You Are Your Startup Culture



Startup culture is an elusive thing. Everyone agrees that you need to have a great one, but no one can really define what it is and what makes a given culture “great”. You can read books about legendary corporate cultures like they have at Zappos, but the lessons you learn never seem directly applicable to your company.

How then do you build the kind of corporate culture you want?

In reality, you start defining your corporate culture the minute you start your new company. You might not even realize it, but the decisions you make (and more importantly how you make them) add up quickly into a culture. For example, do you:

  • Discuss major decisions with your team or delegate responsibility to one person?
  • Communicate status in person or through written documents (do comments count)?
  • Involve everyone in hiring decisions or just a small team?
  • Use outsourced help or not?

There are no right or wrong answers to any of the above, but as you choose you start to define your company. You make dozens, if not hundreds, of these decisions everyday in the first few months of your company and eventually they add up. As new employees join, they see the company as the sum of the decisions you have made which in turn shapes how they interact with the company and contribute to the culture. Eventually, a small decision you made early made can affect how a team of hundreds of people goes about doing their jobs.

With that in mind, you have three levers for controlling how your corporate culture evolves:

  1. The types of people you hire. When you first start you have no culture as a company, only personalities as individuals. Those personalities, and the decisions they lead you to make, will start forming the basis of habits, which become process, which becomes the lifeblood of your company. The best way to end up with a culture you want is to start with personalities you like and decisions that you want to stand by in the future.
  2. The decisions you make. Think about the culture you would like your company to have a few years down the road and make decisions that people at that company would make. Again, decisions become processes before you know it so be sure that any decision you make is one you would make again and again. Define a mission that can act as a guide for future employees who face decisions, like yours, that might shape corporate culture.
  3. The incentives you give your team. People will always tend to do what is in their best interest so it is important to align their incentives with not just what you want them to do but how you would like them to do it. For example, if you want a culture that values customer happiness, make sure that your sales people are not just compensated on closing the deal, but also on whether that same customer makes additional purchases in the future. With the right incentives in place you will find that the behaviors you want to encourage become part of the operating fabric of the company.

The best way to see if your corporate culture is growing the way you like is to test it on a regular basis. Challenge your team in ways that require them to lean on the culture of the company such as shuffling their responsibilities for a day. If everyone showed up tomorrow and had to do a different job than they knew, how will they communicate and how will they work together? It can tell you a lot about whether you are headed in the right direction.

Decisions become processes. Processes become habits. Habits become culture.

The good news is that if you succeed in building a healthy corporate culture it will become a virtuous cycle, as you will begin attracting the kinds of employees who want to be part of the culture you have created. Attracting more and more like-minded people will increase the strength of the culture even further, attracting even more people.

If you understand the culture you want to have and start, from the beginning, to lay a solid foundation it is likely that one day you will show up for work and have the kind of company you always wanted to build and a place where you love to work. That is one of the most fulfilling achievements of all.

This article was originally published at Sean on Startups, a blog about starting and growing companies.

Image credit: CC by tangi bertin

About the author: Sean Byrnes

Sean is the founder of Flurry, the leader in advertising and analytics services for mobile applications. He is currently an advisor, mentor and angel investor in the San Francisco bay area. You can read more of his advice and thoughts on building businesses on Sean On Startups and his personal website.

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