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Setting the Right Culture in Your Startup

Just as national culture influences and shapes a country, so does the startup culture drive the future of a new venture. At leading companies such as Google, Apple, and Netflix, cultural strategies that increase employee freedom and foster creativity are the norm. I believe this new focus on culture is essential to startup success today.

7 Steps to Setting the Right Culture in Your Startup

Thus, creating the right company culture must be a top priority of every entrepreneur and business leader. Culture-driven businesses put people first. People make the company, rather than the other way around. Today’s business mantra must be “Take care of your people, and they will take care of your business.” Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.

Typically, entrepreneurial founders create most startups with a vision of developing an innovative solution, rather than on developing people. Their focus is on their mission and their ideas, and they find it hard to change their focus to nurturing new employees so they have the same passion and motivation for the solution.

In fact, most see a more direct relationship between customers and their business success, so employee focus by default will end up in third place. It is tough to change a culture that is product-first, customer-second, and employee-last. Thus, in my advisory role to new businesses, I recommend a seven-step approach for setting the right culture from the start:

  1. Communicate clear direction and values daily from the top. Employees need to see and understand the “why,” before they can buy into what they need to do. These days, more than ever, the “why” needs to be a win-win for them, and for the greater community. Only then can they stay motivated and make the decisions needed for the business to win.
  2. Clearly define individual roles, and what you expect of them. Every team member needs to understand and be rewarded for the desired attributes, competencies, and results you need. It’s easy to see how cultures go astray, for example, when you pay only for sales volume but expect a high focus on customer satisfaction.
  3. Provide an inviting and appropriate work environment. Place shapes culture. Open architecture is more conducive to desirable office behaviors, like collaboration and clear communication. Even geography counts – there is a reason that tech firms cluster in Silicon Valley, while financial firms cluster in London and New York.
  4. Establish metrics on the culture as well as the product. Healthy cultures attract top talent and have high morale, low turnover, and high rates of retention. These can be easily measured and compared to leaders in the industry. These metrics need the same top management attention as customer retention and sales metrics.
  5. Recruit, mentor, and promote talent to highlight opportunity. It’s tempting as a startup to employ family members or to pay less and get inexperience. It’s also easy to skip the focus on personnel in the heat of daily product and customer crises. In the long run, your people are your business. Make sure they get your priority and attention always.
  6. Highlight small successes rather than failures to set culture. The more achievements you can attribute to team members, which confirm your direction and values, the more quickly people will relate to this culture as permanent, pervasive, and personal. Your goal is to have the team internalize and become advocates for your big picture.
  7. Solidify team member trust by admitting your own mistakes. Practice humility and openness by being transparent about your weaknesses and mistakes. Don’t hide the need for pivots or required quality corrections. If you want your team members to exhibit specific behaviors, you need to display them first. Leaders must walk their talk to earn trust.

Even if your business is not in the startup stage, these steps will move you in the right direction in assessing and improving your corporate culture. If you aren’t at least keeping pace with a strong culture and finding a way to differentiate yourself, you’re already falling behind the competition. In any case, building and maintaining a winning culture is not a one-time effort or a sprint, but a marathon. Start today.

Marty is Cayenne's Chief Knowledge Officer and the Founder & CEO of Startup Professionals. His passion is nurturing the development of entrepreneurs by providing first-hand mentoring, funding assistance, and business plan development. He has over 30 years of experience in big businesses, as well as startups. View details.

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