What is a startup culture and how do you develop one?

Written by
Anna King

Updated 17th April 2019

Say ‘startup culture’ to most people, and a few things probably spring to mind. We’re thinking office beers pics on Instagram, mindfulness breaks, table football, standing desks… the good old 5 pm pizza. Sound about right?

Culture

And all of these things can definitely be a big part of the startup environment. After all, one of the best things about starting a business from scratch is that you have the opportunity to go against the grain and throw traditional workplace norms out of the window.

But on the other hand, the kind of Instagrammable gloss described above is only a portion of the startup culture story. You see, the best and most enduring startup cultures go deeper than the odd round of beers at work and air hockey in the corner. And landing on a unique culture that works for your business can make a huge difference to its long-term success.

What is a startup culture?

Cultures of all kinds are built around shared values, languages, pastimes, goals, and relationships. And startup cultures are no different. The culture of a startup is its unique mode of being – something which should permeate every level of what it does. This isn’t just about bonding and team relationships (although that is a big part of it). It’s also about values, ambitions, goals, behaviours, and motivations.

Startup cultures are hard to define and hard to create. Partly this is because every startup is different, which means that their culture will also be different. But it’s also partly because culture isn’t something you can design. Sure, you can lay decent foundations and direct your culture to a degree but, just as you can’t dictate how people’s relationships will work, you can’t really impose a fully-fledged culture onto your team. These things develop over time.

Having said that, there are some things you can do to nudge your startup’s culture in the right direction and influence how it develops.

Team

Laying your cultural foundations

If you’re keen to develop a certain type of culture in your startup, it’s best to do some groundwork at the get-go. This will also stand you in good stead for pretty much every other aspect of your startup’s branding and future development, so it’s definitely time well spent.

  • Identify your values. Defining your company values is a big and important topic for startups - enough for several separate articles. Briefly, however, your values should come from a place of sincerity (paying mere lip-service to values will mean that they bypass your developing culture totally). They should capture what you stand for, what makes you special and how you do business. To give you an example, Facebook’s values are: Be Bold, Focus on Impact, Move Fast, Be Open and Build Social Values. And that should drive and permeate everything they do.

  • Define your mission. A shared mission is a very unifying thing. Many cultures have been born from the motivation and solidarity of a commonly held goal. You probably already know what your mission is, so extend that mission to everyone in your startup. Bring them on board, and generate some enthusiasm for it.

  • Incorporate culture into your behaviours. Now, it’s time to start weaving your values and your mission into the practical matter of running and growing your business. How can you bring your values and mission into play during your day-to-day operations, and how can they become an integral part of your brand as you scale? Incorporate your values into your culture by enacting and exemplifying them at every level. Promote your mission through engagement with your people. Only by practising what you preach can you really influence the culture that develops.

Mission

As the culture grows, think about…

  • Your company identity. Observe the identity which begins to emerge around your team and your company. Group identity is vital to workplace culture – but it can also be damaging. It’s important that your culture is fluid and porous enough to accommodate new people and ideas – something you’ll definitely experience more of as your business grows. But this can’t happen if your company identity is too fixed and insular. Celebrate the knowledge, expertise, values, in-jokes, and shared pastimes which make your team’s identity unique, but always watch out for clique-ishness.
  • Relationships. The relationships which emerge within your team also play a huge part in the culture that will develop. Group identity is certainly important, but remember that individual relationships are what hold everything together. Try to promote supportive, open and productive working relationships. It’s inevitable that some people will get along better than others. However, if you can find shared social activities and initiatives that everyone can get behind, you may be surprised at how much easier it becomes for your team to relate to one another.

Relationships

Watch out for…

  • The clone effect. Shared values and goals are great, but so is diversity. Don’t get blindsided by the need to align everything in your organisation. People can share and promote your values without all looking the same, acting the same, being the same age, being the same gender, enjoying the same things etc. You want a culture, not a cult. While hiring people who are a cultural fit is important, do try to focus on talent and skill rather than homogeneity when taking on new staff.

  • Not practising what you preach. Nothing derails a culture faster than hypocrisy. If you’re aiming for a culture of transparency and mutual respect but your management style is secretive and draconian, then one or the other needs work.

  • Pushing too hard. The best startup cultures emerge naturally (albeit nurtured by the shared elements we’ve described above). While a bit of foundation-laying and boundary-setting won’t go amiss, remember that cultures are a product of shared experience and relationships. Rather than trying too hard to push your startup culture in a certain direction, watch it develop organically. You can then steer towards elements of your burgeoning culture which you find most inspiring (and away from those which you don’t).

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