There are very few things within your control in terms of building a sustainable, successful company. For instance, you have no control over competition, technological innovation, the political and regulatory environment, the fundraising climate, or the overall economy. What you can control, however, are internal factors, like your strength as a leader and the strength of your team and company culture.
In fact, your company’s culture can be the competitive advantage that drives your success.
What Company Culture Is Not
Unfortunately, it is our experience that most startups are a bit confused on what culture is. So we will start with what it is not.
First, snacks in the kitchen, ping pong tables, and cool posters adorning the walls of a chic, airy office space are not culture. They are perks (we will dive into this in our next post).
Second, core values are related, but not the same as culture. Values are the principles that help inform the culture.
What Company Culture Is
Since we work in tech, we like to think of company culture as the company’s operating system (OS).
Culture is the attitudes, behaviors, and interactions that make up the work environment.
Your “Why” for starting the company and its mission, vision and values help define the culture - making it unique to each company.
Company culture impacts everything, including:
How people behave
How teams communicate
How decisions are made
How the company performs
Culture also informs the processes, practices and rituals of the company, including:
Recognition + Celebrations
Lunch & Learns / Trainings
Offsites / Retreats
Making Culture A Competitive Advantage
Culture is incredibly powerful and it needs to be intentionally designed from the get-go. Culture, however, is not a “set it and forget it” concept. It must by cultivated, managed, and evolved.
Of course, it’s not always easy to make culture a priority when you are busy hiring your team or driving towards a big product release. Great leaders understand that culture impacts these - and all - aspects of the business. More specifically, your culture will impact your hiring (and engagement and retention), as well as lay the foundation for the decision-making and communications that impact execution.
When you and your leadership team make culture a priority and “walk the talk,” your employees will follow suit. In fact, every employee should be able to recite the company's mission, vision and values. They should also truly understand the company’s customer and business model.
An example of a company with culture as a competitive advantage is The Skimm. As the company scaled, the founders realized it was getting harder to ensure everyone understood/lived the culture. So they created the “Skimm’cademy” to ensure:
Every single employee knows the mission and vision we are working from.
Every single employee knows what our company stands for and who our customer is.
Every single person knows what each person actually does at the company. It’s not enough to say “sales” or “engineer”, but actually what they do and how it affects you.
Every single person feels like they know one another. It’s not just “can you name your co-worker? and where they went to school?”...but actually know them. What are their strengths? weaknesses? What are they hoping to get out of their time at theSkimm? What motivates them?
As your company grows, it will be harder for you to keep your finger on the pulse of the culture. Yet, constantly assessing the energy levels of the company is crucial.
It is becoming increasingly commonplace to see high-growth companies employing VPs of Culture. If you can’t do that, assign culture to someone on your People Operations or HR team. This person should have a direct line to you, as the founder is ultimately the Chief Culture Officer.
In the early days, be sure to ask about/discuss culture often, both in-person and via simple surveys. Once you get larger, you can leverage the multitude of new, affordable technology tools aimed at helping companies stay on top of their culture. Some of our favorite feedback and recognition tools include CultureAmp, TinyPulse, YouEarnedIt, Bonusly, and 15Five.