers, the dominant iPhone, and the breakthrough iPads shipped to huge success.
2. Create Shocking Rules
Toussaint was concerned with building a culture of integrity. His shocking rule: “Officers cannot cheat on their wives.” Since the prevailing practice of conquest rewarded victory by allowing soldiers to rape and pillage, Toussaint challenged his officers to behave differently and reconsider the nature and importance of loyalty.
He reasoned that if officers could not keep their word on marriage, then could not be trusted to keep their word on anything else. Horowitz quoted Toussaint's position:
I’d rather relinquish my command if I cannot keep my word.
Today's example of a founder creating the conditions for people to question why a shocking rule exists is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. His rule: “Move fast and break things.”
Horowitz agrees this can be so counter-intuitive to engineers - they're usually oriented towards fixing things, right? - that they work even harder to solve problems and ship quickly. Moreover, if Zuckerberg had simply said his startup was “innovative” it wouldn’t have created the culture of rapid iterations and experimentations that Facebook is famous for.
3. Incorporate Other Cultures
Toussaint was unique for a Haitian slave: possessing the ability to read, he devoured the full history of Julius Caesar, learning from his conquests that instead of killing the leaders of the people he'd conquered, Caesar kept them in place because they knew the culture of their lands and how to rule its people better than he did. They could govern in Caesar's absence.
With this knowledge, Toussaint made it a practice to adopt the cultural ideas of others.
Google is the prime modern example: Horowitz remembers a time when Google had no experience in enterprise software services. Yet Larry Page was able to persuade Diane Greene, one of Alphabet's board members, to impart her cultural knowledge of enterprise software, becoming a leader in the business division that reports to Sundar Pichai.
4. Make Decisions That Demonstrate Priorities
After his victory, Toussaint made a key decision not to punish the former slave owners. He reasoning: they were needed for the development of the future economy, so they were allowed to stay in Haiti - not as slave owners, but employers.
Horowitz put up a photo of a16z partner Marc Andreessen in conversation with Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, as his final example. Hastings is a leader who makes tough decisions about the priorities of his company: during the transition of rentals to streaming, Hastings had made the decision not remove the team responsible for generating all revenue - the mail-delivery rentals Netflix was known for - from executive meetings.
He had long-ago decided to change Netflix's model and the exclusion sent a clear message to the rest of the company: the future is online streaming, and we won't sacrifice the future for today's revenue;
"Culture sounds abstract but there's nothing more important."
Horowitz example speaks to something deeper and more meaningful for founders: in his most important slide, he wrote Slave Culture is Detrimental to Winning a Revolution. The message is this:
To succeed, we founders also need to free our teams to take risks, to be responsible, to constantly learn and share knowledge and to cultivate better teamwork.