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Startup Culture: The 4 Best Tips Around the Web

· startup culture

No doubt there's a big hype about Startup Culture. Some people worship the stereotypical culture of startups, some have called it a "cover-up".

In this article, we'll go through 

1) what is "startup culture"

2) the tough criticism on startup culture,

3) the hyped praise about startup culture

4) the best practical advice for you to create a startup culture that fits you, is sustainable and actually helps you improve your performance.

Part 1: What is "Startup Culture"?

No company has a culture. Every company is a culture. - Nishchal Dua

Any organization, whether willingly or not, has its own culture. Culture is organic and evolves through time with the people who are part of it.

In the recent years, a popularized view on what Startup Culture is has emerged, based mostly on the big success stories such as Google or Facebook and the innovative approaches to employee's benefits and office culture.

As Corey McAveeney puts it in her WIRED article:

Every once in awhile I spot a cookie-cutter culture, that is to say, a company that has been founded on the basis of ‘everyone here is awesome – and we’re all alike’.

At first there's nothing wrong with it, these seem to be good and positive premises to base your culture on.

The question is: how does that translate into your everyday life? You can be all awesome and all equal and not praise each other or lack communication.

Culture is much deeper than pretty words on a wall. Tweet

As we go through this article, we'll visit what has been said about this popularized view of impressive offices with great benefits, games and fun breaks throughout the week and a feeling of ease as defining traces of startup culture.

Lastly, we'll dive into the best advice and practices around the web to building a sustainable culture for your startup.

Part 2: The Tough Criticism on Startup Culture

There's a lot of criticism around the stereotypical startup culture with fun and relaxed environments. Even though these environments bring advantages, as Jayson DeMers (founder and CEO of Audience Bloom) noticed on his Entrepreneur article 5 Hidden Dangers of a Stereotypical Startup Culture, there are a couple of dangers to implementing it blindly.

For example,

- recruiting based on charisma more than skills,

- spending too much money on making a cool office instead of investing on other business-propelling strategies,

- making worst decisions based on the feeling of closeness and informality

- or even forgetting about breaking even or making profit.

This Reddit user explains well the dangers of the stereotypical startup culture:

The big hype, as product manager Shanley Kane puts it in this Fast Company Ciara Byrne's article, is often based on superficial parts of culture which paint a picture of success rather than actually working towards achieving it:

I noticed in Silicon Valley, and the tech industry in general, that a lot of people were giving these talks about what their culture was and it was really superficial and focused on the privileged aspects of the company like free food and massages and all that stuff. I thought this was pretty destructive in terms of telling people that this is what culture is. It's much more serious and much deeper.​

- Shanley Kane

As you'll see further down, to build a high performance startup culture, there will be things that will matter much more than the furniture or the free food.

Perks are a consequence of great culture, not culture itself. Tweet

Many other aspects of the hyped startup culture make us wonder whether it really is the best option to go with what's being practiced or not. And at what cost?

In her Forbes article Why Sillicon Valley's Work Culture is Killing Us, Joscelin Cooper, a communications and public relations consultant, talks about how Sillicon Valley work culture is unhealthy as it pushes employees to worship work, neglecting other dimensions of their lives.

Roy Carroll talks about the unspoken "waking dead" left behind a culture that pushes people to fail fast & often as a means to growth and success.

Corey McAveeney has pinned out one of the biggest issues with copying this pre-baked recipe for culture quite clearly:

When I ask people to tell me about their culture, I sometimes receive a litany of events the company hosts. I push and ask them to describe the company values. Many can’t answer this question and express concern that this is really what their culture is missing: the ability to articulate their identity.​

It's clear there have been said negative critics on the hyped startup culture and looking at it from a superficial perspective can be misleading. However, if we plunge into what this culture really is about and its success cases, we'll find many aspects to be praised.

Part 3: The Hyped Praise of Startup Culture

O her article on Business News Daily "Embracing Startup Culture at Any Business Size", journalist Shannon Gausepohl points out the benefits of such a culture and the parts one could harvest for their business, regardless of how big or small the business is. If we take a deeper look into the fun culture often portrayed, we'll find that the rule, as Shannon puts is, is more of a "work hard, play hard" dynamic.

Contrasting to traditional corporate culture, Shannon mentions:

- An "Anything s possible" mentality

- The ability to react and shift quickly.

- Employees and leaders who own their contributions

as key aspects of a startup culture that brings a sense of ownership and empowerment to the company's workers.

One of the praised particularities of the startup culture is how invested employees are in their work, which drives higher results as people are more engaged and committed. Another Reddit user put it very well:

A second aspect that is often praised is how fun is embraced - something quite disruptive comparing to the traditional corporate culture. 

André Spicer (professor of Organizational Behavior at Cass Business School in London and the co-author of The Wellness Syndrome) suggests happiness isn't truly correlated to productivity as it's a vague concept, hard to measure and could be more hurtful than helpful.

However, others such Happiness Works keep on affirming the positive power of employees' happiness.

Whether you stand on one side or the other, the reality is that the popularized concept of Startup Culture can bring great benefits. The trick is to use the good parts and leave the hyped void part behind.

Part 4: How to Build a Great Startup Culture

- the best advice around the web

First and foremost, your startup culture will be particular to your startup.

You can be inspired by examples and success stories, draw from others and adapt strategies others have implemented or developed. In the same way, draw from the failing of startups who blindly adopted hyped strategies, without really understanding who they were, what they stood for and where they wanted to go.

Here are the best advice from around the internet:

Disclaimer: Recruiting often comes up as a strategy to build your company's culture. Obviously it contributes as your company grows, but the advice we list below for you to build a great culture with the people you already have.

