Strong Startup Culture 101
Startup culture has become recognised as a key element of success in a business. Having a good culture is just a start but how do you scale and drive your growth in the long-run? What exactly is a startup culture?
In my experience, many millennials – particularly new graduates or other candidates with limited work experience – are drawn to younger organizations through a combination of personal development, freedom, and what they imagine to be “great culture”. This, in turn, creates a so-called “millennial startup bubble”, creating startups with similar concepts that attract similar talent due to similar experiences. You wouldn’t catch a 23-year-old creating a startup for human resources for an enterprise company.
Interestingly, the perception of what startup culture should be is often very different from reality. Influenced by popular media, millennials imagine a mythical startup life: with beanbags, free sushi, Friday beer, open office landscapes, and sleeping pods.
Meeting the reality of working at a startup may be quite the wake-up call. Whether the company is growing with investors’ money or bootstrapping its way to profitability, it’s hard to justify the excessive investment into areas that aren’t aligned with the strategy towards break-even. I’m sure every founder would love to offer great perks to their employees, but the financial reality rarely allows for that at the early stages.
The culture of a startup is none of the things mentioned above. Startup culture is the collective behaviour of all team members. It is essentially the dynamics of individual values and how that interacts with the company values. The most important thing to mention is that startup culture should never be seen as fixed, or static. The culture of any business can and should evolve as the company around it changes. People in your business change and life happens too. Your company should never change its principles but the culture for 20 people in year 2 is different than what the culture should be in year 5 with 120. However, it’s important for this to happen the right way.
Crafting your startup culture probably wasn’t top of your to-do list when you first started up. That’s understandable, especially when you have an actual service or product to build first.
During the early days of any company, the culture is intertwined with the personalities of the founders and early employees. As the company grows, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to retain that earlier sense of cohesion without a set of values that everyone understands.
One of my all-time favourite example of an organisation that successfully managed to unite employees towards their goal, which was quite literally a moonshot, was NASA.
During the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy visited the NASA Space Centre and began to chat with some of the employees. As the story goes President Kennedy met a janitor who was more than happy to explain his purpose at NASA. His response was:
“My job is to help put a man on the moon”
This story goes to show that culture builds that mutual trust that binds the team together to a single mission especially during times of stress and change. So how do you build a consistent, strong culture while rapidly growing and transforming a business? Here are four key fundamental points in how to build a strong startup culture.
1)Value every employee
Strong foundations and a shared vision are excellent starting points, but what happens to culture as you grow?
Once hired, every single employee is super important. It’s not enough for you to know this as an employer. The employee should actually feel it too. One common way of doing this is providing stock options which provide employees with a sense of ownership for everything they and their colleagues do. Of course, this may not be possible at every company and there are other ways to show employees how important they are.
Getting input from across the team can make the difference between success and failure. Being a transparent leader can help make people feel that they’re part of the journey as well. Successful leaders will appreciate the team’s opinions as well as being able to direct focus in the right direction.
2)Build the Strongest Values
Almost every company was created to solve a problem. Whether that involves saving the world or just making slight improvements to a few people’s lives, every company is making this planet a better a place from its own perspective. Or other planets, if your company happens to be SpaceX.
Start off strong by creating a culture which works for the whole team, rather than specific parts of it. Make sure your culture is absolutely aligned to who you are and what you deeply believe in, and are enthused by. Strong values can help lay the initial foundations, but the strongest values will always be timeless. Anything less is inauthentic and unsustainable.
3)Hire the Right People
Finding the right people with the right values is among the most important aspect when building the strongest startup culture. When hiring you should always have an extensive interview process involving at least two founders of the company. The interview should discuss a wide range of topics including values and startup culture. The right employees are the ones that are able to understand and be ready to accept them. Another key area to potentially discuss is the future development of an individual within the company. It helps with the startup culture a lot when employees have clear future aspirations that align well with the company values and goals.
4)Let People Grow
Now that you have a company with a strong purpose and fantastic employees who are highly driven and feel valued.
These people should want to develop to their fullest potential within your company so you need to give them the support and space they need to do it.
As a leader, you need to be an active listener. That means understanding what employees are feeding back and possibly even reading between the lines when needed. They also need a positive attitude, the ability to motivate others and solve problems.
Employees are complex human beings. When they join a company, it’s because they have a particular set of desires to fulfil. Listening to your employees and understanding those desires and discovering how they align with your company is incredibly important.