The Things No-One Tells You About Startup Culture
I was inspired to share my thoughts on startup culture when a peer asked me about when a business should start looking at its company culture. Just when is the right time to start?
This feature is my explanation and reasoning of why a business should think about culture from day one.
No matter if there’s two, or ten of you; culture needs to be a key consideration when building your business.
I want to share with you my experience of working in startups and with startups because over the years I have seen them fall into the biggest culture traps and struggle to get out of them when they’ve grown and scaled.
My hope is that by reading this, you will avoid these pains, and won’t have the headache in two or five years when you finally realise that culture, all along, was paramount to the success you desired.
I’ve had many a startup founder say to me, “why didn’t we do this at the start?”
So this is your wake-up call.
Culture may not be on the business plan, but culture will ultimately influence it. Like a tide moving the ship. You might know where you want to go, but if the tide isn’t right, it’s going to be a struggle.
From where I’m standing
To give you some honest context I’ve spent my entire professional life around startups.
I personally love the startup life and the organic buzz that it brings. Creating something totally new in the world, and being part of shaping a business from those early stages feels fulfilling.
My very first job after leaving college was in a fashion startup set to rival ASOS. It didn’t, and I then moved into a beauty startup that had been granted the licence to sell an American product here in the UK.
After getting bored of the beauty industry, realising that selling make-up really didn’t float my boat. I then joined a marketing agency startup. Who at the time of joining had just 4 employees. Two co-founders, and two team members.
Since starting Liberty Mind in 2018, I’ve then worked with startups, coaching them in building their ‘employer brand’ and company culture in order to recruit and of course, gain investment.
So you could say, I’ve played a part in every area of the field when it comes to startups.
The startup culture myth
There is a dangerous mindset that exists in startups about company culture that ends up causing more harm than good.
Perhaps because so many businesses still look at big brands and their iconic cultures and believe that they need a tonne of money to make a relatively good company culture. This, my friends, is a total fallacy. And yes, while some of these brands may have cool and quirky perks to shout about, it’s what’s under the surface that really matters.
I’ve heard startup founders declare, “Oh, we don’t need to think about culture, it’s just the two of us. We’ll grow, and then think about culture.”
But here’s the trouble in this line of thought.
When you grow, and you will, and you add more people to the mix, things get messy.
What ends up happening is you then decide to work on company culture, and people are so set in their ways that they don’t want to change, or struggle to adapt to the changes you’re trying to make.
You end up with a Frankenstein type of culture, which is essentially an amalgamation of everyone’s habits and behaviours.
Pardon the phrase, but culture constipation is something larger companies struggle with all the time, which is why if you start on culture early and plant the seed of culture, it grows organically with your company. Rather than being something you have to try and ‘deal with’ later on.
Yes, even if there are two or ten of you, you need to take some time to decide how your company is going to run and what your culture looks like.
Avoid copycat culture
Speaking of big brands and their cultures, a pitfall that easily happens is when startups try to replicate something they’ve seen another company do.
Copying other successful companies such as Netflix or Spotify doesn’t work.
As I mentioned earlier, most startups will try to copy the work perks. Perhaps a bit of unlimited holiday and a dash of lunch and learns, or maybe even some private healthcare thrown into the mix.
But you’re forgetting that below all of that brand glory, is serious people development work. People are trained and equipped to work on their actions and behaviours.
It doesn’t just take a nap pod to make a culture, it takes a mindset and some self-awareness.
Aside from that, copying others just comes off as inauthentic. ANY company can copy, which means people can flit between companies whenever they want. Because the work perks are a norm now. There’s nothing new.
The question is, what makes your culture unique?
And more importantly, how do people feel about working in your company?
Company culture is more than what you can offer.
If you look at some of the companies I’ve profiled who have the most well-known cultures in the world, it’s because they’ve taken culture seriously, built it with their team, and because of how they are behaving as an organisation.
Get out of your own way
This may bruise your ego slightly. But as the founder, you have to get out of the way.
Naturally, as a founder, you enjoy being operationally needed. Your skills as a leader, of problem-solving, parenting, and driving things forward, will not help the culture.
As a founder, you will have the greatest influence on your company’s culture.
The truth is, if you lack self-awareness you won’t unleash your team’s potential and be able to move the company in the direction it needs to go.
Most founders I work with have aspirations to either gain investment or sell the business within a set number of years. But these are also the founders who are so attached to their companies that they are suffocating the very thing they desire.
I see founders still making every minute decision in the company. Stifling growth, but worst of all, restricting their team’s ability to take ownership.
