How to Create and Sustain Start-up Culture at Any Size

Your Guide for Intentionally Building Culture

Ping pong tables, kegerators, and catered lunches, oh my! Is this what we think of when we think of start-up companies? Sadly, the answer is probably yes, but these employee perks don’t define or even contribute to the culture for which start-ups should be most known. 

Rather, the open, often casual communication, transparency, and people-first focus is what sets start-up culture apart from its corporate counterpart. It’s true…the foosball tables and bring-your-dog-to-work days might help you attract more applicants for your roles. But what’s more important is a uniquely defined culture aligned to the company’s strategy — and flip flops, ping pong, and the notion of having fun on tap all the time is not what keeps employees engaged and ultimately helps you grow. FYI…culture is also not employee engagement surveys. They only measure happiness/satisfaction and cannot tell you if you have a culture aligned to your strategy — one that drives performances and fosters results. 

In the newly released guide, Creating a Start-up Culture at Any Size,  those who’ve launched new businesses, lead start-ups, or have recruited for them share their unique insights on the importance of and how to build a start-up-like culture for a business of any size. When you download this best practice guide, you’ll find strategies and recommendations for building, re-building, or strengthening culture, what to address and pay attention to early on, how to address culture as you grow, and how technology fits into the equation. This guide focuses on:

  • Defining your Culture before it Defines You
  • Laying a Strong Foundation
  • Evolving into a Unique Culture
  • Optimizing Culture with Technology
  • Sustaining Culture for the Long Haul

According to Deloitte, culture drives strategy. When aligned with business strategy, organizational culture can drive results, without having to rely on command and control — it’s how things get done in your organization. Similarly, for Juan Betancourt, Chief Executive Officer of Humantelligence — a culture intelligence software start-up with 18 employees — culture is your company’s B-M-W: the sustained patterns of (1) Behaviors over time that are supported by the shared experiences, (2) the values or Motivators, and beliefs of the organization, and (3) the way work happens or Work energizers of its people. Together, culture is what transforms individual employees into a collective, cohesive whole.

It’s important to define your culture because by defining it, you — and your employees — can commit to better supporting the work itself, improving operations, and making valuable as well as impactful contributions to the market you serve. All too often, business leaders fail to realize that not defining their cultures will have a negative impact on the operational side of their businesses, while being able to define it from the start ensures less culture-related stress down the road.

Before defining it, it’s also important to note what culture is not. As Don Sull tells us in When It Comes to Culture, Does Your Company Walk the Talk?, it’s not the values you post on your website or the laminated one-pager you give to employees. He goes on to explain that company practices often conflict with corporate values — with data demonstrating little to no correlation between official company values and actual culture as perceived and lived by employees. Closing that gap starts with communication and a plan to address culture at its core.

In fact, Senior Human Resources Director Tiffany Davis-Ransom, who led recruiting for a SaaS start-up serving higher education, notes that when potential new hires are considering coming aboard, what they’ll really be looking at when it comes to culture is:

  • The team’s work habits
  • What and how the team is motivated
  • How the team interacts or socializes
  • Diversity or lack thereof
  • Mentorship opportunities to build knowledge, skills, and abilities
  • How the team collaborates and communicates
  • Where and how new ideas are fostered
  • How feedback is solicited, acknowledged, and implemented
  • Company and team planning processes
  • Recognition for work well done

“That is…they’ll be looking at how work gets done, who makes the decisions and why, how people are rewarded, and opportunities to grow through leadership and mentorship — all of the expectations, values, and norms associated with working at your company — that is your culture defined.”

In some aspects and unlike corporate cultures, a start-up culture — because teams begin small — typically and inevitably reflects the personalities of early team members and becomes an output of the people who work there. A company with a large sales team might have a more customer-centric and extroverted-style culture. If you have a team that hates conflict, the culture will probably be indecisive and passive aggressive. A company with more experienced people will draw on established best practices, where a company full of greener hires may tackle problems based on intuition and require more oversight. Matthew Bartel, who founded Digital Measures — a faculty activity reporting software start-up — in 1999 — tells us that this should be a deliberate activity.

