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Ben Horowitz reveals how he screens for culture in investment pitches

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  • Ben Horowitz, the cofounder of legendary venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, is a corporate culture guru.
  • In his book, “What You Do Is Who You Are,” he explains that culture is more than a list of values. It’s how employees behave when the boss isn’t looking.
  • Andreessen Horowitz used to charge its partners $10 for every minute they were late to a meeting with an entrepreneur. Its cofounder wanted the firm’s actions to communicate to founders that it respects their time.
  • Horowitz said he tries to screen for culture in investment pitches, though he understands culture changes over time. Still, it raises a red flag if he senses one cofounder in a meeting is afraid to say what they think.
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In the early days at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, its cofounder created a rule that shocked employees.

“If you’re late for a meeting with an entrepreneur, you pay a fine, $10 a minute,” Ben Horowitz tells Business Insider Today. No exceptions.

“And, oh, you had to go to the bathroom? You’re five minutes late. Great, $50. Oh, you had a really important business call? You’re 10 minutes late, $100,” he said.

The tech investor has a simple reason for penalizing his general partners. Being an entrepreneur is really hard, he said. The firm’s actions should communicate to founders that it respects their time and hustle. That messaging starts with showing up to take pitches on schedule.

“If it was your wedding you wouldn’t have been late,” Horowitz said. “I think it’s got to be that important to you.”

Horowitz is an expert at building culture. He began his career as an engineer at an early tech giant, started a company with the help of his venture firm cofounder, Marc Andreessen, and, as a tech investor, sees thousands of investment pitches reach his firm every year. The culture savant has learned how to practice values at Andreessen Horowitz, and how to screen for them in the process of evaluating an investment. His new book, “What You Do Is Who You Are,” serves as a handbook on building company culture.

Setting the culture takes more than writing down a list of company values, Horowitz said. He described culture as the culmination of people’s actions — “all the things that people do when you’re not there and when you’re not looking.”

Setting the culture takes more than writing down a list of values

Horowitz tells Business Insider that one of his most important learnings on scaling culture was that the organization wouldn’t necessarily shadow him. 

“I thought, if I led by example, then everybody will just (file in line) on my culture, which isn’t true at all,” Horowitz said. “Because, look, people come in with their own cultures. There’s the whole subcultures going on all over the company, and as the company grows, they don’t even know you.”

The former entrepreneur declared himself a “pretty honest” person. He described an employee at a previous company who would sell customers on false promises and lie to job candidates to recruit them. This employee’s behavior spread to other members of his team.

“It was a shock. How could they be lying all the time? I don’t lie all the time,” Horowitz said. “It was just that that was the culture that he had come from, from another company. … If you don’t set the culture, the culture just is what it is.”

He knows from experience that most founders define and refine a company’s culture along the way. It’s not something they master from the start. Still, Andreessen Horowitz’s investors look for bad signs in the first pitch meeting.

If “you have multiple founders in the meeting, and some of them are afraid to say what they think,” that’s reason for concern, he said.

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