1. Identify Your Core Values

Most articles on Startup Culture will be mentioning this as one of the key points to build a successful culture - because they are. Your startup values will be values most people in your startup identify with and feel are a big part of what they do and the way they work.

Take the example of Zappos, known as a startup culture success story: they have built a great company culture around the value of client service. Everything they do is based on one of their highest values.

There are many ways to get to your core values. As documented by Dani Fankhauser at American Express's Open Forum, weeSpring's strategy is one you can use. Allyson Downey, the founder, remembers the advice from investor Brad Feld:

"Everyone on your team should go sit alone and for 15 minutes and write down [your company values] on a piece of paper," Downey remembers Feld saying, "because if you just start it as a live conversation, the extroverts win and the introverts don't jump in and you don't hear from everybody."​

Jeff Lawson, CEO and co-founder of Twilio, mentioned how they've identified their core values and what they think values are:

“For us, we rolled out earlier this year what we call Our Nine Things, which are sort of like core values… and if they’re just words on the wall, then you go about your day and you do whatever you want anyway. There’s nothing special about that. That’s not a culture.”​

Which brings us to the next point:

2. Transform these values into practices

Your culture is defined by your behaviors. If these behaviors don't match your values, there will be a gap between your ideal culture and what your daily culture has evolved into.

Chris Cancialosi illustrates on this Forbes article how your behaviors ultimately reflect your values and how misleading that can be:

Finally, perks and incentives are, by their nature, a manifestation of the core values of an organization. By offering endless perks, startups can send messages about what is valued that may have unintended consequences in the long-term. This can be a real problem if those messages are in conflict with your core beliefs or if those perks are being used as a replacement for core values.​

If your values do not translate in the way you behave, it'll be very likely you'll have culture or identity issues.

Andreas Kitzing, founder & CEO of Sponsoo has identified 4 main strategies of developing your culture:

(in his own words:)

  1. Recruitment and Selection
    Recruit people who believe in the company's vision and who are a good fit with the culture. This also means that you should get rid of team members who don't fit with the startup culture, even if they perform well in their daily business.
  2. Leadership by Example
    The founders should lead by example. You're the evangelist of your product - if you don't believe in the mission and don't live and breath your values, your team members won't either.
  3. Socialization
    You can craft rituals - such as promotion, rewards, meetings, structures, stories ("founding myth") - to match the culture you want to have.
  4. Celebrate Successes
    You should celebrate successes; even small ones. Your large vision is usually so far in the future that your team needs to be reminded from time to time that they are on track. In order to keep everyone motivated, it's important to celebrate every small success as a step into the right direction. Small successes matter! 
    Moreover, celebrations stick in your team member's mind and ensure that the successes become part of the shared stories (...) of your startup

(end of quote)

It is curious that, even though these are though of as good practices, we can see that these strategies already reflect their own values: "lead by example" usually works although you might know some examples of startups that don't necessarily practice it and are still successful. "Socialization" has become popular as part of building a startup culture and yet, not every startup has this as a strategy nor wants to. The same goes for "celebrating success" where you can see recognition plays a great role in individual and group motivation.

If it were a different startup, it could have advised completely different strategies.

Hence the importance of identifying your values and translating them into practice.

Going back to the example of Zappos, you can see how their costumer service value is translated into everyday behaviors.

What makes it such a success?

a) costumer service is not just something written on the wall - it's an integral part of the way they work.

b) employees know exactly how to put that value in practice everyday, because it's deeply embedded on daily practices

c) costumers and stakeholders recognize it as a part of this company's culture - and they see it, practically happening, everyday.

What would happen if it was just in theory?

a) there would be a difference between theory and practice

b) employees wouldn't know how to practically implement it and quickly forget about it, running the ship in their own way. Standards of what should happen would differ from one person to the other

c) costumers and stakeholders would be promised something they wouldn't get - and be disappointed

Not good.

So, after you followed the previous advice of identifying the company's values, get together to understand how exactly those values will translate into everyday behaviors.

3. Keep track of your culture

The worst you can do about your culture is to write it down on paper and do zero with it.

Culture is like a living organism, it evolves everyday and, if you write it down and fail to make it part of your everyday life, you'll have written it down for nothing.

Implementing the behaviors that represent your values is what will make your ideal culture a reality.

Ariel Diaz, co-founder and CEO at Boundless, has implemented a ‘Cultural Achievement Award’ which presented at team meetings. This is a great strategy you can apply to reinforce culture standards and remind your workforce what your culture is about.

Like Andreas from Sponsoo, the actions and strategies you decide to apply will translate your values and influence your culture. To ensure you're heading the way you want as an organization, regularly go through the process of assessing whether your daily practices are following your value premises or not.

Here's some help to keep track of your culture:


Evaluate your culture through surveying and get a report. You can also compare your performance with other startups.

Culture IQ

Access a software to collect data, analyse it and engage your company culture.

Storm - Team Performance for Startups (that's us!)

Develop a high performance culture. Focus on developing your human capital - the most efficient way of building a performing &sustainable culture.

4. Keep looking for advice & best practices

HighFive is a startup who, when looking for how to build a great culture, looked for advice on Quora and had great input from people sharing examples of startups with great cultures.

We're listing further resources you can explore below. If you have any other resources or good practices you'd like to share, email us.

At Storm we build high performing startup teams.

We'd love to help you build yours.


You can find out more about what we do here or email us if you have any questions.

At Storm we build high performing startup teams.

We'd love to help you build yours.

You can find out more about what we do here or email us if you have any questions.

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