There’s a lot in the media about startup culture that makes it sound both miserable and enviable: the entrepreneurs who work hours so long, they have no other life, but, hey, there’s complimentary shuttle service to work, a company barista who creates art in your morning cup of coffee, and a batting cage outside so you can take a break whenever you want and blow off steam.
Culture happens even when you’re not looking
Company culture is more than the array of perks. And not every startup can afford, much less justify, a batting cage. But your company has a culture—however young it is, however many people there are—whether you’ve paid attention to it or not.
People’s attitudes and actions toward each other contribute to cultivating the culture, whether they intend for them to or not. From the shared euphoria of “we’re going to change the world!” to feeling deprived of family time and everything in between can impact your culture. And, the culture you start with—even when you’re solo—will continue until you make a conscious effort to change it, and the longer you let a culture go unattended, the harder it will be to change. Instead, take deliberate steps to define and shape your company’s culture.
If you think culture doesn’t matter when your company is small, consider that many women leave the corporate world to start their own businesses for reasons related to culture, such as better work-life balance, a flexible schedule, more autonomy, and a stronger sense of accomplishment. In fact, in a survey of women business owners conducted by PayPal in 2014, women in France and Mexico were more likely to say they wanted to be entrepreneurs to have a sense of pride. In the United States, women were more likely to respond that they became entrepreneurs because they wanted better work-life balance.
A good company culture pays off in ways that have been proven in numerous studies, including:
Lower turnover rates
Employees who are more engaged
Reduced stress; stress can lead to more time off, higher health care costs, more workplace accidents
Better relationships with partners
Better customer and client service
As I established my business, early on I realized company culture was important, even as a solopreneur hiring independent contractors on a project basis. I believe that in a creative agency, a good culture is critical to fostering the creative, collaborative atmosphere that keeps people engaged so they can do their best work, giving me a competitive edge. It also builds my reputation among freelancers and helps me hire the best talent.
Steps to start cultivating a company culture at an early stage
Start with a vision and mission. They’re different. A mission explains why your company exists. What do you aim to do? A vision statement is your idea of what success looks like in the future. Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s finds visioning a very important tool in his business. He writes, “A great vision is inspiring. It gets you and everyone in the organization excited to come to work; it's the cathedral everyone is coming to work every day to construct.”
Make culture a priority even when you only have a small startup team. This is a challenging part of building a culture, but an important one. If one of the reasons you looked forward to starting your own business is better work-life balance, don’t spend 12 hours a day in front of your computer. You’ve got to exercise, eat healthy meals, get some sunshine, sleep well, and spend time with others, and that’s just the basics for good physical and mental health. If you start out spending 12 hours a day working, at what point are you going to change that habit? Are you going to resent your colleagues when they call the day done after 8 hours? Don’t set yourself—or your team—up like that. Start your business culture from Day One by making conscious decisions daily about how you treat yourself as a founder, including realistic expectations for your productivity and the habits and goals you establish for yourself.
Make sure culture is always a C-level priority. Your leadership team should be the role models for culture, because people who work for you will feel like they have to mimic your behavior to succeed in your team, and your behavior sets everyone expectations of each other. One person I consider a role model in modeling work culture is former Vice President Joe Biden, who sent this memo to his staff. He makes his expectations and intentions crystal clear (this isn't a company handbook that managers are going to ignore!):
To My Wonderful Staff,
I would like to take a moment and make something clear to everyone. I do not expect, nor do I want, any of you to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work. Family obligations include, but are not limited to, family birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, any religious ceremonies, such as first communions and bar mitzvahs, graduations, and times of need, such as an illness or a loss in the family. This is very important to me. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if I find out that you are working with me while missing important family responsibilities, it will disappoint me greatly. This has been an unwritten rule since my days in the Senate.
Thank you all for the hard work.
Hire people who fit your culture. Do this from the beginning, even when you may be hiring independent contractors or part-time help to grow your business. You need people who share your vision at this critical stage, who will get things done, treat your customers and clients the way you want them treated, and who will help keep the atmosphere steady so you and your team members can focus and keep engagement and productivity high. Compromising on culture fit in the early stages of your business can cost you valuable time and money.
Share your culture with employees. Make culture part of your on-boarding process. Companies use different tools to share culture in on-boarding, from slide decks to email series to a series of group and one-on-one meetings. Whatever you choose, understand that on-boarding and culture sharing don’t happen in a day. Consider that your new hire will be overwhelmed with information and learning the first week or two.
Evaluate and evolve. Don’t just hang a plaque on the wall or require employees to do an online 30-minute training they can’t wait to forget. Evaluate how culture is working in your company and get broad feedback. Keep your culture alive by evolving while remaining true to your mission and vision.
Shaun Chavis started Saltshaker Marketing & Media because she believes companies can and should become brand publishers, build their own audiences, and engage with people in their own unique voices. Based in Atlanta, Saltshaker Marketing provides digital and print content marketing and brand publishing for food, wellness, and tourism companies, specializing in brand cookbooks and magazines.