Build your company culture with forethought

Company culture is a living, breathing organism. And the more thought you put into it, the stronger it becomes in directing your startup towards success.

There’s the saying that goes “When in Rome, you should act as Romans”. It alludes to the common knowledge that people will adapt their behaviour according to the place where they are. That they will adopt and emulate the values and assumptions they pick up around them.

Think of it: how is it that you change your behaviour depending on whether you’re at home putting together a dinner with a close group of friends, or during a hackathon with a mix of strangers and acquaintances? You’re still the same person, yet you act differently. You are guided by the different values and assumptions that are generated by your context and the actions of those around you. How is it that you know how to pick up a group’s expectations of your behaviour, when there are no clearly written down instructions?

The power of culture

It all boils down to being human and social. Because we’ve always lived in groups and communities, we’ve developed the skill to pick up a group’s values, assumptions and expectations and act on them as a way to prove ourselves as being part of said group.

What you are picking up when you visit Rome, or change your workplace, or your gym buddies, is the culture of that group. And the reason you act differently is that culture, like water, fills up the space that is available for it. So you’ll have different cultures at the level of your country, your city, your workplace, your social bubble and even your home. And like water, parts of culture will flow from bigger to smaller spaces and back again (that’s why, for example, you’re not surprised when politeness between strangers looks the same on the street and in your office).

This is important to know because the moment you become an app entrepreneur who starts working with a co-founder or an employee, you create a space where your startup’s culture is formed. Every time you get together and decide how to tackle a new task, how to strategise for long-term goals, how to include new employees or communicate with your customers, you are in fact shaping and nurturing your company’s culture.

Why you should reflect on culture

Company culture is a living, breathing organism. A company’s culture grows, changes and responds to influences, whether these are coming from you as the leader or your interactions with your first team members. While you, as the initiator and the leader, may have the most weight to shape and shift your company’s culture, it’s worth remembering that the strong personalities of new team members can also shift the culture of a team, and external pressures can also change how an organisational culture is formed.

In truth, culture is easier to manage when your team is small and establishing it feels very natural. It’s easy to set the values’ compass of your team members in the same direction during a planning meeting. It’s easier to set expectations and evaluate results consistently when you have time to allocate to each new team member in part. But as your team grows, the responsibility of inspiring your company’s culture to the new employees shifts from you to your colleagues. New employees will always pick up the company culture from those working closest with them.

But even if inspiring and maintaining an organisational culture that reflects the company’s goals and employees is a hard task, it is all the more worthwhile. Strong organisational cultures improve employee engagement and overall hapiness, make up for bad strategising and increase the yearly bottom line. In the fast-changing world of tech startups, your company’s culture can become a port in face of adversities, no matter if they come in the form of new technological trends, changing audiences or changes in your team. By reflecting on it and acknowledging the role it plays in your company’s workings, you’re enabling your team to achieve long term success.

How you can nurture your company’s culture

Brian Chesky tells the story of receiving one key piece of advice from Peter Thiel, one of the investors in AirBnB. Just on the cusp of taking the leap from a small team to large company set to revolutionise travel accommodations, he remembers being told: “Don’t fuck up the culture” with a mix of pessimism and wistfulness.

After all, Peter Thiel, who has seen many startups succeed and fail during his career, was strongly aware of the difficulty of staying on top of one’s company culture. But instead of being discouraged, Chesky decided to turn culture into something he’d focus his efforts on; something to define and nurture and embed in every action. He thought that “when you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products”.

In the same way, as a founder at the beginning of the road, you can’t expect to create something of value, if you do not pay attention to how and why it’s being made the way that it is. And the moment you start to pay attention to your team’s organisational culture is the moment you start to take ownership of it. In short, this is how you can nurture your company’s culture.

  • You define the values and expectations that make up your culture

In many ways, defining and nurturing your company’s culture has a lot to do with defining what matters and creating ways of making it happen. You don’t have to commit every aspect of your company culture to procedures and measurable outputs. But commit to what matters. Commit to what you and your team can commit to acting on when you get hit by hard times with tough decisions, or difficult partners you have to say no to, or toxic team members you have to let go.
Make sure to involve everybody in the defining process and put in place an onboarding that includes an introduction to company culture to new team members.

  • You make it a team effort

When values and expectations are defined clearly, your team will take ownership of them together with your company’s goals. They will feel they have space to be autonomous and make the tough choices on their own. They will be able to fill in the bits you’ve missed on the drawing board while planning and find their way during new situations because they have the compass provided by culture to guide them. Your company’s culture will become stronger if you see it as a horizontal asset that everyone is adding their experiences to and therefore reinforcing it.

  • Reflect on your culture every year

As your startup grows and hits milestones, you’ll carve out time to assess performance and define business goals. That is a good time as well to check your organisational culture.

Just as your product and team grows and changes as time moves on and the market changes, your organisational culture will shift to reflect what is going on. Take the time every year to reflect if the culture that you have right now is making your startup the kind of organisation it has to be in that given moment, in your specific context, while aiming for the long-term business goals you’ve set yourself.

Sometimes you’ll find that your values stand the test of time. Other times you’ll discover you need to finetune how one value or expectation is translated into reality and measured. You might discover that how you’re building your product has unforeseen costs attached to it. That when you have to decide what you’re still willing to pay or what processes you should overhaul.

What you decide to keep and what you decide to change matters. More important is that you take the time to reflect. Make sure that you’re heading where you want to go, in the way you mean to get there.

a team fistbumping over the table

Culture is what makes the magic happen

The organisational culture you create becomes the glue that keeps your team together. It’s what helps you work towards your common goal of creating a great product. It’s the safety net you fall back on during times of hardship. And if you give it time and attention, you create the magic ingredient that drives you and your team. You will bring to surface your best work and become a game-changing app startup.

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