Company culture is at the forefront of many discussions about the workplace these days, and nothing is more relevant than the culture in startups. Having a keg in the office can be great – but these individual actions alone don’t make a great company culture. So what’s the secret?

Some say fluid communication is the answer. Others say it’s being people-first that sets them apart from the large corporations. But surely there must be more to it than this?

Learning how to create a great company culture within your startup is vital to creating a productive environment and the long-term success of a startup. To learn about how exactly this kind of culture is nurtured, let’s dive into the specifics a bit more so that you, too, can embrace and benefit from the startup culture.

What is Startup Culture?

So why is having the right company culture so important?

Societies manifest culture through their values. Similarly, companies can begin to create their own internal culture by defining exactly what their values are. These values can help guide not only your creative decisions but also the company culture that you lay the groundwork for.

A company’s culture – especially a startup’s culture – is similar in many ways to clan culture. This usually is characterized by a flat leadership structure, flexible communication, and freedom of creative thought. The focus is on people – meaning employees, customers, and clients.

The perks of these companies – beanbags in offices, office dogs, etc – are often mistaken for the things that generate the culture when they grow naturally out of the culture itself.

Generally, four main points define what startup culture is.

  • Passion: This makes work not feel like work. This is important as there will often be long hours, especially at the beginning.
  • Agility: This means no barriers to prevent knowledge, wisdom, creativity, and information to flow freely among the team.
  • Personality: This will be what makes your startup company unique.
  • Authenticity: This means that everyone within the company must respect each other’s identity and beliefs. This is different from more traditional companies and their homogenization of expression.

What is Different about Startup Culture?

So how exactly is startup culture different from corporate culture? This is a common question.

Corporations, small businesses, and startups may seem, on the surface at least, to share many of the same cultures, values, and objectives. However, they differ in many significant ways.

For example, they are different in terms of their leadership structure, decision-making processes, and the number of employees working within them. These aspects lead to hugely different company cultures.

The size of the companies is what many of these differences come down to. Startups lean heavily on the passion and creativity of their workforce. They are more flexible and dynamic due to their smaller size compared to larger companies and corporations. This can lead to more creativity and a very different feeling of culture.

Startups have a reputation for having laid back cultures. This is a curse and a blessing. Many companies misunderstand these startups’ success and attempt to replicate this by introducing things like beanbag chairs and foosball tables. These are the surface indicators of relaxed company culture- not the cause of it.

Why Define the Culture of your Startup?

This failure to replicate startup culture in other companies due to the lack of understanding of startup culture is crucial. It is not something that can be faked or pasted on top of an existing corporate structure. It is worked into the ethos of the company from the foundations up.

Like we mentioned earlier, simply throwing in a foosball table to your office will not create a free and easy, startup-style company culture.

It’s far more important to focus on the employees of your company. Remember: startups are focused on people first – this is their secret! If employees enjoy their work and feel safe and comfortable to express themselves, then this is the plant bed from which a startup-style company culture can grow naturally!

Unmotivated employees are much more likely to make mistakes. This leads to a bad quality of work.

Startups have two major advantages over traditional companies when it comes to building a passionate and effective workforce.

  • They attract young, passionate professionals.
  • They are able only to hire a few workers at a time.

These provide an opportunity to build up a company’s culture from day one.

Follow these 11 steps in order to build a startup culture that leads to success and lasts a long time.

1) Understand The Purpose of your Company

This does not by any means mean “make money” or “make brilliant products”. This means longer-term, more meaningful purposes.

To find this, ask yourself: “so what?

Your building a tech startup to help people find nearby rental cars. “So what?

This will force you to think about why you are doing this. What is the purpose behind it all? What value are you bringing into the lives of your customers? Eventually, you might find that you are, at your core, hoping to help people find their dream cars.

This must be figured out before you launch. Before you even build the bones of your startup. Before you hire an employee. It should be at the center of everything you do. Your startup culture will form naturally with it.

Putting this thought into your purpose will help you to streamline the growth of your company, and allow you to approach everything with a unique perspective. It will also make it easier when it comes to making big decisions. Can’t decide something? Then ultimately you can ask yourself: “does this bring the company and me closer to or further away from our ultimate goal?” The answer should be clear after this.

2) Determine a Set of Values

Set your company values early, talk about them every chance you get, and stick to them.

To find your values, think about what is important to your company. This can begin with the purpose you discovered in the previous step. If you have employees, then sit down and talk about this with them. Get some ideas. Having their input will give them more of a sense of ownership over the company, and lead to a greater sense of workplace culture.

