Building Your Team - Establish a Culture that Lasts

Group photo of participants in the Chobani Food Incubator

We all love founding lore: the origin stories, the cramped garages, the chance meetings. Great companies often start as an inkling or idea that a passionate founder gives legs, and Chobani’s founding story certainly has its place in the canon.

Hamdi Ulukaya came across a piece of junk mail advertising a former Kraft yogurt factory in upstate New York for sale for less than $1 million in 2005. He obtained a Small Business Administration loan to purchase the factory, hired a master yogurt maker, spent the next two years perfecting the recipe with the help of four factory workers who had worked at the original Kraft plant, and they were able to go to market by late 2007. Ten years later, Chobani effectively launched the category for greek yogurt in the United States and created over 2,000 jobs in the process.

tour of Chobani Yogurt Factory

Earlier this month, the Chobani Food Incubator was able to visit the place where it all began, the home to many of the company’s most seasoned team members who have been with Chobani for 7-10 years, a few since the very beginning. They shared fond memories about Hamdi sleeping at the plant after putting in 16+ hour days, all working out of the same room or doing all-hands-on-deck responses to customer emails and calls. 

If you’re the founder of an early stage company, you might ask the same question we did, “how do you build a lasting culture of shared values that withstands the test of time and growth?”

Keeping your team engaged and motivated early on is crucial, and the Incubator companies learned the importance of building a clear and consistent set of values to guide you through the roller coaster of tough decisions that goes along with growth. It’s powerful to see what kind of results can come by establishing this clarity from Day 1, making it a core part of your company’s operations. A culture of shared values can serve as your company’s north star when fast paced growth requires tough calls.  As one early Chobani team member put it,

“It’s not about a specific policy. It’s just about doing the right thing, at the right time.”

Following our visit to Chobani’s facility in Twin Falls, ID a few months ago, it was especially striking to explore the equally impressive but markedly different plant in South Edmeston. Both facilities were an inspiration to the teams because they are emblematic of the significant expansion Chobani has experienced over the last ten years. The plant in South Ed was built in 1920, and the variety of amazing ways Chobani has adapted, retrofitted and expanded it are the perfect embodiment of the growth mindset in action: when faced with a constraint, you build around it. 

We’re gearing up for Demo Day at Expo West next week, and it’s hard to believe the first class of the Incubator is coming to a close. The teams have leveraged lessons about manufacturing, branding, marketing and sales, but our trip to Chobani’s birthplace reminded us that building a team will always be core to long term success. I can’t wait to continue to refine the programming for the next class of the Chobani Food Incubator - exciting updates coming your way this spring as we gear up for Round 2!

tracy castro