“While it’s difficult to know where to start when it comes to creating a company’s culture, a key exercise we did early on was to identify our rockstar teammates and then think about each of their positive attributes. It was a helpful exercise to define a short but specific list of traits we value in our teammates. Once a company has a set of values, you almost can’t talk about them enough. We ensured our values were reinforced when hiring, conducting performance reviews, in monthly all-hands meetings, during team recognition ceremonies, and even in front of clients. It’s important to consistently recognize and call out when team members exemplify your company’s values because it reinforces and better defines these behaviors and encourages your full team to follow suit.” 

All that to say, the composition of your team is important in how your culture plays out day to day. But ultimately, culture is set first by its leaders, starting with the founders or CEO. Alexander Nicolaus, Chief People Officer at Paysend and author of Startup Culture: Your Superpower for Sustainable Growth, recommends getting specific from the start: define your organization’s why, who you are, and who you want to be. 

“You design the operating structure, organizational chart, and put together the team. You decide who, when, and how to reward and promote. You either welcome feedback and challenges or are threatened by such. Your behavior sets the example for the rest of the team, and the rest of the team ends up modeling it, which then builds culture from the bottom up.”

He also reminds us that if you’ve missed the opportunity to align your culture to your business strategy, there’s still hope! When you download the eBook, you’ll read what our contributors suggest starting, stopping, and changing today in order to get back on track. Once back on track, it’s time to figure out how to sustain your positive changes. While your core values and the why for which you exist shouldn’t change much, if at all, the way you do it, the way you achieve it, might have to change. Continue to communicate, engage, embed, and actively evaluate — and keep these elements top of mind to preserve your strong company culture as your organization grows.

A few tips from the experts include:

Monitor & Re-evaluate Often: Start-up cultures often value adaptability and are highly flexible, so change is not something to shy away from. The most important part is to clearly explain the why behind these changes to your team. Nicolaus recommends soliciting feedback at least quarterly or monthly — annually is insufficient — and to save time automate it and leverage technology — because frequent and ongoing employee inputs are key.

Reinforce Positive Behavior: Reinforce positive behaviors by recognizing and rewarding your culture champions. These are the individuals who continually live out your core values and go above and beyond both within and outside of their roles. Create and centralize team member spotlights about standout contributors (like a Slack channel) for peer-to-peer culture champ shout-outs.

Walk the Talk: Culture is not something to set and forget, and start-up culture is particularly susceptible to change as the team grows. Reinforce value-based actions and a mission-driven culture by continually embodying the core values you set forth. Doing so encourages the same behavior from team members and builds trust between employees and leadership.

Recruit and Replace Intentionally: Culture fit does not only mean hiring who you like but rather being open to hiring people unlike you or any others in your organization. For each role, region/geo, and industry, the needs will be different and there is no out-of-the-box formula. Avoid recruiting cookie-cutter replicas of your current employees and rather hire for culture adds and gap fillers — those are candidates who will enhance your culture, as well as bring unique and valuable experiences and diversity of thought to the team.

As your company grows and changes, as new faces join, and as roles and teams shift focus, remember so too does your culture. Use this guide as a reminder to regularly assess your culture and consider the changes you can make in communication and organizational structure, as well as how Culture-as-a-Service technology can help you foster improved collaboration and performance in order to sustain — and more importantly — scale your company for success.

Culture building is an area of expertise in its own, not unlike being a solutions architect for an IT company. And like any other expertise comes with its own required set of know-hows and past experience. So if you are a founder, CEO, or business leader and not very good at this culture building thing yet, you just need practice. After all, it’s why you’re downloading this guide, right?

Leave a comment

Interested in trying out Humantelligence?

Speak to Solutions Expert