Startup Culture Building 101

I recently came across an interesting question on Quora: “How should a new startup develop and sustain a strong company culture?”. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Quora alone has probably hundreds of questions and answers discussing culture building and maintenance, but this was a Knowledge Prize question, so it got higher quality answers than average. I urge you to follow the link above and read through some of them.

Anyways, I also answered the question a few weeks ago and got to reading it again today. I think it offers a good framework for thinking about culture when starting a company. I’ll write more about the specifics of culture building in the future, but the following is a good blueprint to start with.

First, understand your core values

What’s your culture about? Tough question, right? This question becomes a lot easier to answer when you realize culture, fundamentally, is shaped by its underlying values. Many people’s cultural vision is impacted by the kind of operation they’re running. That’s because some values offer real value add in some operations while decreasing the efficiency of others. For example, some companies encourage more bottom-up initiative to remain innovative, while others encourage operational discipline to make sure the product is shipped on time. Values also depend on the person running the show – different people value different things and believe a different set of behaviors is a better fit for them personally or the operation they’re running. Pick the values that are right for you and your company.

Pick the values that are right for you and your company.

Then, pick the right people

Notice how used “right” instead of best / awesomest / smartest people? That’s because, in the early days of a startup, much of the culture will radiate from you. But pretty quickly (actually very quickly, especially if you’re successful), as more people join the operation, your ability to instill the culture in new individual employees will diminish as your daily interactions lessen. So you want to find people who not only will share your values and are excited about the culture you’re building together but will eventually become stewards of that culture, representing it and instilling it in new hires themselves. There are definitely wrong people: ones who don’t share your values, or worse – are cynical about them. Stir clear of them. Even if they’re super talented professionally. This is what’s behind the famous “no jerks” policy.

People are the conduits and amplifiers of your culture. Pick them well.

Assert your values and culture religiously

Once you know what your values are and have selected the right co-builders of your culture, don’t be shy about asserting those values. The way this is done is very much up to individual style and personality, but what I’ve found most effective is being present, and explaining your decision making as an executive through the perspective of values and culture. For example, at the end of a product roadmap meeting, or a sprint planning meeting, be very clear about why you decided what you did, and which values guided you. You don’t have to name them, just explain the decision through what you value more and less and why.

Teach others to simulate your judgment through values.

Use soft incentives and ceremonies to reinforce your culture

Create an organizational effort to boost and celebrate your culture. Soft incentives that are as simple as acknowledging someone’s good judgment at the end of a meeting can be an incredibly powerful message of what’s expected culture-wise. Develop “ceremonies” like post mortems or team celebrations. For example, in Fundbox, one of the values that were most important to me was winning together. This was important to me to build team cohesion and create a company where people felt at home. Every week for the past 4+ years, Fundbox employees meet every Thursday to celebrate the small successes of the week together.

Make the org radiate your culture, not just people.

Evolve your culture right

As the organization grows and your tasks become greater in number and complexity, your culture will need to change as well. This is natural. It’s also a process that can’t happen without you being personally hands-on, communicating effectively why and how changes need to be made. Some teams will form their own subculture. That’s fine, as long as it doesn’t stray too far from the company’s mainstream culture, reducing the effectiveness of inter-team initiatives.

Your company will grow and change, and your culture will have to, too.

Be wary of mutations and culture dilution

Manage your hiring process well, so you don’t overwhelm teams with too many new hires that radically dilute or even worse, mutate the team’s culture. It takes long to onboard people into teams professionally. It takes just as long to onboard them into an organizational culture. Take that into account when reviewing your hiring pipeline, and plan cultural onboarding processes and content.

As you grow, be alert to any radical changes to the culture at the team level.

Embody your culture

Above all else, you need to live by the culture you’re trying to create. That’s because culture flows from the top: your VPs will align themselves to your values and norms. And their directors will align themselves to their VPs, and so on.

You are the ultimate steward and the only effective evolution agent of your culture.

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