What is culture?
Culture is an implicit hierarchy of values that informs team members and employees how to behave.
Good, productive behavior supports a great business in the long run, and bad, destructive behavior can easily ruin a company.
It might seem like a luxury to think about culture at the early startup stages, but this is the best time to build it.
Building company culture is very similar to raising a child. The later you try to instill the right values, the more difficult it is because your influence is weaker.
If you teach your child the right values early in life, you can expect them to make the right decisions later in life without your direct involvement.
Similarly, if you make sure that your founding team and first employees have adopted a productive company culture, they will undoubtedly transfer these values directly to your later hires, ensuring a productive company culture is preserved as the company grows.
Your early team is the cultural DNA of your company, and since they will be heavily involved in hiring and training, good or bad behavior propagates, and once the domino effect has started it’s extremely difficult to stop it.
What You Can Do To Build A Good Culture
- Be conscious of the value you are contributing to society. Let your teammates understand the importance of the problem you are solving. This gives your team purpose and more importantly – a long-term vision. A sense of meaning and importance helps a great deal to get you through the tough times.
- Explicitly state the values you want to adhere to – make a list. Don’t hire people that don’t seem to fit those values. If you want a playful, creative atmosphere, hire open and creative people rather than orderly bureaucrats. Create a hiring and onboarding process to make sure the people that join your team fit your culture.
- Most importantly – lead by example and don’t betray your values. If you say that all team members are a family and supporting each other is important, don’t cut employees as the first means for cost reduction when the times get tough. If you want to inspire hard work, make sure you are not slacking yourself. If you don’t stick to your values, why should your employees do so?
Leading by example is the most vital step because your list of values is unlikely to be exhaustive and informative in all possible situations your employees will find themselves in, especially as your startup grows and you start delegating key responsibilities to your team.
Each living person is a living embodiment of a value hierarchy, and the leaders have a direct influence on the people that follow them. Even if the values are not explicitly stated, most people would intuitively understand what the correct behaviors are by watching the leaders (and the people around them) work.
For that reason, make sure that you personify the culture you want to instill in the company.
What Values Should You Strive For?
This is the hardest question for two reasons.
First, this is very case-specific and what works for one team in one market might not work for another.
Second, some values are non-compatible. For example, how do you deal with risk? You cannot be innovative while at the same time being risk-averse.
You cannot expect your employees to come up with creative solutions to new problems if at the same time you punish them for the risk and inefficiencies implied in walking off the beaten path.
Which one is more valuable to you as a person and as a company? There are costs and benefits to both values, and your environment would inform you best which the correct choice is.
If you need to benefit from both approaches (and you might once your company grows), make sure to create an environment in which they can co-exist, which usually means instilling different values in your different teams and departments.
In summary, in order to build a productive startup culture, the most important things are:
- To start early.
- To choose the right values.
- To lead by example and become the living embodiment of said values.