50 Lessons From HP’s Company Culture

I recently finished reading Bill and Dave, a biography about the founders of HP, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. I’d like to share some of the lessons learned from it that resonated with me. As Coinbase continues growing (we’re now 1,000+ people including full time and contractors, across 7 offices), I’ve been thinking about how to shape the culture. Communicating a set of cultural norms and values is an important way to do this.

Today, most people think of HP as a stodgy old company, but it was the Google of its day. It had an amazing run of repeatable innovation from 1939 through the 1980’s or so, growing to $100B+ revenue and 100k+ employees. It changed workplace culture around the world. In Silicon Valley, you have HP to thank for flexible work hours, casual dress codes, employee stock options, and the idea of “management by walking around”. Most companies hit on one big idea, and are never able to make innovation repeatable.

HP is a great case study in how to build a string of successful products and create repeatable innovation across multiple business units.

The founders retired in the late 1980’s. After that, a string of CEOs came in to lead the company. The company continued to grow but seemed to lose its ability to reliably create new innovative products. History is still being written, but it appears to have stagnated. Therefore, HP is also a cautionary tale of how a company can become so dependent on a founder that it doesn’t survive into the next generation.

You can think of the tiers of business outcomes (by order of difficulty) as:

  1. Create a successful product

Apple is going through it’s own journey today to see if it can accomplish #3.

It’s perhaps worth asking the question, why does it matter if a single company lasts multiple generations? If new companies come to take its place, then the world continues improving. This is true, and it doesn’t mean any one company needs to last forever. But if you believe (as I do) that technology is the most important force improving the world today, then we can rephrase the question as “how do we create a culture and organize people and resources toward continuously improving the world with technology?” HP offers some ideas to help make that happen.

Standard caveat: business culture has continued to evolve in many ways since HP’s heyday. The goal here is not to say HP was perfect, but to extract any historical lessons that could be valuable.

Here are some of the lessons in the book:

  1. The best possible company management is one that combines a sense of corporate greatness and destiny with empathy for and fidelity to the average employee

The book is worth checking out, and if you’re interested in joining a company that is seeking to create repeatable innovation, please read more about careers at Coinbase here.

Co-Founder and CEO at @Coinbase. Increasing economic freedom in the world. Join us: https://www.coinbase.com/careers