Getting a business off the ground is not easy. We all know that. Launching a venture is a constant juggling exercise: customer validation, MVP building, business development, fundraising, hiring… The list goes on. 

It is easy to get lost in this whirlwind of change and lose direction. So, what is our anchor? Look no further: the startup culture. As startups grow, it is not possible to maintain the same level of alignment or even camaraderie. Culture is the invisible link that holds the pieces together. 

A strong culture has tangible benefits that span across multiple areas: 

i) Hiring: A good culture attracts talent even when the business is small and relatively unknown in the market

ii) Fundraising: Angel investors and venture capitalists appreciate startups with a clearly defined culture and sense of direction

iii) Marketing & Sales: A company’s culture permeates every level of the company and has an impact on the startup’s branding and commercial profile 

So we know why culture is important, but what about the how? How is a good startup culture created in the first place? The most important point to consider is that there is not just one right culture. 

Nonetheless, there are a few best practices to keep in mind:

  1. Develop a set of values in which you believe 

Consistently defining your culture in words over time can be difficult. Values will enable you to condense your culture down to a few sentences.

What type of company do you want to build as a founder? What do you believe in? What is your mission? What kind of people do you want to attract?

The answers to these questions will help you craft impactful and long-lasting values. When creating your values:

  • Do not create more than ten values. The sweet spot is around five – Quality is better than quantity 
  • Make sure your values are concise, easily understandable and can drive behaviors
  • While culture evolves, values tend to be relatively immutable – Focus on the core areas that will not change during the growth journey
  • Involve your wider team in the value creation process and listen to their feedback – You will need their buy-in
  1. Preserve your culture

Having a set of values to describe your culture is important, but it is even more important to preserve your culture by using them.

You can systematize your culture by embedding your values in key business areas such as hiring and performance evaluations. 

With such a system in place, employees and candidates will refer to the values on an ongoing basis and will unconsciously share a set of behaviors. 

Remember: never compromise on culture.

  1. Hire for cultural add, not cultural fit

The most critical asset in an early-stage startup is the team. The DNA of your company will evolve with the people you hire. 

When making hiring decisions, use your cultural values to identify candidates who could enhance the culture of the company. Avoid hiring a homogenous group of people.

The best candidates will embed your core values and bring complementary ones to the table.

  1. Use culture to align on goals and resolve conflicts

Internal conflict and misalignment in business are inevitable. The continuous experimentation that takes place in startups exacerbates this friction even more.  

When aligning on goals or resolving conflicts, ask your team to turn to the company values. Employees will then have a framework to guide their discussions, resolve misalignment and build working agreements.

It is common for departments to disagree on certain objectives and create delays. Consider creating a value that allows the team to find a way forward. For example, Amazon uses the popular “Disagree and Commit”.

  1. Focus on diversity

A diverse group of people tends to reduce the number of blind spots in business. Additionally, diversity reduces groupthink and fosters constructive challenge and knowledge sharing.

Embrace diversity in the broadest sense with your culture. Cherish the value of differences in people. Make an effort to learn about inclusion. Lead by example.  

So, what steps are you taking to create a stellar culture in your business?

References

The Amazon Way: 14 Leadership Principles

The Soul of a Startup – Harvard Business Review

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