How to Choose the Right Culture for Your Startup

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Culture is a tricky topic in the startup world.

Many people think culture has to look or feel a certain way for it to be healthy. But the truth is that the right culture depends on a variety of factors, including the nature of the business, the characteristics of the workforce, the audience segment, and more. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

When you expand your definition of what a healthy culture is, you begin to realize that you don’t have to force something on your team that isn’t a good fit. You don’t have to follow what other startups have done or model your workplace after something you’ve seen on TechCrunch. Instead, you can cultivate exactly what you need to be successful.

And that’s what the ultimate goal of culture should be - to help you achieve your goals with the best possible people on your team. So, if a fun, casual office with wine on tap is what you need to draw in that perfect developer or manager, go for it. If you’re looking for someone who wants to tackle a really hard problem in a tough industry, the right culture might mean promoting an intense environment predicated on an 80-hour workweek. 

Problems arise when there’s a mismatch between culture and long-term goals, which is why this topic demands thoughtful consideration. So rather than outline one culture that we think is best for all startups, we wanted to share tips on how you can come up with the ideal solution for your organization.

Figure Out Your Identity

The first step to choosing the right culture for your startup requires some self-reflection. 

As a leader:

  • Are you trying to build a business to change the world?
  • Do you want your employees to invest in the local community? 
  • Are you trying to send a specific message to your customers?

Your identity will drive your culture in important ways. If you desire to be a team-oriented company that encourages employees to be good community citizens, then you shouldn’t aim for a culture that works people to the bone and values personal achievement over collaboration. If you are trying to do something that requires the best minds out there working around the clock, then you probably shouldn’t talk about work-life balance - it’ll only cause confusion.

Again, there is no one right answer. It’s okay to be the startup that demands a ton from employees, so long as your messaging is consistent. 

Evaluate Your Competitors 

Another tactic for figuring out the right culture is to evaluate your competitors or organizations you admire. 

What do they do right? 

What do they do wrong?

What do they communicate about their culture to the outside world?

You could emulate something you see in the marketplace or blend a few cultures together to create something that aligns with your unique needs. To be clear, you don’t have to trailblaze and establish something no one has ever seen before. The objective here is to get ideas for how you could approach culture and learn from the efforts of others. 

Ask Your Employees

Your startup could be successful with a few different cultural variations. In this case, it might not be obvious to you which path you should go down. In these circumstances, founders should simply ask their employees what they think. 

Employees are the ones who work day in and day out on the business. Founders are often jetting around, taking meetings with potential investors or partners, and promoting the startup’s brand to the world. Therefore, they may not be the best ones to decide how the workplace should look and feel. 

Don’t be afraid to solicit ideas, thoughts, or opinions from your employees. They’ve worked in other organizations and likely have valid opinions about what’s healthy versus toxic. Pay particular attention to A-level players, the people you want to replicate because what they say could be the key to finding more of those individuals in your recruiting efforts. 

Follow Through with a Plan

After you’ve articulated your identity, researched other company cultures, and asked your employees what they think, it’s time to develop a concrete plan for how you will enable the culture you want. After all, culture doesn’t just emerge on its own. Culture gets its life from people.

Figure out what metrics you can use to measure your progress at establishing and sustaining your culture. Try to describe your culture in writing and then broadcast it throughout the organization. After starting your cultural journey, revisit it frequently, every quarter or every six months, to see how it’s taking across the organization.

You may have to adjust elements of your culture over time, which is perfectly fine, especially in the startup world. Your company will change as you grow and bring in new people. Sometimes, culture has to change as well if things start to go down the wrong path. 

Whatever you decide, remember that there is no wrong answer if your culture helps you achieve your goals (assuming they are generally positive and good for society). The takeaway is to spend time thinking intentionally about culture, recognizing that it plays a huge role in your long-term success. 

And for a deeper dive into the topic of startup culture, check out our free eBook here. We share insights on how to align culture and vision, how to reward the right behaviors, the implications of remote work on culture, and much more.

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