Strong companies begin with strong company cultures.
Company culture is the way that people behave within an organization and the meaning that they place on those behaviors. There are a wide range of factors that go into company culture, most of which are defined too ethereally to be of any real use to startups, which are short on time and long on eagerness. These soft definitions can nonetheless still be helpful in order to create a foundational understanding of what company culture entails, such as vision, norms, values, language, beliefs, habits, systems, assumptions, etc.
Intention is everything.
Intentional or not, all companies have a culture. For startups, that culture grows from its founder, who shapes it through staffing decisions, marketing direction and communication. Whether the corporate culture creates a positive, negative or neutral feeling among the people who work there is related almost entirely to the kind of tone set by the leadership.
It’s important to understand that this process happens organically. Culture is going to develop whether the leadership intends for it to or not. It does not require a great deal of time or effort in order to mold company culture into a positive form, it truly just involves realizing how powerful the process is and creating it intentionally rather than unintentionally.
Startups run fast and often focus on putting out the biggest fires and devoting time to promoting the growth that’s necessary to sustain a young company. However, the limited amount of time and effort that’s required to do this piece right from the beginning is a powerful way not only to improve the bottom line for today and for the future but also to make the entire experience more pleasurable for everyone involved. Including the entrepreneurs who are the driving force behind it all.
Begin the process of creating company culture with an internal company motto or statement. This is a point that deserves some effort and genuine thoughtfulness. Jot down ideas, brainstorm, and live with it all for a few days or more before making a final decision on a motto or statement. Then once it is right and reflects the values of the company, both what it is now and what it aspires to be, don’t abandon that statement in a binder on a forgotten shelf or neglected on the company about page, highlight it and use it. Require employees to know the mission of the company, use it in job interviews, create blog posts inspired by its message, have it posted in the office, talk about it at staff meetings and brainstorming sessions, etc. Coming back to one central idea is a powerful way for companies to define themselves.
Imitate what works.
One of the best ways to instill a strong company culture from the ground up is to imitate what works. Look to companies that are doing it right, even if they are huge. What are some elements that can apply to startups? How can macro business ideas be implemented on the micro business level?
Entrepreneurs often find themselves drawn to certain styles of leadership, specific visionaries that they would love to emulate. The key here is not to simply read about these models of good business, but to take their ideas and run with them. Many successful business got there because of the positive environment that they created.
Don’t over think it. A central element of this process is to keep it simple. Creating company culture is not about gimmicks or trendy ideas -- it’s much more simplistic than that. Avoid trying to replicate every single aspect of a successful company, rather tease out the highlights that apply most easily and intuitively to a given startup situation.
Key factors in company culture for startups.
Understanding the different aspects of company culture can help startups create a unique vision that supports growth and success.
The style of company communication is a central part of a given company’s culture. Success requires free and open communication in order to build trust and foster the kind of shared vision that allows employees and business partners to become invested in a company’s future. Leaders within startups can maintain open lines of communication with weekly staff meetings, video conference calls, internal newsletters, management brainstorming sessions, employee conferences, etc.
There are always going to be aspects of business that are best kept under wraps by management -- letting everyone know everything is a recipe for getting too many hands in the pot. However, honesty is always the best policy. Leaders within a startup set a powerful precedent if they are caught in a lie, even a small one. Even little “fibs” destroy trust and can ruin the ability of a company to have control over its culture and can completely destroy trust.
While it might seem like philanthropy is best left to the big guys, it’s actually a powerful way for startups to reach out to the community and to gain perspective that keeps them on track. Incorporating giving by partnering with a local charity or non-profit can help small businesses to improve their sense of interconnectedness and mission, even when they themselves are for-profit. This doesn’t have to be complex or resource intensive -- simply participating in a local food drive or sponsoring an event can bring a company together, building a strong corporate culture.
Connection is the product of shared experience. By incorporating fun, joyful experiences into a company’s culture, leaders are able to make more happen. It might be something as simple as sharing a hilarious meme or something as complex as planning a company picnic. No one wants to go to work at a place that they feel is oppressive and depressing. Create the kind of environment that people don’t mind going to for eight hours a day and productivity will always be a natural byproduct.
Small companies still need to have a strong culture and it all stems from the leadership. Ultimately it is the entrepreneur who is responsible for the tone of a startup and who creates the kind of corporate culture that will leads to success or failure.