The start-up that gets their culture right enjoys success and growth. Why? Internally, they have motivated teams that are focused on the right goals, enjoy the challenge and act in integrity. Turnover is low and knowledge is retained. Externally, these companies have happy clients, great brand, ability to adapt to the changing environment and be competitive.

Building a great culture for the start-up, one that supports its growth is a matter of direction and self-awareness. It is not as difficult as people might think and it is certainly much easier to plant the seeds from the very beginning, rather than change a culture that went wrong.

6 steps to building your start-up culture

1. Establish the start-up values- yes, this is something that start-ups need to do basically in month 1 (if not day 1). Culture is based on values and values don’t just evolve with the company. When the start-up is run by the founders with no employees, the founders can trust on each other’s values; but before you recruit your first employees, you need to establish clear values. So, how to decide on the values?

  • The values should relate to the mission
  • The values create identity and define relationships (internal and external)
  • The values are there to support growth- think about the future steps of the start-up, clients, services, geographic areas of operation etc.

2. Recruit for a cultural match- Recruitment for start-ups is not just about the right skills, but about the right cultural match. While skills can be learnt, changing an employee with the wrong attitude and values, is mission impossible. This is correct for all sizes of organisations, but more so for start-ups. The smaller the team, the higher the reliant on each individual. Big organisations can (but shouldn’t) carry social loafing and other negative types of behaviours. Start-ups cannot be competitive and survive having a disengaged team that can’t work well together. Hence, the first rule in recruitment for start-ups is culture and values first, skills second.

3. Set the environment- Treat everyone with respect and dignity; allow freedom to fail (trial & error); celebrate effort, success, creativity, new initiatives; give credit when (and only when) it’s due; support the team; create a hardworking, yet fun environment where the team is working for the same goal… For more ideas, see my previous post about the cultural opportunities. The idea is, as Brad Feld wrote in 2012: “You can’t motivate people; you can only create a context in which people are motivated.”

4. Communication and transparency- be transparent with the team and communicate the good / great, bad and ugly. Working in a start-up is a team effort that includes everyone, not only the founders. Keep them informed and encourage open and respectful communication (down-top, top-down, with clients, suppliers and stakeholders).

5. Culture can be changed as the start-up grows- Start-ups go through a typical lifecycle and as they evolve, the culture needs to change and lead the growth. Let me explain what I mean. In a previous post, I described the different roles of culture. One of them is to act as the body immune system. While culture protects the organisation, it can also resist change. However, as start-ups grow and evolve, they need to change. Hence, sometimes there is a need to review the company values and make changes. For example, a start-up that is at the stage of building the software / solution is often highly focused on problem-solving with a lack of documentation. As more and more clients are acquired, there is a need to become client-focused, organised and documented. This requires a cultural change. You need to proactively lead a cultural change, otherwise, the original culture will act as an immune system against the change and will jeopardise the growth. In the example above: if the team will not shift the focus from internal problem solving to external “happy clients are top priority’, the start-up will not survive for the long term.

6. Consistently model the behaviours and values- last but certainly not least- when (and only when) the founders (and top management) model the behaviours and values, the team will follow them. When others are following your values- you created the culture!

Remember, it is much easier to create the right start-up culture from the beginning than to change it later on when things go wrong.

What to do when the culture goes wrong? is the topic of my next post.

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