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5 Free Ways to Invest in Your Startup's Culture

Smart recruiting and good communication, among other strategies, can go farther than money and perks.

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Employee engagement has been reported to be the number-two priority for CEOs, which makes sense. When corporate leaders prioritize talent, that talent is driven to produce a higher quality of work. But what if you’re the CEO of an early stage startup? The concept of prioritizing your company culture, especially when it’s under five people, may seem like a poor allocation of time. Instead, it’s all too easy to focus on the product and conquering the day-to-day of getting a new business off the ground. But data has proven time and time again that investing in employees and culture has a direct, positive correlation to success. This is even more important today, as almost 70 percent of U.S. entrepreneurs start their businesses at home.

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The only obstacle is, when startups are strapped for resources and perks are far beyond the current budget, it can feel as though creating a company culture is a privilege they can’t afford. There’s good news though: Many of the most meaningful investments you can make in your employees are actually completely free. Employees are happier and are retained longer when there is an emphasis on purpose, trust and open lines of communication. The question is, how do you actually emphasize such lofty ideals? Here are some tips.

Related: Why Culture Is Crucial to Building a Successful Startup

1. Write down your core values and mission statement.

When there is a purposeful North Star for your startup, every stakeholder is able to invest in that singular intention. But don’t just stop at writing it down. Define those ideal values and rate how your company is doing on each of those metrics. Encourage your team members to be honest and lead by example, noting those areas that may need some improvement and working together to define actionable steps for making up ground.

For example, if one of your core values is to provide a simple, intuitive app experience for your users, ask yourself how well you truly do that today. If you step back and realize that the experience is a 6/10 for users right now, identify where the app needs to improve. Perhaps it’s app speed or glitches or user experience. Develop an action plan for investment in those areas for improvement. 

By simply being aware of your company’s identity and how that plays out in reality (and referring back to these values often), you’ll be more apt to make decisions that align with them -- and your team will, too.

2. Evaluate whether a new team member's values align with yours.

It’s never been easier to start a company, but the stakes are getting higher for these companies to become successful. Ultimately, the people determine whether or not a company will thrive. The smaller the team, the bigger the impact of each team member. When hiring someone new, it’s important to understand if their values align with the company. If not, it can create a snowball effect on the entire startup, and the cleanup takes far longer than it would if you hire with more intention. 

Create an action plan with your team for testing for those values in an interview setting. It’s not just about the skillset someone may bring to a team; it’s about the value fit. Each hire is setting the groundwork for your company culture and likelihood of success. Examine all they bring to the table, and choose wisely.

3. Set communication norms early -- and maintain them.

This nugget of advice may just be the most challenging, because as any founder knows, the busier you are, the harder it is to invest time in communication. Yet, the more you prioritize alignment, the better your team can collectively contribute to the company’s success. Whether it’s a daily stand-up meeting or regular check-ins throughout the day, talking about daily priorities and goals will ensure that you’re on the same page about what needs to be accomplished and in what timeframe. 

Consider using a task-management system or a tool like Trello, Airtable or Asana to keep track of everything that needs to get done. Plus, you’ll add an extra layer of transparency, as everyone on the team can see what projects are being accomplished at any given time. The key with any form of task management is keeping it regularly updated. On agile startup teams, it’s imperative to keep the status of different projects and focuses up to date.

4. Recognize your team members for the little things.

It takes about six months to hire just one person for a startup. So once that person is hired, it’s crucial to retain the talent and ensure that they are being recognized for their work. It's easy to forget about the little wins along the way, but recognition goes a long way in boosting morale and emphasizing the value each team member brings.

Keep in mind that different people like to receive recognition in different ways. Some are comfortable with attention, while others like more subtle congratulations. Seek to understand what each member prefers, and celebrate them accordingly. This is even more necessary during rough patches. While it’s critical to recognize when things are not going as planned, it’s always valuable to keep a dose of positivity during times of trial. It will keep the team forging forward.

Related: How to Maintain a Startup Culture in a Rapidly Expanding Company

5. Lead with empathy.

Let’s face it: Building a startup (especially a successful startup) is wildly stressful. It’s tempting to drive a team to their limits, but you can motivate while maintaining your humanity. When it comes down to it, we all have lives outside of work to balance. Strive to be understanding that external forces will affect employee performance and output from time to time. If you’re in it for the long run and hope to avoid employee burnout, it’s crucial to recognize that these hiccups are a part of life. 

Company culture can grow as your startup scales, but just like your product, you have to start somewhere -- and you have to start at the very beginning. Focus on emphasizing purpose, trust and open lines of communication from the start, and you’ll be amazed at how strong your team will be because of it.

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