How to establish a healthy startup culture

Develop a creative and collaborative environment within your company.
Company Culture
August 16 | 14 min

What is startup culture?
Startup culture is a workplace environment that gives importance to creative problem solving, fostering a sense of community and flat hierarchy that is fundamentally shaped by business founders. Darmesh Shah, co-founder and CTO of HubSpot, talks about startup culture, mentioning that it is heavily defined by three things: how the founders behave, who they recruit, reward and recognize, and who they let go.

Startup culture, in essence, paves the way for a growing company and its future hires, providing an overview of the company’s core values, a sense of community, and how these values relate to each team member in a way that contributes to a common end-goal. More often than not, companies fail to identify company culture in the early stages of development and misconstrue it as an insignificant perk, such as a communal pantry or team lunch. While each are valuable parts of a company’s employee value proposition, determining the culture of a startup is primarily about behaviors. Many businesses who establish the importance of culture from the very start experience less “culture-related” issues as the business grows.

Why identifying startup culture is important

Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.
– Brian Chesky, Co-founder and CEO of Airbnb

One way to better understand the importance of startup culture is to look at businesses that have successfully established an “ideal” culture. For Chesky, the stronger the culture, the less corporate bureaucracy. While the idea of corporate structure may sound a bit scary for some startups, by establishing a healthy culture in the workplace, the overall attitude of each team member is more positive. By establishing a sense of community, each individual team member can contribute meaningful ideas, creating a stronger sense of teamwork and productivity as well as greater personal satisfaction.

More and more startups are giving culture the attention it deserves, seeing the differences it makes in work output and employee retention rates. But what makes startup culture something worth cultivating?

Building your startup culture from the ground up:

Establish core values
What do you think is essential for the success of your startup? How can you make these points relatable to each member of your team? Most companies find difficulty in establishing core values in the early stages of business. It’s one thing to memorize a “vision-mission” statement, but another to actually exercise and relate to it on a personal level. Joel Gascoigne, CEO of Buffer, mentions that creating startup culture is a gradual process of changing things from time to time.

There is no cookie-cutter form for company values — they are tried and tested by examining the struggles that come with starting a new venture. What makes your company work? How does your team overcome adversity? By asking yourself these questions you get closer to determining those values and, in time, forming a solid foundation for culture. After you establish core values, as a founder, it’s your responsibility to lead the way, relate these values to each team member on a personal level, and come up with passion-driven solutions effortlessly.

Reflect values through action
Startup culture is naturally formed by its founders. It’s after the hiring process, when new team members come into play, that culture starts to be established. Who else are the new hires looking up to but the founders? CEOs set the tone in the work environment and play the main role in establishing the overall mood at work. The personality of startup founders is the genetic makeup of culture and plays a big role in determining the core values of the business.

As Gascoigne pointed out in his write up on the evolution of startup culture:

There’s no right or wrong with culture, it is simply a combination of natural personality of the founding team in addition to proactive work to push the culture in a desired direction and to maintain certain values.

David Shadpour, co-founder and CEO of Social Native talks about leading by example:

As an entrepreneur, it is important to remember that you must lead by example. If you are a proactive team player, you will empower your employees to take on new roles and responsibilities.

You can’t expect your team to perform if you don’t. Through leading by example, you set the standards and begin the journey toward the perfect company culture.

Create an atmosphere that fosters communication
Communication between team members is vital to a successful startup. You’re all working toward a common goal — that’s why you started in the first place, right? Through regular alignments or brainstorming sessions, you allow each team member to openly contribute ideas and bring up struggles that each person can openly address. By creating an atmosphere of open communication, ideas arise that could result in innovation. Even the best ideas usually require a second opinion, which is why teamwork and communication play a vital role in any successful business. Encouraging communication also encourages action, which fosters an enduring company culture.

Build lasting relationships
Successful startups try to invest in a work environment that encourages each team member to interact socially. Whether it be the occasional team outing or casual Fridays, people who get along better work better together. This makes interacting for work much more enjoyable for everyone. By encouraging a workplace in which team members genuinely enjoy each other’s company, work tasks feel less like a burden. This is not always the case, since you can’t always expect the perfect work environment, but it doesn’t hurt to try!

Embrace diversity
It’s not always about hiring whoever has the fanciest resume or about hiring the smartest of the bunch. The role of human resources is to find the best suited candidates for the roles needed in building a successful startup. Neil Patel of Crazy Egg talks about how people you choose also defines company success:

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that culture is really important. I used to think that you could just hire smart people and expect them to do wonders for you. But if people don’t fit within your company culture, they will be more likely to butt heads when it doesn’t make sense, quit when things aren’t going well and not care for your company.

Finding the right people does not necessarily mean hiring the same types of people. Diversity in social status, skills, and even way of thinking breeds innovation. Create a culture built with mutual respect, in which people can still be themselves while contributing toward a common end goal, so that ideas have room to grow and flourish.

It takes more than free meals and casual dress to build a successful startup culture. Founding behaviors, establishing core values, leading by example, and promoting a sense of community are only a few of the qualities of strong startup culture. There is no one-size-fits-all mold for creating valuable company culture, so it’s important to realize that this is a process that may take years to perfect. According to our culture guru, Brian Chesky, “Problems come and go, but culture is forever.”