Often with founders, there is a mindset that the company ‘is mine’ (My precious!). Yes, a founder conceived the idea, and got it up and running, but that doesn’t mean this entity can be carried to its next stage by one person alone.
Your hero syndrome may be the silent assassin of your culture.
The attachment many founders have towards their company means that they lack the capacity to fully trust their teams, and give them the power and autonomy they need to do great work.
Your team has to take psychological ownership of the company. They are never going to step up and do this if they have a protective founder breathing down their neck.
In my professional opinion, not enough founders talk about what it is they want to do with the business. This also inevitably leads to founder conflicts as you have two people who want two different things.
As a founder, or multiple founders, it’s important to get clear on the direction and aspirations of the company. Before you end up creating micro-aggressions that spread and manifest into a toxic culture.
Hold a mirror to who you are as a founder. Unfortunately, you might not like what you see, but if you want to get out of your own way, you need to know how you’re behaving and showing up before you start influencing others.
Whose job is it anyway?
Startups are messy and chaotic places. You rarely see the words organised and startup in the same sentence.
You do have to wear multiple hats in a startup, but isn’t that the fun of startup life? And why shouldn’t we wear multiple hats? After all, we’re multifaceted human beings with a variety of skills and talents – not robots!
Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned through years of outdated workplace management practices to believe that we’re only good enough to fit into one role.
While this worked in the industrial age, it doesn’t work now.
Startups see wearing multiple hats as a problem; they believe that they need to act ‘grown-up’ and assign everyone special roles so they look like a serious business. What a load of bureaucratic bs.
The problem isn’t wearing multiple hats. It’s that there are no clear roles and responsibilities or goals for people.
The busy-idiot plagues startups. People running around trying to get things done for yesterday. Everyone is time-pressured, stressed, and overworked. But no one has any idea of what the priorities are.
Instead, if startups focussed on what needs to be done, and who’s best to do it, they wouldn’t be so worried about having to keep hiring for every single new task.
When you keep hiring for the sake of one area of the business, you quickly become inflated with people who aren’t always busy, doing things that aren’t always needed. You’re no longer agile.
My best recommendation to any startup is to create a jobs marketplace. Share with the team what needs to be done and between the team decide who’s best to execute it. This self-managed approach to organising your roles could mean you end up having people responsible for more than one role or having people share a role.
It’s more flexible, more agile, and ensures the people you hire have variety in their work, rather than getting caught up in the trap of role-apathy.
Hire for a startup not a corporation
Keeping on the theme of people who can make your startup thrive – let’s talk about hiring.
Startups that have gained investment quickly look to find ‘top talent’ to surge them forward. Plus it always looks great when suddenly you’ve hired an ex-googler or someone from a top brand. Wowee.
But then comes moving the startup forward.
Too often people who have come from large brands or corporations struggle with startup life.
They come with bad habits from corporate life and restrict fast movement with policies and procedures.
Desperate to make it feel safe, and again, like a ‘real business’, they stall the momentum of a startup wrapping it up in the trappings of the corporate bureaucracy they’ve become used to.
Unlearning from their bad habits takes so much time and training. And admittedly some just can’t handle new ways of working.
They may have degrees and impressive brand names on their CV, but it doesn’t matter squat if they are going to disable your growth and innovation.
Investors care about culture
An investor once said to Brian Chesky, Airbnb Founder – “Don’t f*ck up the culture!”
I’ve had the privilege of working with founders who are gaining investment, and I can hands down say that investors care about culture.
You might be looking at the numbers and the profitability of the company, but if you haven’t got culture, you’ve got a donkey, not a racehorse.
Why do investors care about culture?
Because an idea and a product can be created by anyone. But what separates it from the rest is the people you’ve got in the business.
I remember having a conversation with an investor who had just purchased a company, and I asked him why he chose this company over the other portfolios of companies on his desk.
He told me that it was the feeling he got when he went to visit the company. The team were welcoming, there was a great vibe in the office, and he was impressed with the character of the people he met.
Yeah, the numbers were good. But he said it was the people who swayed him to make the investment.
Investors want to know you have a culture that will attract people and drive the business forward. They want to feel reassured that they won’t have costly recruitment bills to manage or team members who are so passive that there’s no creativity.
Your product or service may have the body of a Tesla, but you might want to make sure there’s not a dead battery under the bonnet.
Do culture, before it does you
I’m hoping that everything I’ve shared with you inspires you to take culture seriously before it becomes a thorn in your side.
It does take time and commitment to change the way you work and make culture a priority. But like anything that you make a habit of, it pays off in the long run.