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Don't Be a Jerk, and 4 More Steps to Shape a Standout Startup Culture

A company is only as good as its people -- and it's up to you to make sure that you provide a bedrock for them to grow and succeed.
Don't Be a Jerk, and 4 More Steps to Shape a Standout Startup Culture
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Foundations are important. Try to build a house without one -- or worse yet, build a house with a second-rate one, full of cracks and instabilities. Your house might stand tall for a few weeks, maybe even a few years, but inevitably, it will crumble.

There’s a good reason that the “culture = foundation of a company” metaphor is thrown around so liberally -- it’s true. Setting up a positive, productive and supportive atmosphere will define the success of your team and, ultimately, your business. 

Related: 10 Examples of Companies With Fantastic Cultures

When my co-founders and I started Scout RFP, we made it a priority to build a strong company culture that would drive the type of company that we wanted to be. We put several guidelines into play that helped us shape the awesome company culture we have today. Here are a few of our favorite ones; I think they can apply to anyone who’s starting a business:

1. Set core values to attract and retain.

A business is only as good as its people. Before you take on your first round of hires, assemble a list of core values that will remain a constant in your business and help you attract the right kind of talent. It’s fine to add to or refine some of those values along the way, but stay true to your core set. These are what your employees should be looking to on a daily basis to inform how they operate -- both with each other and with customers -- and will really set the tone for the company.

When we were founding Scout RFP, my co-founders and I got together (over many, many sessions) and brainstormed (A) what kind of company we wanted to be, (B) the kind of people we wanted to hire (not like “an engineer with eight years of experience” or “a lot of Giants fans,” but the fundamental personality traits and work ethics that our diverse group of employees would have), which then (C) helped us define a core set of values that would shape (A) and inform us during the hiring process to bring only (B)s on board.

Once your staff starts to grow, be sure that these standards are referenced and practiced more than just during the hiring process. All of these ideals should be a daily bible for everyone in the organization. They will also be key in building customer loyalty and retention.

Related: 7 Keys to Building a Winning Startup Team

2. Don’t be a jerk.

This is probably the most obvious one, but it bears mentioning. (Another tip: Don’t assume that a very obvious-seeming strategy is a given -- spell it out!) Basically, we mean that everyone -- without exception, regardless of their position within the company, years of experience, etc. -- must be treated equally, with dignity and respect. It goes back to that mantra that was drilled into our heads in elementary school: Treat everyone as you would want to be treated.

3. Foster A-players.

We always say that we want A-players on our team. Doesn’t everyone? However, you need to set up a culture that fosters a high performing team and supports them to succeed. You also must be as invested in your employees as they are in your company -- and prove that to them.

Related: How Your Culture Will Ensure You Keep Your Edge

For us, this translates to competitive salaries and benefits, lots of support and resources and, crucially, quarterly review cycles. This is to the employees’ benefit; regular check-ins give them an opportunity to flag or be made aware of any issues and allows them plenty of time to make changes as necessary. We’ve found this very useful in giving employees all the tools they need to succeed in the moment, but also helping them chart a path to promotions. It’s all about an open dialogue. Which brings me to . . .

4. Take transparency beyond a buzzword.

When it comes to transparency (which seems to be among any startup’s top 10 buzzwords), don’t just talk the talk, but also walk the walk. Set up your office with an open floor plan; departments will cross-pollinate and no one will feel like they’re on an island. Make execs’ calendars public; employees like to know when you’re available and what you’re up to. Be accessible; sit right in the thick of things. I host regular town hall-style meetings, which are an open dialogue for people to ask questions and share their opinions.

Leaders should always be up front and honest, especially in tough situations. People know when something is off and all that tension just creates feelings of distrust within the business. When you harness the power of transparency, you’ll quickly see how it brings the team together in their effort to help the company succeed.

Related: A CEO's Main Focus Should Be Improving Company Culture

5. Make your office a place that you would want to work.

By this, I don’t mean that you have to have a keg in the middle of the kitchen or skateboards to zip around the office. Just imagine that you were an entry-level worker at your company. Is it a place you’d want to work? Is it a place that you could see yourself growing and progressing at? Use that as a barometer to see how you’re doing.

Some things that we do to ensure this (besides the aforementioned guidelines):

  • Trust your employees to take ownership. Proving to someone that you have confidence in them to get the job done -- and giving them all the resources they need to do that -- is a very empowering thing.
  • Do fun things with your employees. This can take the form of weekly lunches, regular team outings, an annual all-company conference -- whatever encourages team bonding outside the constraints of regular work tasks.
  • Be open-minded. Things change quickly, especially in a startup. Be receptive to change, and respond to constructive criticism. Listen to your employees; they’re on the front lines and oftentimes have the best ideas (whether that’s about company culture, customer retention, product updates, etc.).

Every company is different and has its own path to success. However, these guidelines should help you build a strong foundation for your company to build on. Like I said before, a company is only as good as its people -- and it’s up to you to make sure that you provide a bedrock for them to grow and succeed.