Feedback, Lead Bullets, and Embracing Failure: The Culture of MX

As humans, we’ve passed down legend from one another, generation after generation, and so we’ve come to believe in these great heroes, what I would call silver bullet people, the one thing that is going to make it all succeed. Companies don’t thrive on silver bullets. We say at MX all the time, ‘I don’t want a silver bullet, I just want a shitload of lead ones.’

Everyone changes. It is an inevitable fact of life that we are constantly evolving, one year completely different from the last, chameleons that blend and shift depending on where the twisting road of life takes us. Change is fantastic and necessary, allowing each person to definitively carve out their own, unique existence. It allows us to learn from our failures, build upon them, and rise as something stronger. Without change, we would all be lemmings, similar beings doomed to similar lives, all of us marching off a cliff into nothingness.

Despite this constant changing, there is a very small, very select set of beliefs that do not change, the rules used to describe the essence of you. Even as everything else around you is swept up in the whirlwind of evolution, these core beliefs act as a lighthouse of sorts, a beacon that guides you, never leaves you, and even in the stormiest of times, can always be seen. It’s a sad fact of life that many people abandon these beliefs, going against their inner instincts in the name of an idea, or relationship, or startup, and doom themselves to a life of unhappiness and regret. With no light to guide the way, you will crash.

Businesses are no different. Defining these beliefs comes at the stage of creation, where founders must decide what they want their company to represent and how they want to represent it. As a company grows from infancy to adulthood, changing numerous times along the way, these beliefs are used as a roadmap to guide the way — the company is always changing, but the culture remains the same.

Culture binds in way very few things can. It’s a shared belief system that enables individuals to merge together in pursuit of a higher goal, one that cannot be reached alone. Culture defines and differentiates us, provides the skeletal structure that every business requires, and acts as the powerful beating heart that sustains life for an entire organization. A company without culture is a corpse — without a beating heart to provide that spark of life, a dead body is no different from the billions of dead bodies scattered beneath the cold, hard ground.

Five years ago, Ryan Caldwell founded MX (at the time called MoneyDesktop) and began a journey that would see them rise to prominence in the world of financial technology. Along the way, even as the number of employees and clients grew, a culture was established that no matter how much MX expands, remains set in stone. This is what defines them.

“Competency is important, but it is not the most important thing that we have,” Brandon Dewitt, CTO of MX, told Beehive Startups in a recent interview. “There are far more important things that are part of our organization than how competent are they at their job. Are they philosophically-aligned with what we are doing? Do they have a passion and care for other humans? Are they philosophically-aligned with how we define our culture? Are they able to participate in discourse? Are they able to do that objectively? Do they actually present facts?”

The idea is simple, but executing it is harder: competency can be taught or learned, but finding people who share your values is a different animal altogether. It’s a longer, more refined process than just finding who is good at coding and who isn’t, but finding the correct cultural fit is paramount in promoting a successful and healthy company.

“One of the things that I tell everybody in our interview process is, ‘In God we trust, everybody else bring data,’” Dewitt said. “Are you willing to argue with data, or are you willing to argue from an emotional place? If you argue from an emotional place, that doesn’t fit in our culture….You could be the most competent person in the world at big data management, but if your whole life is consumed by emotional argument, you would be rejected from our organization in three hours. Bring data, make it logical, make it objective, and you have to have those philosophical and cultural things, and then we’re going to care about competency.”

At MX, every person has a job. Some businesses promote the belief in legends, figures so powerful and knowledgeable that a simple snap of the fingers can solve any problem in a millisecond. In real life, these people don’t exist. Instead, businesses are built on the backs of hard-working individuals who specialize in a certain area, dominate that area, and form a small piece in a much-larger puzzle. In real life, these people do exist and at MX they’re known as lead bullets.

“As humans, we’ve passed down legend from one another, generation after generation, and so we’ve come to believe in these great heroes, what I would call silver bullet people, the one thing that is going to make it all succeed,” Dewitt said. “Companies don’t thrive on silver bullets. We say at MX all the time, ‘I don’t want a silver bullet, I just want a shitload of lead ones.’”

Even with a shitload of lead bullets in the chamber, a company doesn’t grow without feedback that promotes the eternal cycle of success and failure. Taking cues from the Jack Welch quote, “The number one problem in American business today is a lack of candor,” one of the core beliefs driving MX is feedback — it’s bi-directional, it doesn’t account for bruised egos, but when done correctly, (in Dewitt’s words) “it is liberating.”

“We have a phenomenal engineering team,” Dewitt said. “One of the things we always put out there from a cultural perspective, we’re not looking for the ninjas, we’re not looking for the all-stars, we’re not looking for the rockstars, we’re looking for people that can get together and have ideas, have them hardened by others and challenged by others, so that we come up with something great. That’s evidenced twice a week when our engineering team has what we call brown bag sessions. We have our brown bag sessions where we get together on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we talk about what we like about our culture. What do we do well, what do we not do well? All of the growth that comes out of talking about what don’t do well just makes us a better and better organization. I love how much the people on our team are willing to say, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s where learning starts.”

Two-way feedback is one of the most crucial processes an individual can participate in. Will you feel like a dipshit when somebody blows your idea to pieces? Probably, but that’s not the point. The finest creations can only happen through trial and error. Removing that process of bouncing ideas against others, and letting them do the same to you, eliminates the positive friction that hardens you into something stronger.

“I’ll roll into a meeting and we’ll know that neither of us will back down, we will have our opinions and they will both be flawed opinions, and hopefully they will merge at some level to become a less-flawed opinion,” Dewitt said, referring to meetings involving himself and Caldwell. “We have such a short journey here on this planet. Why would I spend it trying to avoid the friction that makes me better?”

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that culture is essential. As a startup evolves over time, the only stabilizing force is culture — even as everything else shifts, the defining values and beliefs of successful companies do not.

In the ever-changing world of tech and startups, MX has carved out a niche. With a culture centered on feedback, lead bullets, and always learning from failure, MX has created a world that, despite constant change, always remains the same.

Published 7/22/2015

Feedback, Lead Bullets, and Embracing Failure: The Culture of MX
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