Creating a Culture of Learning at Patreon

Andy Cook
January 25, 2018
Interview with Tyler Sean Palmer

Tyler Sean Palmer grew up wanting to be a rockstar. That is until he realized his real talent was in helping other rockstars make it.

These days Tyler’s rocking it at his second professional gig. He even was just included in Forbes 30 under 30 for his role in helping to scale operations at a startup valued at $450 million.

The company — Patreon.

Patreon is a membership platform that creates a direct link between artists and the fans who pay them. Its community is unlike any other in the industry. As the platform grows to support its 50,000 creators and 1 million patrons, Palmer has overseen the team grow from just himself and the two founders to over 80 people.

It’s a high-pressure performance and one where you have to constantly learn on the fly. Over the course of five years at Patreon, Tyler Palmer has gotten pretty good at that.

Despite the rapid pace, Patreon was named a top place to work in 2016 and has an employee attrition rate that’s 67% below the national average.

While most companies are struggling to retain talent, Patreon’s thriving. What’s their secret?

A culture that learns. In fact, learning is so valuable to Patreon that they’ve identified it as one of seven core behaviors their culture is built on:

It’s Patreon’s fifth value  – seek learning – that allows the company to evolve and adapt to a never-ending stream of new problems to solve. From interviewing his own employees, Palmer was struck by a common theme:

“We don’t know everything that we need to know today to accomplish our mission.”

A company culture that celebrates and encourages learning helps bring everyone closer to figuring out how to accomplish the mission. And with a mission to fund the emerging creative class, there’s lots of learning to be done.

In this exclusive interview, we dive deep with Tyler Palmer into how Patreon composes a culture of learning in everything they do.

A culture of learning is the opposite of a culture of fear

Admitting you don’t know things means you have to step into the void and try things out. But to a team of high-performers who are accustomed to getting things right on the first try and collecting accolades like it’s nothing, fear of failure is very real.

The first step to building a culture of learning is to make failure acceptable and expected.

“One thing that we care a lot about is psychological safety because we believe that people will perform their best work in a safe and inclusive environment”

Palmer points to all-hands meetings, where a team celebrating a huge lift in conversion rates will be followed by a team whose new feature failed to get off the ground. Both are received with equal praise.

It’s a rewiring of the pressure-cooker institution: employees aren’t rewarded for being machines that deliver perfect results; they’re rewarded for stepping out of the comfort zone of known outcomes.

Employees at Patreon are only expected to hit between 60-65% of their goals, creating a safety net for experimentation that will benefit the company in the long term. Allowing employees to fail makes them less fearful of making riskier bets, which could ultimately reward the company in a big way. As Palmer points out, “It’s not about being right the most amount of times. It’s about learning more and faster than our competitors.”

He adds, “Now, if we fall on our face ten times in a row on a similar problem, then we might have an issue. Maybe something about our ideas or execution is not good enough.” As long as employees are learning, they can explore the unknown without fear. At higher levels, decision-making is motivated not by fear but by discovery, leading to calculated risks that can have big payoffs.

Lastly, when jobs are not on the line, people are free to be more honest about what they need from managers and colleagues, and things can move faster.

Palmer says it all boils down to trust. “A safe environment allows people to speak their mind and deliver hard feedback, which will make me better, right? It’s another data point to just make me better.”

How to operationalize learning

To create a self-sustaining culture of learning, Patreon builds processes at every level to make sure people are questioning the status quo and making each other better. These processes aim to:

  1. 1. Hire people with a learning mindset
  2. 2. Help existing employees learn from each other
  3. 3. Create channels for managers and executives learn, too

In hiring, a team is assembled to evaluate candidates based on the seven core behaviors. The team is rotating and peer-nominated so it’s constantly under evaluation. They consider the new opinions, ideas, and learnings the candidate will add, as well as the ways they embody things like moving fast as hell.

“We want different thoughts, we want different opinions, we want different backgrounds, unique perspectives so that Patreon has a bunch of different ideas and lands on the best one,” Palmer says.

He worries about the term “culture fit.” Instead, he looks for “core behavior adds.” He asks, “Do [new hires] add to our culture, but share similar values and behaviors that will ensure that they’re successful here?”

Once an employee has moved past the onboarding phase and is a regular contributor, they are encouraged to use the core behaviors to guide meetings and communications. “When we give kudos to teammates, when we give feedback, we always ground it in the core behaviors,” Palmer says. “ We see the core behaviors as a framework to launch into conversations about why someone is performing and exceeding expectations or falling short of expectations.”

