How to Build A World-Class Startup Culture

Startup culture has received a ton of attention. From foosball tables to ping pong, pizza parties to happy hours, people are looking for ways to be part of a community as much as they are a workplace.

You may feel it's too early to be thinking about culture in your business, but setting up a great company culture from the start will help to give your company direction.

Why Should I Care About Company Culture?

There are far too many definitions of what culture is and isn’t. To some extent, it’s in the eye of the beholder. You can make culture mean whatever you want, but recognize that there are consequences for what you choose (good and bad).

Some organizations think of culture as team unity and spirit. It’s about T-shirts and hoodies, Friday afternoon beer bashes, and hanging out together after work. Others think of culture as a set of principles to abide by, posted on motivational posters hanging on walls across their office. Still others see it as the common bond that brings all company employees together.

But whatever the definition, there's an important question: Why is culture so important?

Well, founders can’t be everywhere and make all the decisions, at least if they want the startup to grow. The team needs to know the guidelines of how they should make decisions and do their jobs without having to ask.

Your culture is the foundation they rely on when thinking about their jobs and the decisions they make. If you get this right, you can scale your business very quickly and in the manner you want.

At the beginning, the culture is molded entirely by the founders. The founders are essentially the company in the early days, after all. The trick is to maintain that culture as you grow, even dampening or eliminating the parts of the founding team’s philosophies that aren’t helpful to the culture.

Take the time to think through and build the right culture for your startup, and you’ll maximize your chances for success.

Defining Your Culture.

Culture consists of many elements that cover a spectrum from how people interact with each other on the inside of the company to how customers are treated on the outside. It includes how decisions are made, how communication takes place, and how people work together.

The challenge is how to define what is important in your culture. Most often there are too many ideas about what the culture should be, so the founding team struggles to narrow down what’s important. Your culture should be a mix between who you are as founders and the type of business you are building. You’ll want to make sure the culture you define makes sense for what you’re trying to achieve as a business.

Think about your culture as having a mix of core values, fundamental principles, and your business philosophies. 

Core Values.

Core values manifest themselves as the behaviors that your team exhibits. It is who they are, as seen through their actions. While your team will be more than just the core values that you outline, these are the non-negotiables, like trust, integrity, and respect that sit at the core of your company. Core values should be so important to you that if someone on the team doesn’t exhibit them, then you’ll ask them to leave. You generally don’t work on core values. You either have them or you don’t. You and your co-founders should agree on which ones are the non-negotiables that you convey to the world.

To weave values successfully into the company, you have to select just a handful. You can’t have a laundry list of twenty values. That’s too hard and unmanageable, and you’ll never find employees who can even remember all of them, let alone demonstrate them. Your best bet is to select a few that you can easily promote throughout the organization—the ones most important to you.

Fundamental Principles.

Your fundamental principles are the truths about your business. This is where you can start to bring more elements of your business into your culture.

You may be in a business that is highly competitive, which requires that you’re extremely efficient. Alternatively, your business may be to simplify an extremely complex problem for your customers, requiring that you be very service oriented. Or, perhaps you’re dealing with legal or compliance issues where your organization has to follow specific and mandated rules and processes.

Each of these truths about your business require your company to act and perform in certain ways. These are core parts of your business that you must execute well to be successful, so building them into your culture ensures that they remain major focal points for the organization.

These realities of your business need to convert into clear directions about how your team needs to operate. Note that these cultural attributes will stay with the company forever. Core fundamental principles aren’t like your mission or vision or even your business model, which may occasionally change.

Business Philosophies.

Think of business philosophies as more like preferences for how you operate your business. For example, are you frugal with your money? Do you promote from within your organization?

Both are business philosophies that can also be default actions, though neither are written in stone. You know there will be circumstances where you will not be able to follow them.

A famous example is Facebook’s philosophy to go fast and break things. It’s how the business biases its actions, but it isn’t an absolute. There are times, of course, when Facebook will go slowly and ensure that things are buttoned down. But, the preference of the company is to be aggressive.

Your business philosophy gives more context and texture to your culture. It helps your employees to better understand how they should think about decisions and how they should work.

Create Your Culture Early.

It can be tempting for first-time founders to underestimate the importance of a great culture. Surely, it seems, there are more important things to do early on.

But, as your company quickly grows, having an operating system that allows the team to make good decisions can be the difference between a startup that succeeds and one that falls apart.

Take the time today to start defining your culture.