Culture – Fundamental Key for a Successful Startup
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“Culture” – a very misunderstood term in various aspects. Before I define it in my own way, here are some popular definitions of culture by some of the the most respected dignitaries :


Some worthy points to note in the above 2 quotes :

“The coffee was incidental”. The product – Coffee – which served filling in the revenue bank at Starbucks – WAS INCIDENTAL! What was intentional was chairs, tables, a place to talk about work, life without the pressure to buy.

“In the end an organisation is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value”. Vision, strategy, financials – all are secondary. It is the people which hone the core of the organisation with is the CULTURE. And one very important point to note here is “collective capacity of people”.

What is Startup Culture anyway?

Is it people? Is it the Vision, Mission as defined by the CEO probably?

According to me the answer is a BIG NO.

What is the key to a successful startup culture then?

No one can define culture for an organisation. It is inherent. It is crafted over time by the people who make up the organisation. It is an internal code of conduct which is not defined in any HR document. It is an internal code of conduct that the entire team develops over time based on the way they interact with each other to achieve the Vision and the Mission defined by the CEO.

So, yes, having said that it is inherent, it is upon the CEO and Leaders to ensure that what is emerging as the culture of their Startup or any organisation for that matter – is emerging up in the right direction. If not it is their onus and responsibility to keep tweaking it subtly by constant mentoring and coaching. The goal, the vision and the mission is important, no doubt about that. But a healthy organisational culture will boost the push towards the common goal automatically and smoothly.

And mind you, it takes decades sometimes to develop that culture and just a few days sometimes for an untoward incident to wipe it out or change it completely. It is then that the CEO or Leaders need to come in and set it right to what it was.

Why is everyone talking about Culture?

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (July 10, 2019) — Glassdoor, one of the world’s largest job and recruiting sites, released a new survey measuring sentiment around mission and culture in the workplace today, along with the level of importance of both. Glassdoor surveyed more than 5,000 adults across four countries: the United States (U.S.), United Kingdom (UK), France and Germany. Among key findings, Glassdoor found that more than three-quarters (77 percent) of adults(1) would consider a company’s culture before applying for a job there, and well over half (56 percent) say company culture is more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction.

The fact that professionals visit Glassdoor at least once to find out about the company proves this fact even more. The fact that companies are now trying really hard to ensure that employees give them a good review on Glassdoor proves that.

Employee productivity and motivation is directly related to culture. Only a happy employee can give optimum productivity. And the best way to manage employee EQ (Emotional Quotient) is to give them a culture where they are not just satisfied but charged up to give up their best.

What is that “happy” culture. Different for every company. It is the people in the company who work together as a team to achieve their goals with a positive mindset. However it may be. Bottomline is achievement of goals with happiness in the mind.

Imbibe a good organisational culture – Subtly

Hire the Right Team

A Right Team is a team with the Right Attitude. As simple as that. Whether they have the skills or not, whether they have the experience or not, the first thing that you should look out for according to me is Attitude.

Skills can be developed with training. Experience comes along the way. Some attain maturity earlier than others. But if the attitude is a problem then no matter the skills or the experience, neither can the employee himself herself be happy, nor will they be able to deliver what they are expected to deliver.

Appoint the Right Leaders

There are cases where leaders are “appointed”. And then there are cases where certain employees are pushed into leadership roles because the situation demands it. Have seen the later especially in Startups.

Who is a “Right” leader? A person who has the attitude to HELP. Who has the power and the aggressiveness to remove the roadblocks from the way so that his/her team can achieve the milestones and the final goals.

Somehow there is a misconception that leader = boss. Yeah, maybe in some sense, but being a leader does not mean you have to be “bossy”. I relate more to “Servant Leaders”. According to Wikipedia – Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader’s main focus is the thriving of their company or organisations.

Lead By Example

As a leader if you don’t set an example, the team will never follow what you say. Action speaks louder than words, and action is also followed much more than just preaching about what needs to be done.

Not only actions but even your thoughts as a leader will build the inherent culture of the organisation. So be careful about what you speak and what you do. Unknowingly it will be replicated by your team.

Transparency at all times

There are good times and then there are bad. In case of bad times, if it is something that you can handle yourself discreetly, please do. If it is something that, if hidden, has the potential to become a gossip item for employees, then it is better you be transparent about it.

