The Culture of a Startup

April 12, 2016

This article is part of the Lisbon Challenge series on culture and how it affects every decision you make. You can find the presentation deck online.

It is in the beginning of a company’s existence that identifying and creating an internal culture makes most sense. As you are focused on the core product and/or service, the business model and investment and recruitment needs, a well-defined and relevant internal culture will greatly increase the odds of success.

Relevant because culture starts at the top, defined by the CEO and his/her traits as a human being. If there’s one thing that is extraordinarily difficult to teach adults, it’s principles – our morality, values, ideologies, philosophies, ethics, doctrines, beliefs, attitudes and opinions.

Though all of these appear to be synonyms, there are subtle differences between them, yet they all converge to define us as human beings and impact the way others around us view and react to us. Understanding them is fundamental yet ironically overlooked by the majority of startups.

There seems to be a general consensus that first you build it, then you scale it and, once you have secured funding, you can then resolve these issues. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Making Change Happen

Change is possible but it requires self-assessment, time, focus, energy, humility and the desire (need) to become a different (better) person.  However, most individuals in startups don’t understand their position as CEO and/or Founder, the tasks that are incumbent to such a position and the impact their personality will have in the shaping of the company.

Some even foolishly believe that democracy and friendship is the best possible form of managing their future business. They are seriously deluded and are in for a shock the very first time a decision needs to be made in the face of discord. Someone has to decide and everyone needs to be onboard, whether or not they agree.

A winning culture does not necessarily reflect in a wacky and fun place to work where irreverence is favoured over sobriety. Before Tony Hsieh and Zappos, Herb Kelleher was doing the same with Southwest Airlines. Both companies are team oriented, striving to create a family atmosphere, but it deeply reflects on the founders’  principles and the culture they created.

Culture evolves organically, and forcing “fun” and “wacky” only increases your odds of failure. If you believe that your internal culture sucks then remove the Hawaiian shirts, flip flops and annoying Ping-Pong tables and figure it out. Not everyone can create a billion dollar company nor invent the next big thing, but most of us are capable of creating a sustainable business that will ensure we live a life of quality.

You can learn a lot from Zappos and Southwest Airlines, but if you think you are going to pay people to leave your business halfway through recruitment, encourage them to dress in bizarre outfits and pamper them with an enviable package of perks as a form of revolutionizing your culture, think again. What works for one company, doesn’t work for another.

Be honest about who you are as a Founder, who you want to be and reflect that in a way in which it can be understood, embraced and followed by every person that works there. Ensure that everything and anything you do is solidly based on those principles. It’s not about having your marketing and PR department create a sexy or intelligent mission statement, but instead a correctly communicated statement of intent that clearly maps out what your company stands for but, more importantly, what it doesn’t.