For many people, the defining image of a startup culture involves some combination of all-nighters, weekend work and intense, bleary-eyed young people bent over their keyboards, cranking out code. Of course, there's that image's brighter side, too: ping-pong tables, buckets of free coffee and at least one dog in the office.
But neither image reflects how "culture" should be defined, which is by its people. Indeed, the best startups invest true effort and thought in their company cultures, constantly assessing and reassessing what it means to be part of the team. They know that if they don’t, their companies may become places where employees, and founders, dread to go each morning,
Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com, experienced this firsthand. Hsieh founded LinkExchange before he took over at Zappos. He sold the former company for $265 million, not because he wanted the money, but because he hated the culture. That's right: He hated the culture of his own company.
Hsieh hadn’t considered how important culture was for a growing company, and his company ended up being something very different from the one he wanted to work for. Things got so bad that he hated getting up in the morning.
To the four founders quoted below, company culture means more than exposed brick walls and other trappings of coolness. It means getting the right people, trusting one other, "being there" for your customers and being honest about who you truly are. These founders built strong cultures at their companies and laid a foundation to grow their businesses on.
1. A well-defined culture is essential.
A strong company culture is incredibly valuable for a startup. It will inspire and motivate each team member to produce the best work they can, rather than just the required minimum. And its value increases exponentially when things go wrong, which they always do in startups. -- Steli Efti, Close.io
Having a well-defined company culture is incredibly important when it comes to hiring. Every new hire will change your company culture, so if you aren’t thinking about the cultural fit when you interview a candidate, you could end up with a culture growing apart from what you had envisioned. The lesson here: You have to choose new people based not only on their abilities, but on their cultural fit.
As mentioned, Steli Efti is CEO and co-founder of Close.io, a CRM tool for making sales teams efficient. Efti says that when he hires new people for his team, he’s always thinking about how they’ll fit in. For sales teams, cultural fit is as important as sales knowledge, he says: “Think of all the time, money and resources you spend on recruiting and developing people," Efti says. "It's a huge investment, and as its ROI increases, the longer your employees stay at your company.”
A bad hire, on the other hand, can cost a company more than $50,000, through missed opportunities, strained relations and lost resources. If someone doesn’t fit with your company, he or she may demoralize other employees and take “the joy you, the founder, gain from your own company.”
This is especially important in startups when the going gets tough, as this is when a strong company culture comes to the fore. If a bad hire skews the company culture away from resilience and dedication, the effects can spread throughout the company like a virus.
By picking people who will be an asset to your company, then, even people who need extra technical training, you’ll find that your company will be a better place to work and a better company to work with.
2. A strong culture allows for disagreement.
Engendering a culture of trust also does wonders. This is because, even if you have a heated argument, as long as you keep in the back of your mind that the people you’re arguing with do have the best in mind for the company and wider team, you’ll always be able to make it to the end and remain friendly. -- Patrick Campbell, ProfitWell
Whenever people care about something, arguments happen. That’s why trust is so important to Campbell, co-founder and CEO of ProfitWell, a free tool for SaaS analytics. “I don’t care if you founded your company with your best friends from kindergarten, your own mother or father, or complete strangers," Campbell says. "You’re going to argue with your team, co-founders and board.”
Most of the time, these arguments will be healthy, moving the company forward. But if you don’t trust one other or trust your partners' motives, then even small issues can grow into bigger arguments and quickly destroy any united culture at the company.
However, when trust exists at the core of your company culture, you’ll know that everyone is trying to do the best for the company. Arguments then become less about anger and more about drilling down into the heart of a problem.
Campbell also says that being explicit about roles within the company, as well as expectations and possible trigger points, helps keep everyone on the same page. Everyone will have different strengths and weaknesses, and different priorities, both in the company and in life. By thinking about all of this up-front and being open about your own needs and weaknesses, you'll help ensure that your company ends up being far more efficient. In addition, a culture of trust will be built.
3. A strong culture should be evident every day.
I think company culture is something you breathe every day, not a slide deck you receive the first day you arrive. -- Massimo Chieruzzi, AdEspresso
Integrity. Communication. Respect. Excellence. One company had these four values emblazoned on the wall in its lobby. That company was Enron, and we all remember what happened there. Recognizing that people depend on you and your service helps a leader focus on his or her company's mission and get behind the company values in a way that single values writ large on a white wall never can.
When you are part of a culture, particularly the culture of a fresh startup moving quickly and (sometimes) disrupting things, you may forget that you are providing a service.
Chieruzzi, CEO of AdEspresso, a Facebook ad optimization service, wants everyone that joins the company to understand that its mission is to help others, and have that be one of the central tenets of the company culture. says Chieruzzi: “The only important thing that we want everyone to understand is that our goal is not just to make a great product; our real goal is to make small and medium businesses successful.”
Chieruzzi has been hiring technical staff for 13 years, and says that, “After the first interview, I immediately know if someone will be a good fit in the company or not.”
When culture is something more than just nice words, the spirit infuses everyone in the company so that, as leader, you know whether a new person, idea, customer or change is right for your culture.
4. A culture has its 'dark sides' as well as its light ones.
Considering greater contexts also means acknowledging our values' potential 'dark sides.' For instance, the 'dark side' of being obsessively customer-focused and putting the customer first is that we'll often do things that are not good for our business in the short term, in order to satisfy customers. -- Chris Savage, Wistia
When you set up values for your company, you implicitly put some things first, which of course means that you have to put something else second. Chris Savage, CEO and co-founder of video marketing service Wistia, refers to these as a company's "dark sides." Dark sides are what you might have to do to succeed in delivering on your primary values. If you always want to put your customer’s interests first, you might end up having to put your employees' or business' interests second.
It’s important to acknowledge these dark sides and what you might have to sacrifice to make you company values manifest. Wistia says he works to overcome his company's own dark sides by allowing employees autonomy and trusting them to make the right decisions.
When everyone at the company knows that customers are Wistia’s main priority, they can take the risks necessary to pursue this value, without fear of fallout.
In the end, a strong company culture runs like a steel cable through your whole business. It not only tells you who you are, but helps you hire, give your best to your customers and allow everyone in the company to know exactly what the mission is. When you are in the startup trenches, it is that amazing culture you've worked so hard to build that will help you fight every day.