Executives and senior management are held to the same standards for learning as the rest of the company. They are subject to one-to-one feedback sessions and are encouraged to seek mentorship.

With an open culture of learning and regular all-hands meetings, executives are subject to suggestions from all employees. “No feedback is too big or too small for me, or for anyone at Patreon,” Palmer says. “You can tell me that a typo in my email made you uncomfortable or you could tell me that you don’t think I’m doing my job well and prioritizing the right things.”

Patreon’s Three Buckets of Learning

To provide insight into how learning is baked into daily life at Patreon, Palmer breaks the core behavior of “seek learning” down into three distinct categories.

  1. 1. Encourage professional development through mentorship
  2. 2. Create budgets for company-sponsored “fieldwork”
  3. 3. Be transparent in everything

Each bucket covers educational opportunities inside the company and beyond the office walls.

1. Encourage professional development through mentorship

Great mentors offer a model for your own future as well as a regular exchange of ideas and advice. Early on in his management days, Palmer was quick to recognize that mentorship is often a privilege enjoyed by those who don’t really need it or don’t have time to make the most of it. CEOs have investors and board members, but they’re so busy running the company that they’re not always able to take advantage of advisor knowledge.

“The people who really, really need the mentorship are throughout your entire organization.”

Expertise shouldn’t be caught in a feedback loop at the top of the organization. Palmer opened up opportunities for internal and external mentorship to all employees at the company, starting with the executive team. “We said, ‘Hey, if you want to seek an advisor, Patreon would be willing to set aside some equity so that you can go out and find a marketing leader, or a business development leader, or an analytics leader, that will really help you guide your team.'”

“The people who really, really need the mentorship are throughout your entire organization,” he said. If mentorship can’t be found within Patreon, employees are encouraged to go outside the company.  “If you set clear expectations, Patreon will pay for you to go land a strong advisor that’s going to guide you and help you grow and develop.”

It’s something he wishes he had early on in his career. “Imagine… you join a company and the company says to you, ‘Hey, here’s your equity, and also we’re giving you a little bit of extra equity to go out and land an epic advisor that you’ve looked up to, or someone in the industry you’ve always wanted to be able to get coffee with regularly.”

Outside mentors can better the entire company, and people are encouraged to bring their mentors into the fold. For example, “Let’s say we get a payments advisor,” Palmer says. “Then, we can bring them in to come and speak with our entire payments team or anyone that facilitates that kind of work.”

By investing deeply and widely in mentorship, Patreon creates lots of channels for new ideas to flow in and out. With new viewpoints being brought in constantly, the culture of learning strengthens through diversity of thought and the company avoids stagnation.

“We need everyone at our organization leveling up,” he says. With mentorship, the momentum of learning is always high.

2. Create budgets for learning

If company-sponsored mentorship incentivizes relationships, company-sponsored “fieldwork” incentivizes learning new skills. Patreon offers all kinds of learning benefits outside and inside the office. Some of these benefits include:

  • Team Reads – internal software that allows employees to buy books and share what they’re reading
  • Activation Energy – courses taught by colleagues on professional skills and non-work-related topics
  • Personal Development Objectives – public wish lists for acquiring new skills

Team Reads

Every employee is given a reading stipend they can put towards a collaborative learning program called Team Reads. “Team Reads is a software that we use that allows folks to check out a book. You have a stipend of one or two books per quarter. The software is really fantastic in that it will tell you what your teammates are reading,” Palmer explains. The feed keeps track of progress. “It will be like, ‘Jarvis just finished this!’ And, “Taryn recommended this book!’ So you can see what books are gaining momentum and traction on the board. I have an activity feed that’s like,  ‘Andy just checked out this book!’ And so I can be like, ‘Oh, I want to read that with Andy!'”

When colleagues make social connections around books that aren’t necessarily work-related, the company sees a lot of benefits. People discuss unfamiliar topics with coworkers whom they don’t normally collaborate with. This opens doors to learning and prevents silo mentality among teams. The shared experience of reading also gives people common ground to start conversations, deepen bonds, or even shape their worldviews.

Activation Energy

While independent reading deepens bonds over time, Patreon’s “Activation Energy” program creates an immediate social environment where employees teach each other new skills. “Whether it’s about how to edit, or mix audio, or how to build robots or whatever folks’ skills are on the side — how to pick up the guitar — there’s a budget for activation energy programs,” Palmer said. That budget, of course, includes complimentary smoothies for the host and attendees. Learning from a teammate is a great bonding experience and helps break down silos between departments by getting people who otherwise might not collaborate with each other working together. In the process, they learn to trust each other, which helps get work done on a day to day basis.