Think about aspects such as how do you approach flexible work hours? Small details matter.

Think about not only what you want the company to become, but what values your team members bring to the table. What do they feel passionate about? Include those with the company values to add that sense of humanity.

Including your employees in this way is good for two main reasons.

  • They feel personally invested in the company, listened to, and valued.
  • It lets those employees design their own workspace and the culture they themselves will be working within.

Defining these values at the very start of the life of your company is vital in creating a strong company culture, and inevitably, creating a strong and productive company.

3) Hire with Those Values in Mind

Every new member of your team should fit into those values. As the company grows, the values and culture surrounding your company will grow too. It’s good to add new blood to the workforce. They bring new ideas and a fresh perspective on things. But make sure that at their core they share the ultimate values that you have made so vital to the identity of your company.

When interviewing potential new employees, be open, honest, and specific about what the company values are. The way they talk about those values will give you a good indication as to whether or not they share them, or even whether or not they understand them.

Remember that diversity is key to a dynamic company. While there are legal requirements that compel companies to hire a diverse workforce, you should want to do so anyway.

Diversity brings fresh viewpoints and ways of thinking and looking at things that you or your other employees might never have considered.

4) Look After Your Employees

Making sure your employees feel well cared for is vital in nurturing your company culture.

It is unreasonable to expect your employees to care for their work and their company if they do not feel that the company cares for them.

Empathy is crucial in creating a positive startup culture. Taking the time to listen to any issues your employees have – personal or otherwise – goes a long way towards building a company that cares.

Clients like to work with companies that are made up of teams that are happy, support each other, and care about the work they do. Cultivating an environment of empathy – starting from the very top – is a great way of doing this.

5) Be Open When Communicating

Being open, transparent, and honest is vital when communicating between every level in your company. This helps to build trust between team members, and a sense of ownership that every employee feels towards the company they work for.

Every employee must see where their efforts are going. They must know when the company succeeds at something, and when it does not. The bad news is just as important – if not more important – to share with everyone as good news. It shows respect and trust.

Build time into the schedule to listen to employee feedback and concerns, and make sure you really listen and act on those concerns.

Do not shut employees out of the bigger picture. They need to feel that they are there to work on something bigger than the day-to-day jobs. Keep them in touch with the values and mission of the company. Make them feel like a part of the company – because they are!

6) Cherish Employee Feedback

Some employees have said that company culture is like the air you breathe. It is vital to sustaining your workforce and developing a sense of pride in the work. An empathic workplace should genuinely care about its team members. This is because the workplace is its team members.

Ensure to collect feedback at every opportunity possible, whenever possible. Employees can provide information on the day-to-day goings-on of the business that is impossible for a manager to collect on their own. Having a deeper insight into the runnings of your business is incredibly valuable.

A leader’s job is to understand the employees that work for them. Company culture is about trust. Make sure that the team members feel that they can come to you about anything, and feel heard.

7) Maintain a Positive Working Environment

The physical space of a company is crucially important. As we mentioned earlier, beanbag chairs don’t make a startup culture, but providing the right space is important. It’s like providing nourishing compost so plants can grow.

The key is making sure that whatever you do is in line with the feel and culture that already exists in your startup. Do your employees brainstorm and socialize while drinking coffee in the breakroom? Then a foosball table might fit right in there. However, don’t throw a foosball table into a quiet space just because you saw another company do it.

As long as you provide the right kind of space, the company culture will follow.

Make sure there are calm spaces for breaks, enough refreshments, and places that everyone can feel comfortable. Those that feel relaxed together, will also feel comfortable enough to think creatively together.

The most successful companies in the world understand this. They encourage creativity and give it room to breathe. Think of Google and Facebook. They have this notion down to an art. They may be huge corporations, but they have kept their startup mindsets at the forefront throughout their lifespans. This has paid off by having great company cultures that everyone wants to work within.

8) Fewer Rules and More Flexibility

New technology has altered the ways we approach many aspects of life. From ordering food to communicating, booking tables to booking flights – more things are being moved online all the time.

This also extends to the workplace. Remote working is more popular than ever, and this trend is expected to keep on growing exponentially.

To plan for this and allow your business to adapt and thrive, think of these changes as opportunities. Build flexibility and adaptability right into your business structure from the very beginning. This way, your company culture will grow around the ideas of the flexible working day. Thrive as a company, no matter where you are working from.

The tools are already there. Zoom, Skype, Trello, Slack – all of these are designed for this very purpose and are either free to use or cheaper for businesses.

