I started Udemy right after I emigrated from Turkey, in 2010. It was my first company, and I didn’t have any business experience. So for most decisions, I went along with what I thought the industry’s best practices were.
When I decided to start a new company, I wrote down the four key values I wanted to adhere to, no matter what the company would do. Here they are:
1. Assume karma exists
2. Respect the craft
3. Put yourself in a position of insight
4. Hire people who genuinely care
Shared values are important because they allow people at a company to have diverse opinions and productive disagreements about tactical subjects, while knowing they’re philosophically on the same page.
Looking back after four years, I believe we’ve organically hired hundreds of brilliant people who share these values. That’s why we work in a cohesive way. But as we scale to thousands of employees, I thought it would be helpful to explain the values in more detail.
Assume that doing the right things consistently will yield disproportionate rewards, even if you can’t always tell how that will happen.
Perhaps the best example of this is how our altruistic efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic kick-started a series of events that grew the company massively. We intentionally avoided profit-driven efforts; instead, we focused on what our communities needed from us. We made this decision because when you help people in need, you often get disproportionately rewarded by the community.
We provided free virtual care for people with COVID-19 concerns. We went to underserved communities with mobile trailers to provide testing, at an operational loss. We built a nationwide database of testing centers that did not bring us any direct monetary value. We open-sourced our clinical datasets to help other researchers solve problems.
Our efforts did not go unnoticed. We inspired superfans. Our brand, which is oriented around the idea that everyone deserves great care, started really resonating with the public. Hiring got ten times easier. Dozens of local governments and research institutions linked to our resources, which in turn made our search engine rankings skyrocket. Inspired by our efforts, Google and Pinterest offered us exclusive advertising programs. Local governments trusted us to run their initiatives, and that brought us massive brand recognition. We gained commercial value that we would have never gotten if we hadn’t adhered to this principle. Assuming that karma exists has paid off.
Value the collective wisdom that has been accumulated by people who have been doing a particular job for a long time.
There’s a deep and complex craft at the heart of every profession.
A lot of people don’t understand this. They tend to dismiss trained professionals without giving thought to hard-earned expertise. When I first entered the healthcare space, I often heard that doctors don’t really care about patients, and that they provide inadequate care just to make people pay for another visit. Similarly, urgent care is often dismissed as a “pill mill” for pushing antibiotics. Cynicism like this often gets thrown around with the phrase “misaligned incentives.” But as I met more and more doctors, I realized how misguided this view is. Doctors aren’t the only group affected; lawyers, engineers, graphic designers, and HR professionals all get their (un)fair share of dismissal.
Silicon Valley companies often make a similar mistake by entering industries like education and healthcare without taking the time to learn from people who have been on the job. These companies fail as a result.
That’s not how we work. In a typical startup, you might have four or five different professions; we have more than 30. To operate well as a team, we take the time to understand how others create value. This doesn’t mean we don’t innovate on what they do — we internalize their work first. We also take the time to educate others about our own expertise. Every component of delivering great care is equally important, and they should all operate in harmony. We believe the best way to achieve our mission is to provide resources and tools so that every professional can practice their craft.
Unique insight, which often comes from a position of direct observation, is the reason the Davids of the world can compete with the Goliaths.
When we first started Carbon Health, in 2015, we built a primary care clinic literally inside our office so our product team could internalize how care delivery works. I even forbade everyone from looking at other EHRs (electronic health records), because we didn’t want to bring their historical baggage to our platform.
Instead, we started from first principles: We actively questioned every assumption and developed solutions. We directly attacked the problem instead of making a slightly more beautiful version of the legacy software. I believe this nearly unheard-of approach to building a better care platform is one of the key reasons for our success. Because we started from scratch, we understand care delivery better than others.
No amount of data, reports, dashboards, research documents, or secondhand resources can replace the intuition people develop when they experience the problem directly.
There’s no replacement for having people who care deeply about solving the problem we’re hiring them to solve.
Often, you get tempted to hire someone for domain expertise or pedigree, but you miss the genuine connection to the mission or personal investment in their craft. I’ve learned the hard way that those hires never work out. Skills can be learned, and domain expertise can be earned on the job, but this intrinsic interest in the work itself must be there from the start.
This genuine interest doesn’t always have to be in the specific mission statement of the company. An infrastructure engineer who’s passionate about building reliable systems, which in our case will translate to reliable healthcare access, is a great hire. So is a nurse who really cares about making patients feel comfortable.
This seemingly simple idea isn’t as common as you’d think. Companies often hire people who don’t genuinely care. The problem is that, once they’re hired, these people build other goals for themselves that don’t necessarily align with the company’s goals. Such misalignment breeds unproductive internal politics and a sharp-elbowed culture. Some companies even believe this type of competitiveness is a good thing, but in my view, it’s a bad thing that fills the void of a common goal.
One pattern that I’ve recognized is that people who don’t genuinely care about the work itself usually overcompensate by trying to please their managers. They don’t question the value of what they’re asked to do, and they try to impose a similar work dynamic with their reports.
Another pattern is that they focus heavily on finding reasons that they can’t be efficient, rather than taking the initiative to find solutions.
On the other hand, when you exclusively hire people who genuinely care, you can trust your teammates’ intentions, even if you disagree with them. You also don’t have to build systems to micromanage them. They fix the small problems on the way and move forward. When you have a team that’s full of this kind of person, you feel the most productive you’ll ever be. That’s why it’s worth the effort to keep things this way.