// 08.24.2020

how to build the ultimate startup culture.

Culture is the values, relationships and behaviors that make up a business. It can be seen and felt in the trust employees have in each other; the way they interact, operate and communicate; the sense of belonging they have; the motivation teams have to strive towards a vision; the way people are hired; the way decisions are made by leaders. It’s the foundation for everything, or as Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky puts it, “culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion”.

For startups, culture is often stereotyped by agility, passion, personality and creativity, with less emphasis on formalities. For corporates, culture often morphs into more traditional, hierarchical ways of doing things with less emphasis on the individual. But that doesn’t mean that startup culture is better or that all corporates don’t value their employees. Each works differently as a result of their size, each has its strengths and weaknesses, and even if startup culture seems more appealing, countless startups get it wrong. But what is clear is that culture is important. In one study, 71% of respondents said they would take a pay cut if it meant working for a company who shared values with them. And a sense of belonging was the top reason why respondents would stay at their company.  

Creating a strong startup culture, however, is much deeper than simply adding a ping-pong table to your workplace or having everyone subscribe to a full-throttle script of entrepreneurship. In fact, startups are especially susceptible to missing the culture mark because of the high-pressure environment they often work in. But if you get it right, startup culture can be fundamental to attracting and retaining top talent, increasing profitability and productivity, reducing absenteeism and creating a business that has a purpose and an identity. So, here are five ways to build the ultimate startup culture.

1. Define your values

Cultures change, values don’t. As a startup grows, the way things are done will inevitably change, but it’s crucial that the core values underpinning a startup’s culture remains steady. For founders, the values defined at the beginning will become the driving force of their startup’s growth through thick and thin. Those values will also be the reason why people approach your startup in the first place and being able to communicate your core values is an essential start to that all-important sense of belonging.

Whilst values start with the founders, it’s equally important that they’re talked about among the entire team and that employees have a voice in forming them. A founder may draw upon the reasons they started the business as a source of values but listening to team members about why they joined and what they see as the principles of the company are is part of building an inclusive, transparent culture that respects its employees.

Moreover, values should be actionable. The only way that people can share in and feel connected to your values is if, once defined, those principles are practiced in everything a startup does. If you value boldness, does your startup enable teams to act autonomously and take risks without fear of penalty? If you value inclusivity, does your startup have an unbiased hiring process? For a thorough guide on how to define your values from day one, start here.    

2. Invest in your employees

Startups can be fast-paced, stressful environments. So, it’s easy for employees well-being to take a backseat without noticing it. But investing in your employees is essential to building a strong startup culture. If you want to champion inclusivity, are you providing training for leaders and opportunities for everyone to openly discuss diversity and inclusion? If you value community, are you hosting out of work events and team building exercises that bring employees into the decision process?

On a more individual level, can you offer flexible working hours, access to wellbeing tools or development opportunities that will foster a sense of belonging and ambition? Having employees feel like they can grow as a person as well as a member of the company is crucial to them feeling valued. And whilst many training options are admittedly costly, simple ideas such as having a monthly TED Talk evening, investigating online learning programs or using existing employees as mentors and trainers are achievable ways to enable employees to grow.

3. Hire carefully

Since people create culture, hiring the right people is a necessity. Candidates should be hired not only on the basis of individual skill and their ability to fulfill a role, but also how their attributes will uphold your startup’s core values and work in collaboration with other team members. Especially at early stages when teams are smaller and more intimate, hiring those who will fit well into your culture is important for creating a tight-knit team.

At the same time, it’s easy to become preoccupied with culture fit, only looking for those who match your values exactly. In doing so, you risk creating an echo chamber of employees who only reinforce a culture rather than developing it. Also, if you focus too much on a narrowly defined culture fit, you risk shunning diverse talent from a multitude of backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, sexes etc. Read how TravelPerk avoids culture mismatches, how to hire for culture fit the right way and realise that every person you hire will play a part in the future of your startup culture. So, be careful.

4. Refine your workplace

Whilst most people like the idea of modern office perks such as free food, hammocks and games areas, statistics show that they aren’t as attractive as you would think. In fact, they’re one of the least important factors for employees to stay at a company. That’s not to say they don’t have their place, but simply filling your office with cheerful furniture and offering ‘free things’ doesn’t do much for building a strong startup culture.

What is important is a workplace that creates a sense of belonging for employees, one that empowers each person to thrive independently and as a team and one that embodies the values of your startup. Is there a comfortable, open space where everyone can sit for weekly team meetings and relax after work? Are there varied environments throughout your workplace to accommodate different working styles? Does your workplace feel welcoming to a variety of religions? Does the artwork in your workplace appeal to a range of sexes and genders? Is there enough light in the office?

In a perfect world, your workplace should ooze your startup culture, and both employees and people visiting should feel it when they walk through the door. Take a look at unicorn Notion’s no-shoe workplace and read more about design rules that every startup should follow.

5. Celebrate your culture

Building the best startup culture is one thing, maintaining and growing it is another. And part of that process is acknowledging and celebrating the best bits. Whether it’s a founder emailing an employee to say thank you for something they’ve done (big or small) or a monthly team-wide appreciation of someone reflecting a particular company value, showing that people and culture matters goes a long way.

Recognition should also be intrinsic a habit within your culture. When employees shine a light on what makes your startup unique, acknowledge them there and then. That means having the tools to allow you to give recognition to those working in the office as well as those working remotely. Ask employees to come up with weird and wonderful ways of recognizing each other or even bring employees into the process of choosing people to celebrate. And for a more detailed guide on how to recognize and celebrate those who create your culture, get started here.


Next read: 9 podcasts every founder has to listen to.