How To Define Your Startup Culture

A startup has many facets: product, people, sales, funding. Those are the big ones most founders focus on out of the gate. But company culture often takes a backseat ‘until we nail product-market fit’ or one of many other urgently important problems.

The problem with this approach is that culture is the one aspect of a startup that is already in place whether you think about it or not. The culture is a reflection of the founder and the team he or she has built. Your company values are whatever your employees they think are.

So whether or not you’ve written a culture deck or a manifesto, your startup does have a culture. And if you don’t tend to it and intentionally shape it, it will get away from you.

Here are three practical ways to get your startup culture off to the right start, from day one.

Write down your values — not anyone else’s

When Mark Zuckerberg realized the culture of Facebook was getting away from what he originally envisioned, he asked other tech CEOs for advice on how to clarify the vision for culture.

One CEO suggested he write down a list of what it would look like to be “one of us” at Facebook. Not what “the ideal candidate” looks like, but what does a Facebooker look like? He wrote down a few specific values such as “A very high IQ, high-quality bar bordering on perfectionism”, and “cares about building real value over perceived value.”

Those aren’t your average job description checkboxes. And your cultural values shouldn’t be cookie cutter either. The first exercise in getting your culture off on the right foot is to put pen to paper about the unique traits that would make someone a good fit for your company.

(Incidentally, those traits all described Zuckerberg himself. Describing your unique traits isn’t a bad starting point.)

Hire and fire by your values

Enron went down in a humiliating blaze of ethical violations and straight-up illegal activity. Yet, one of their core values, as described in shareholder letters (and even carved in marble at their headquarters), was “Integrity”.

How do you take your values and translate them into real action, so you don’t become the poster child for irony, like Eron?

The most practical thing you can do early on is to hire and fire according to your values. Gregory McKeown illustrated this well in his book Essentialism when he described the hiring practices of the furniture design company Vitsoe. Vitsoe’s philosophy is that they would rather be understaffed than hire the wrong person.

Because one of their core values is craftsmanship, the team likes to observe how candidates work. McKeown tells the story of one employee who had successfully made it through every interview and a successful trial day on the job when they noticed the candidate threw their tools in the box and slammed the lid. The team convened later, and all agreed that final action showed the candidate didn’t value their tools like a true craftsman, and they politely turned him down.

This selective criterion is doubly important in the early days of a startup. Your first employees become your first VPs. If you aren’t willing to hire and fire according to your unique culture code, then the words on the wall will be just that — words.

Bake the values into every action

If you value healthy competition, put sales numbers up on a TV screen. If you value alignment between teams, give marketing a bonus whenever sales closes a new deal. For each cultural value, find at least one practical, repeatable, scalable action that you can link it with. And conversely, if there are certain company habits that are having an unintended negative effect on the culture, call them out and reverse them.

Words on a wall are easy to memorize, but the everyday rehearsal of actual activity will make your values tangible and unforgettable.

Wrap up

Your startup culture is nothing more than the values displayed in the people and practices of your company. When you make your values explicit, hire and fire based on them, and translate them into repeatable rituals, your culture will begin to take the shape you intended it from day one.

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