Company culture may be tricky to define when it’s good, but it’s certainly easy to pinpoint when it’s dragging your whole operation down. And therein lies the crux for many startup founders, especially in the early stage: how can you lay out a plan for what you want the general tenor and feel of your office to be, when you don’t even know who will be populating next month, let alone next year?
With all of the focus placed on getting to market and testing your products and services, not to mention the sleepless nights spent strategizing on how to scale and keep the lights on, it’s easy to lose sight of more esoteric aspects of your startup like values and mission statements. But oftentimes the greatest determiners of success in the long run are the “hows” and “whys” of your company – your reason for being beyond simply delivering something tangible people can buy.
The iconic brands of our time lead with aspiration and let product fall in line. Sometimes a brand ethos will be expressed in the form of a marketing strategy – “Think Different” – but not always. The best ones, though, were carefully considered in the very early days of the company, often before a product was ever on the market or a new hire was made.
Core values come from knowing who you are. What problem did you set out to solve when you hatched your company idea? What pain points did you endeavor to alleviate for the general population? If you don’t have a one-line (or even one-word) mission statement, answering questions like these is a good place to start.
Culture thrives when all of your people are united behind a common purpose and value set. When you’re drafting your common language and company standards that will come to define your culture, make the process a democratic one. Invite your co-founders, leadership team and even investors to each contribute what they believe are the businesses’ aspirations.
Next on the culture-building agenda: how to achieve those aspirations and keep it up consistently as you bring new energies into the fold. This is where you begin to hash out the specifics: open-office floor plan? Half day Fridays? Budgeting hours for outside-of-work passion projects for your employees? Once you have a sense of the kind of company you want to be, individual tactics will start to fall in line.
If you’re of the mindset that culture will take shape once you have ten, twenty or one hundred employees, you’ll be left wondering why each new hire seems to be running on his or her own agenda. True, you’ve got other important things to tend to besides being a full-time culture cop, but that’s why figuring it out early benefits you. Unite your small team now and let your leaders pass on your values to new employees. You’ll know your culture is a good one when it can be consistently articulated all the way down the line and it invokes genuine emotional ties from your team.
When it comes time to scale up and grow your team, don’t hire based on skill alone. Plenty of people can fill a technical role, but are they passionate about solving the same problems as you are? Do they thrive in a team environment and share ideas selflessly? Determine the filters through which you will view each candidate against the job description and your culture, and tailor your interviews and assessments to uncover the answer to the most important question: Would you like coming into work every day with this person? Even if there’s a more qualified candidate on paper, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Solidifying your values over time necessitates the occasional reminder. And that’s perfectly fine, especially if you’re growing rapidly. Part of a strong company culture is transparency and leadership from the top, which means you have an obligation as a founder to not only model your company’s values every day, but also to check in with each employee to ensure that decisions are being made in accordance with your mission. Culture-building won’t always be smooth, and the more honestly you articulate your own shortcomings, the quicker you’ll unite your team.
The more authentic and ingrained your values are from the start, the more cultural stewards you’ll have working for you, spreading the company message both inside the office and to anyone who asks what it’s like to work at your company on the outside. You can’t have brand loyalists as customers unless you have true brand champions on your team. Establish from the get-go that value-based interactions, from a salesperson talking with a customer to a manager rallying their team, will be recognized and rewarded. Then be sure to follow through every step of the way.
You learn a lot about your company when you’re small and nimble. You establish small goals, meet them, or sometimes fail spectacularly, but as long as you always act with a greater purpose in mind while learning and growing from every move, you’ll have a reason for being that extends beyond your product. And that’s the place from which all great company cultures are born.