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"?
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
“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.
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:)
(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
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.
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:
4. Keep looking for advice & best practices
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