4 Ways to Preserve Your Company's Culture While It Grows

A CEO reflects on the essential qualities a startup must keep in mind when scaling up in size and trying to preserve its open culture.

learn more about Ted Devine

By Ted Devine

Employees at Insureon unwind by playing catch with Gunner, the office dog.

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Anyone who's ever had the bad luck to take a swig of sour milk knows it's not pleasant. Somehow, sour milk always comes as a surprise: When did that delicious milk in the fridge go wrong?

But add the right cultures to that spoiled dairy, and the bad milk may turn into yogurt, a food whose popularity has increased tremendously in the last few years.

I've found that small businesses are a lot like that container of milk: They may start off great, but once they're around for a while, they can morph into something unrecognizable. That's unless the company's founders can preserve the culture.

As the CEO of a company that has seen double-digit growth in the last two years (from three guys sharing a desk to close to 100 employees today), I've thought about this issue a lot. Here's what I've found to be most important in preserving culture as a small company grows:

Related: Can You Really Measure and Shape Culture? (Infographic)

1. Hire the right people.

A small business usually comes up with the funds to hire someone six months to a year after that employee's role became essential. Because of this, it's often tempting to rush the hiring process just to ease the workload.

Nonetheless, spend the time to create a job posting that reflects the company's personality, weed out subpar applicants and interview promising candidates. This will pay off tremendously over the long term: This way the new hire won't vanish, prompting a need to restart the hiring process in six months.

Related: Culture That Counts -- 5 Ways to Dramatically Boost Employee Satisfaction

2. Upsize thoughtfully.

My company, Insureon, started in a shared office space (where I met one of our first hires). It scaled up to fill a full suite and then another, both warm and lacking air conditioning. The giant industrial fan that we'd crank up to cool off was very loud. When a member of the sales team got a call, he or she would wave a hand and someone would run to the fan and turn it off till the call ended.

With summer arriving and no air conditioning, I had to balance current needs with likely future needs and find a place that was a step up without feeling corporate.

In choosing an office space under renovation, I could dictate the design: an open plan, a kitchen big enough for staff to congregate Since the move, the space has filled up with newcomers who take advantage of the layout to ask questions, bounce ideas off one another and mesh as a team.

Plus there's a long, wide aisle for playing catch with Gunner, the office dog. Gunner is a 1-and-½-year-old German shepherd-black Labrador mix who was rescued from a kill shelter in Missouri. Employee Tanveer Hira discovered Gunner two springs ago and fell in love. He was worried about adopting a puppy who would remain at home all day. So I suggested he bring Gunner to the office and this has greatly improved the office's morale. Playing fetch has become a favorite break activity.

When growing a company, provide employees with both an interesting place to work and aspects that will give them a break from work.

Related: For a Productive Workplace Let Your Office Go to the Dogs

3. Keep core values in mind.

From Day 1, my company's culture was collaborative, with everyone working at one table. That sense of openness has been crucial. Two years ago, one of our youngest team members suggested a whole new system for tracking leads, which is still used to this day.

The open-plan layout keeps this small-business serendipity from slipping away. Top-level leaders circulate and are highly visible, asking questions, helping people solve problems. This commitment to openness has preserved the small-business feel.

When everyone has access to the biggest decision-makers, nobody's just a cog in the machine.

Related: Radical Transparency Can Re-Energize a Company's Culture and Deliver Results

4. Identify leaders and train them.

Often, the hardest thing about a startup's becoming bigger is winning support from the core team, the people who've been with the business the longest. Sometimes, these folks leave. And that's OK. After all, some people prefer the energy of a startup to that of a more established firm.

But the ones who stay have the potential to be important internal leaders. This summer, my company's leadership sat down with half a dozen team members identified as natural leaders and cultural ambassadors and discussed their role in the next phase of growth.

Demonstrating appreciation and being explicit about a company's values can go a long way toward promoting the behaviors and attitudes desired.

In the business world (as in the dairy world), culture usually doesn't arise on its own. It's something that deserves as much thought as any other component of a business and essential for entrepreneurs to consider if they want to preserve their company's identity as it evolves.

The transformation from scrappy underdog to strong competitor can be difficult. Having a plan for maintaining the core of what a business is and what it stands for can prevent this transformation from turning a business -- and its most important employees -- sour.

Related: Building a Culture and Teams for the Long Haul

Ted Devine

CEO of Insureon

Ted Devine is CEO of Chicago-based Insureon, an online insurance agency for small and micro businesses. Previously, Devine held senior leadership positions at Aon Corp. and spent 12 years as a director of McKinsey & Co.

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