Person Development Objectives

Personal Development Objectives are public lists in Asana where people state outright the things they want to learn. By publishing the list, managers and colleagues can help make those wishes a reality. In the Patreon culture deck, Palmer uses his own list as an example.

With the list in hand, he can then seek out the company resources to fulfill the items on the list. He can ask someone on the data science team to help him level up in SQL, or ask for a stipend for Codecademy courses.

In addition to these in-house programs, employees are encouraged to seek out education outside of the company via conferences, speaking engagements, and long-term courses. The company will sponsor travel and pay for instruction, no questions asked.

When asked if these extracurricular programs get out of hand, Palmer says he meets with managers to align expectations of what’s too much and what’s too little. Too much might be traveling to an outside conference every week; whereas too little might mean there’s not enough participation in available programming.

He paraphrases Jeff Bezos, who once said, “I like to use the phrase work-life harmony rather than balance because to me, balance implies a strict trade, whereas I find when I am happy at work, I come home more energized, and when I’m happy at home, I come in and [am a] better boss and colleague.”

At Patreon, there’s no hard line between what learning is relevant to work and what’s not. Side projects and hobbies enrich day jobs and vice versa. It’s a yin and yang approach.

“I don’t think putting your passion towards learning means you’re taking it away from your work at Patreon,” Palmer says. “I think my learning will help me hit my goals, and my goals will improve my learning. I think it’s more fluid than that.”

3. Be transparent in everything

The third bucket of learning is radical transparency. More information means more opportunities for feedback, collaboration, and critical thinking. It also means public accountability for wins and losses.

A few areas in which Patreon is unusually transparent:

  • Partnership conversations –  employees can peek in and see the status of major business relationships
  • Team goals – “We have this thing called the battle plan, which lists out the like 50 objectives that are happening at Patreon. You can add yourself to anyone and get like a weekly update about what’s happening.”
  • Personal Development Objectives – everyone can see what you want to work on, and help you if they can
  • Executive agenda – “You can see every item that the exec team is talking about.”

Transparency contributes to the environment of safety necessary for learning. In a transparent environment, employees have to be comfortable not only making mistakes but sharing what they learned.

Palmer points to an instance where he opened up to the company about a miscalculation he made. The mistake had forced them to let some people go and reorganize the growth team around a particular marketing channel. He stood up at all-hands and told everyone what he learned. The response was overall positive.

“I got really nice feedback. I think people feel comfortable when they know more information. They don’t have to make up the story in their head about what went down. I said, ‘Hey, this wasn’t a performance thing. This was a miscalculation. So, this is no reflection on your teammates and their performance. This is a mistake that I made and when I learned that it was in the best interest of the company, I corrected it, based on the new data that I had.'”

At Patreon, there’s no such thing as too much transparency.

“It’s very rare that you’ll get feedback that’s you’re too transparent or you’re sharing too much information.”

Transparency makes learning more efficient — when everything’s available, you don’t have to ask a gatekeeper like a manager or executive for certain information.

It can lead to quiet meetings, though. At Patreon, “There are times where there are no questions at All Hands, where folks are like, ‘I have everything that I need. I have the context I need.’”

Learning never ends

A learning culture creates a company that’s adaptable and primed for the future. Ultimately, you create an organization that can evolve to solve the never-ending stream of new challenges that a growing startup faces.

In fact, this adaptability was put to the test recently after Patreon rolled out a controversial fee update which some creators on the platform didn’t particularly like. Instead of remaining steadfast in the decision to keep the fee change, Patreon learned they need to learn from their community members more. They listened to the feedback and ultimately reversed the fee change. As Patreon’s CEO, Jack Conte, put it in a recent post, “We recognize that we need to be better at involving you more deeply and earlier in these kinds of decisions and product changes.”

As Patreon attempts to transform the way artists, musicians, and creators of all kinds make money, they’re challenging entire industries built on preconceived ways of thinking. Patreon thrives as a platform because it reflects the new modes in which people create and distribute art and is constantly learning to adapt. An influx of ideas and people allows them to stay miles ahead of the competition and accelerate growth. Through learning, they can deliver a product that’s in line with the changing needs of customers.

When knowledge is pooled, individual employees have the power to instigate change and move the company forward. Radical transparency pushes people to be better, and the safety of the learning environment ensures that employees trust and uplift each other. They find fulfillment, or that elusive harmony between work and life, which gets poured back into the company mission, expanding it over time.

Se more culture decks and create your internal knowledge base with Tettra.