Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Roadmap: How to Define and Apply Culture to Your Company - Part 1

Catersource and Event Solutions Conference and Tradeshow welcomed thousands of attendees from around the globe March 8-11, 2015 to Las Vegas. The annual Trendersetters' Luncheon was anchored by a keynote speech by Catersource & Event Solutions' 2015 Innovator of the Year, Dan Berger. The Founder and CEO of Social Tables spoke to the 800+ attendees about the importance of culture, and the need for developmental leadership in order to build and scale a successful hospitality business in the 21st century.

With Dan Berger's permission, we are publishing the transcript of his remarks as a two-part article. -Andrea Michaels
Good Afternoon, and thank you for attending today's Trendsetters' Luncheon.

It's really humbling for me to speak in front of you all today, because three years ago, My company Social Tables was nothing to me. To be honest, I didn't even know what Catersource or Event Solutions was.

Today all that has changed. We now have 75 employees and 3,500 customers in 55 countries, and I proudly sit on the Event Solutions Board of Advisors.

I am here to talk to you today about how we got here. It's not some special sales process, and it's not just a super innovative product - it's the softer side of business - the true foundation of an organization...

I'm talking about our company's culture.

We have been extremely deliberate about building a culture that attracts and retains the best and the most passionate people. Over the next 20 minutes, I am going to tell you how to do that.

Raise your hand if your company has at least one employee (including yourself).

Keep your hand up if you have more than 5 full-time employees.

... 10 employees
... 20 employees
... 50 employees

Now, by show of hands, who has taken the time to think about company culture? And when I say think about it, I mean define your core values, your mission, and vision.


Where We Come From

For Social Tables, it all started a few years ago when I was going to a wedding. It was a beautiful event in Miami, and I was thrilled to be supporting my two friends, but I didn't know anyone who was going to be there, not even those with whom I was seated at a table.

In between polite introductory conversations, I thought, "Wouldn't it be great if I had known the people at my table before I had arrived, so that we could dive headfirst into our shared interests or backgrounds, and skip all of the niceties that are really just filler conversations? How could a product help create relationships?

And thus, Social Tables was born as a digital seating chart solution. Our goal was to bring people together so that they could have more meaningful conversations.

Culture is Supported by Pillars, Values, a Mission, and a Vision

The first piece of wisdom I want to share with you is this: your company culture, its values, its mission, and its vision all start with your leadership. Your management team must be an embodiment of these essential factors if you have a chance at providing a nurturing and successful environment to your employees and customers.

Your company can't be something you are not.

Good news, if the above doesn't apply to you today, that doesn't mean you can't change. Our own leadership didn't start out as the embodiment of who we are today. In fact, when we reached five employees, I realized we had a few slackers, and that in order to get everyone working towards a shared goal, we needed a way to define our culture.

Company Pillars

Thus, our first cultural exercise was born. We sat together and decided that the following four items would be the pillars of our company, and words that we could reflect on in times of confusion or success:

  • Fail Fast and Often
  • Ship All Day, Party All Night (coding language)
  • Never say "No, because...", only "Yes, if..."
  • High Risk, High Reward


Core Values

These four pillars remain the foundational support of who we are to this day, but when we got to 15 people, they weren't enough to sustain our cultural needs, so we decided to define our core values.

All of the Social Team members entered a small conference room one-by-one and were given a stack of sticky notes. Each of them quietly reflected on what both the team and the product itself meant to them. The end result was a room papered in sticky notes that reflected a group of people who were all passionate about working together to produce something that was high-quality and innovative. These dozens of phrases, words, and ideas were condensed down to a list of nine company values:

  • Customer First
  • Teams are Families
  • Decidedly Determined
  • High Quality
  • Every Day is a School Day
  • Constant Innovation
  • Stay Lean
  • Always Honest
  • Be Outrageous


Mission Statement

 Once we hit 20 people or so, I realized that everyone needed to get on the same page as it related to our mission, so we ran a week-long exercise to define our mission statement.

Our first mission statement was "to transform one-time events into life-long experiences." We adopted this mission because our first-generation product focused on attendees, and we wanted to make sure they extracted as much value out of events as possible.

Extracting value out of an event is highly subjective. To one person, that could mean finding a new business opportunity, to another it could mean learning something new, and to someone else it could mean meeting that special someone.

As we learned more about our industry and its needs, we realized that we couldn't have a direct impact on attendees without first fundamentally changing the way events are planned. This means increasing communication between stakeholders and eliminating as many inefficiencies as possible.

With this newfound focus on the planner, it was time to reevaluate our mission. To that end - and in true Social Tables fashion - we turned this task into a crowdsourced series of workshops, and came up with the mission statement that we live by today. To inspire face-to-face experiences by empowering those who plan and attend them.

A great mission statement explains what an organization does, who it does it for, and how it does it. The key to a great mission statement is that it is measurable. You can't judge success without a benchmark.

What's beautiful about our mission statement is that it hasn't changed much since my original concept: to bring people together.

Vision Statement

By the time we were 40 employees, a mission statement wasn't enough. We needed a North Star. A way to define a future state for our world.

I took my executive team to an offsite and said, "What if everyone had Social Tables? What would that world look like?" We needed a vision statement that would serve as our company's North Star. Something we are all headed toward. After much discussion, and some homemade tacos, we came up with our first vision statement: "We envision a world where people come together to achieve great things."

I shared this with the company, and it reinvigorated everyone. It gave us all a sense of purpose and clarity.

Departmental Purpose Statements

By the time we hit 60 employees, we felt that some folks, especially newer team members, didn't really connect to the vision statement and values.

So, we introduced purpose statements and team-specific values. Each team got together for a building exercise, where in 140-characters or less they were tasked with defining their individual purpose within the company.

The results of these workshops are posted up in our office, shared with the entire company, and implemented into everything we do (performance management, hiring, etc.)

I just walked you through how to define your culture, your core values, your mission statement, vision statements and purpose statements.

These are the most important tools in your leadership toolkit. They make hiring, firing, managing, and growing your business much easier because you can manage against them.

And, next time, EE will bring you Part 2 of this informative speech by Dan Berger covering the application of culture.

Dan Berger is the founder & CEO of Social Tables. Described as a “relentless and focused entrepreneur,” he has been recognized as Catersource and Event Solution’s 2015 “Innovator of the Year,” as well as Successful Meeting’s 25 Most Influential People in the Meetings Industry, BizBash’s 2014 Most Innovative Event,  and by Connect and Collaborate Magazines as a 40 Under 40 Industry Leader. Dan holds an MBA from Georgetown University. Dan may be reached via,  @danberger or on LinkedIn at 

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