Approachability

Startups promote and follow an open culture. Not just in terms of having the CEO or leader sit beside you on a bean bag and working. But even in terms of being able to walk up to your CEO or leader and ask if they can discuss something with you or at least let you know a convenient time when they can.

For that matter, having coffee and lunch sessions with employees, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes as a group makes you approachable and that plays a very big role on the employe mindset, knowing that you are just a call away when they need you.

Recognise and Reward, Reprimand where deserved

Recognition for good work is a common practice followed by most Startups now. An award on the work table is a big boost for the morale.

At the same time, reprimanding when things are not going as expected is not so bad. Sometimes as leaders we have the fear of doing that, especially with the gems, that they might quit if we reprimand them. But done in the right way, it ensures that everyone is grounded enough to accept mistakes and rectify them as soon as possible. If he/she doesn’t take it in the right spirit then you are better off without them.

Revaluate Your Culture on a regular basis

As a Startup Founder / CEO / Leader, whatever you may call yourself, it is upon you and you only to sit back and observe all the time to see that your company culture is what you want it to be. Be observant enough to see the diversions, smart enough to evaluate them and strong enough to change them if they are not what you want them to be, open enough to incorporate the new good things.

Keep these at bay, no matter what

  • Weak communication – Internal and External
  • Unhealthy competition
  • Gossip
  • Working in Silos

Encourage…

  • Innovation
  • Internal Entrepreneurship
  • We Time / Me Time for Employees
  • Learning

Last but not the least – Don’t forget how you were before you scaled

I have often seen Startup Founders and those who were there with them since inception sit across a coffee and reminisce how things were when they started off. Don’t lose those roots. Discuss those roots with new employees too. Tell them those stories. Relive those stories sometimes because they are precious. Cherish them and imbibe some of those habits back again because those were the times that made you who you are today

How a Startup Culture is different

What i am stating below may not be true for all Startups, but is more of my observation in Startups that I have worked with.

  • There are less hierarchical structures in a Startup. Startups have flat organisational structures. That is probably more of a reason why a single person wears multiple hats. In some ways, that is good but also detrimental to quality. An effective balance needs to be maintained there.
  • A Startup job is not a 9-5 job. No one forces anyone to stay beyond work hours. It is just the passion sometimes and sometimes it is just because you cant do anything about it anyway. Resources are limited, deadlines are stringent, dreams are BIG. You just have to make it happen by hook or by crook
  • This may not be a universal truth but this is just based on my observation. Startups were more open to concepts like remote working, flexible hours even before the pandemic. So flexibility of working is a notch higher in Startups than large established organisations. The bottomline is getting the job done well and in time, wherever you do it.
  • Open office culture where anyone sits anywhere, people are found lounging around with their laptops on bean bags started with startups and large organisations started adopting them down the line.
  • In early stage startups especially, people are more committed because they are closely connected to the vision, to the leaders who have created the vision.

Some really cool Startup Culture Habits

  • Zappos Founder and CEO Tony Hsieh offers 2000$ for anyone who wants to quit right away. What he is doing is testing how loyal you are to the organisation!
  • For every pair of eye glasses that they sell, Warby Parker, gives out a pair to someone really in need.
  • Southwest Airlines gives its employees an open permission to take decisions and do whatever they think is right to make the employee happy.
  • A lesser known company MindTickle does a Weekly Chaupal – where everyone knows exactly how much revenue came into the company in that week
  • Shift Freight, a lesser known company, has taken the initiative to hire those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic
  • Cure.Fit has a very bold culture aspect. They don’t have a leave policy. They are ok with employees taking a leave anytime provide they are completing their assigned work with quality and on time.
  • Once co-founder of Dropbox, Ferdowsi told Jon Ying (an employee) that he didn’t want Dropbox’s “404 error” page to be so boring. “I remember you like to draw,” he told Ying. So Ferdowsi bought some colored pencils and Ying drew up “Psychobox“. Ferdowsi’s next statement was, “If you know how to draw, you can do Web design.” There on Ying started doing Dropbox website design work even thought that’s not what he used to do earlier.
  • Twilio insists that each of its employees must learn to code. If you don’t know how to code Twilio engineers will teach you.
  • Evernote has an Officer Training program where employees attend up to two extra meetings a week, in departments they don’t work in.

Hope I could set the tone for what is Startup Culture and what it shouldn’t be.

Adios for now. For any help that you ever need – remember I am just a message away! Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.