The Startup Work Culture: When to think about your workplace culture

Is your startup still small? Maybe just you and your co-founder, or one or two employees. If so, everything is likely still close knit, with people working well together and communicating easily. Chances are, company culture, mission statements and core values all seem too heavy weight and bureaucratic to talk about just yet.

It’s just way too soon to start defining your startup’s workplace culture, right?

Wrong. The moment your team starts to expand, you must consider the work culture you want to foster. Soon you’ll be bringing on new hires and you’ll be making critical ‘compatibility’ decisions, whether you are aware of them or not. Your new team members may be great – excellent skills, good experience. But what about their work ethic? And how about their communication style, or their general temperament? Are they really a good match for your startup?

It may surprise you to learn that workplace culture is frequently addressed at the interview stage, by both company interviewers and prospective employees.

How to create a positive workplace culture

Start on the path to positivity by avoiding employee cynics. I’ve worked in tech companies for a long time and, even now, we only work with B2B SaaS startups. And there can be a cynical or sarcastic side to the tech community. The programmer who always complains about how crap the code is, or how some API will never be finished – you know the guy. This negativity may pass unnoticed in a large corporate environment, but it can be death in a startup. Startups need as much encouragement and positivity as possible. It’s easy to be in awe of a candidate’s qualifications, yet completely miss that their attitude won’t work on your team.

Next, I recommend identifying your core values and looking for common traits among your core group:

  1. What aspects of your current culture are already working for you?
  2. How would you define the personality of your core group?
  3. Is there a strategic advantage to your startup by having these traits?
  4. Are there any current work culture practices you think you should drop?

Don’t allow your startup to stumble into a work culture by hiring a bunch of people and adapting your culture to suit their preferences. Be intentional, plan it, be strategic.

If you don’t define your workplace culture, someone else will!

Your startup should be a place where you want to work. This means that the workplace culture will likely reflect your personality and work ethic in some ways. Think about your positive traits and how they could give your startup a strategic edge in your industry. Consider this when putting together your core values.

Real-life example: My startup formed from my services company which was a core group of programmers who used agile techniques to solve hard programming problems for clients. This meant that cooperation, teamwork, and continual learning were key to our success, and we were already fostering those characteristics. This made it easy to formalize those as core values and incorporate them into all parts of our startup work culture. It made for a very friendly, collaborative startup across all departments including development, sales, marketing and customer success. We were then able to move mountains while keeping customers happy and compete effectively against a bigger, well-funded, entrenched competitor. Most importantly, our happy atmosphere encouraged staff retention which meant that we retained our experts for longer, got more work done, and spent less time and money re-hiring for turnover. This was a big competitive advantage.

Finally, how do you know if the work culture you’re building for your startup sucks?

  • There’s no work-life balance
  • Leadership plays the blame game instead of heading straight to the fix
  • Staff turnover is high
  • Team building is neglected; employee engagement is minimal
  • No effort is made to make the workplace look attractive
  • Helpful information is trapped in silos and not accessible to everyone
  • Team members are slow to help one another
  • Good performance is never rewarded
  • Nobody ever smiles in a meeting
  • Company successes are never shared with the team