Don’t obsess over the tiny details of every working day. You don’t want to micro-manage every aspect of your employees’ lives. Show them the trust you would want to be shown, and allow them flexibility and the opportunity to make their own decisions on how and where they work. The benefits to your company will soon be clear.

9) Appreciate the Individuality of Your Employees

One of the major keys to developing and maintaining your company culture is by encouraging your team members to display their individuality.

Startups thrive on creative minds and diversity of thought. You should hire people who are unique, and think in a way unlike yourself and everyone else in the company.

Give them credit when it is due. Don’t be afraid to say “well done” when someone has achieved something or offered an idea that turns out to be great. A good leader knows when to acknowledge their team’s efforts.

10) Don’t Create A Stagnant Culture

While building a company culture that follows the values and ethics you laid out at the beginning, be careful to avoid one of the most common mistakes.

When a company builds a culture that seems to be working fine, it is easy to stagnate. That is to say, business goes well, and they become afraid to keep changing and growing naturally. The employment of new team members decreases and the creativity of a team dries up. They stop innovating. This is the kiss of death for startups, which rely on staying fresh and creative.

Don’t be afraid to keep hiring unique people that are creative and have something fresh to offer. A lack of diversity will only be a bad thing for your team in the short term, and your whole company in the long term.

11) How to Maintain Your Startup’s Culture as you Grow

Your startup – should it be successful in those crucial first few months and years – will grow with time. Moving from the startup phase to the growing company phase comes with many challenges. One of the big ones is making sure that the company culture you have carefully nurtured from the very beginning endures.

As a company grows, it can be easy to lose that spark that made your startup business successful in the first place. New employees and team members join, and old faces leave. This can easily cause shifting sands and jeopardize the culture of your team.

Company culture is like a delicate potion or formula. If a little too much of one thing is added, it ruins the mix. So as more people come in, this balance can easily be thrown. So what can you do?

Make sure you prepare early on for this and build this possibility into the culture itself as you nurture it. Have an annual review of your company culture. Include your employees fully, and take suggestions from them as to what needs to change, what needs to be added, and what needs to be removed.

Company cultures – like all cultures – are living entities. There are no single answers to any of these issues. The best way to go is, to be honest, be open, and be proactive. This is a community you’re building, and a community thrives on participation.

Five Great Examples of Startup Cultures

Every startup is different and unique. However, when you’re thinking about how to build and nurture your won company culture, it can help to study examples of some great companies that have maintained their startup culture as they have grown.

Here are five of the best examples:

1)  Spotify

Spotify calls its culture: “Spotify Engineering Culture”. They are famous for having a startup mentality, even after having grown into one of the biggest music streaming services in the world. Spotify organizes their team members into “squads”. These organize themselves and never have more than 8 people in them.

2)  Certain Affinity

The city of Austin played a big part in creating the culture of this company. Specifically, the city’s slogan “Keep Austin Weird”. The motto was taken to heart by the Co-owner and Vice President Mojdeh Gharbi, who used that philosophy to nurture a specific creative and unique company culture.

3)  Zappos

As famous for its company culture as it is for its shoes, Zappos created a company culture so inclusive, that it claims that employees are there only because they want to be, not just for the money.

4)  Paylocity

Another great example of company culture done right, Paylocity take any feedback from any party, whether that be client, customer, or employee. They take it seriously and act on everything. This leads to employees feeling listened to and respected.

5)  Shopify

Shopify started with online five employees working from a coffee shop in Canada, and grew to be one of the biggest retail platforms on the internet.  They have kept the same company culture as they have grown, with now more than 2000 employees as a part of their business. They focus on the product and ensure it is at the core of every decision they make.

Startup Culture – When Done Right, It Can Mean Everything

Startups are well known for their unique and energetic company cultures. This kind of atmosphere leads to innovation and boundary-breaking ideas that have changed the world. The phenomenon of the fun office has permeated through most workplaces, to the point where the ultimate purpose of these perks is lost.

What matters is the values instilled in the company at its very inception. If your startup remains true to its ideals from the beginning then you can nurture a truly successful startup. What can start with merely three or four people on the team, can grow to hopefully thousands of employees. It’s important to not lose sight of the basic values and goals of the business.

Be honest about your goals. The ideas may seem overwhelming at the beginning, but even the biggest ideas can start from the smallest beginnings.

Creating a strong, inclusive, productive company culture is not as simple as buying a foosball table and giving everyone a beanbag chair. It starts with an attitude and a set of simple beliefs.

Stick to these beliefs and cultures will grow naturally. Take time to listen to your employees, and they will grow it for you. Do all of this, and not only will your culture grow – but your business will continue to grow with it.

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