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How to Build a Startup Culture

The mention of startup culture brings to mind both sleep-deprived college students tinkering in a garage and the high-energy futuristic offices of Silicon Valley’s most funded companies. The truth? Startup culture is less about what’s happening on the surface, and more about how a company functions at its core. Building a creative and high-output environment is a promising path to creating innovative products and forging positive customer experiences, while cultivating a workplace with engaged and fulfilled team members.

People

Despite your best efforts, in the absence of folks who are passionate and trend towards action, a startup culture will not materialize. When you’re building a team and selecting the next person to bring through the door, consider these questions:

  • Are they a self-starter or entrepreneurial by nature?
  • Do they bring a unique perspective to the table?
  • Are they a team player?

Self-Starters - Innovative solutions arise from hires who are willing to go outside of their job descriptions. They’re innately curious about how a company functions as a whole. These are the people who don’t hesitate to build the cross-functional relationships that are essential to new ideas or naturally go out of their way to delight a customer. Our hiring process aims to find people who thrive in a startup culture.

Diverse - Nurturing an atmosphere of growth necessitates a step away from groupthink and a shift towards a variety of perspectives. This is whole lot easier when your team isn’t made up of people with similar backgrounds, heavily overlapping skillsets, and matching life experiences. Assembling a diverse team isn’t easy. It means hiring outside of your network, eschewing referral bonuses, and considering applicants with non-traditional backgrounds. It also means recruiting for cultural contribution rather than cultural fit. Varied perspectives are catalysts for innovation and necessary if your focus is building something great.

Team Players - Startups are a team sport. Creating a culture of collaboration means a strict no-ego policy. Our culture manifesto prioritizes “healthy conflict”. This isn’t feasible in an environment filled with high strung individuals with an untreatable case of igottaberightis. Players who take the ball and go home when things don’t go their way are toxic to a startup culture.

Processes

How your team functions is a core part of building a strong startup culture. Avoid processes that are slow, boundless, and immeasurable. Prioritize processes that encourage quick iteration, embrace constraint, and welcome data-driven experimentation.

Agile - While we typically apply the term “agile” to development, aspects of this project management methodology can be applied to all areas of your business. Work in short sprints and seek constant feedback on whatever you’re building; whether that’s a new app feature or an upcoming marketing campaign. Large companies vying to build a startup culture can benefit from creating small working groups to test out adaptive project management. Focus on delivering a final product that has been improved upon various times throughout a quick cycle.

Constraints - Some of the best solutions arise from a lack of money, time, or manpower. Whether a project requires a team of 20 and only has 4, or a new idea necessitates $20 000 and the budget will only allow for 10% of that, limitations are often the catalyst that drives startup culture. I’m not suggesting that chronic overwork and stressful circumstances are ideal conditions for innovation. However, there’s something to be said for the inventiveness that arises from insufficient resources. Regardless of your company’s state, focus on working smarter instead of harder and avoid throwing more hours or dollars at a project when a white board and some markers might be where the answers lie.

Experiment and Data Driven - If you’re not testing out different ways to attract new customers, respond effectively to existing ones, or improve your product, you’re not embracing startup culture. Building an experimental environment is crucial to growth. Trying out new ideas and measuring them goes hand in hand. Don’t make assumptions. Being data driven in your experimentation is essential to knowing when an idea needs to be ramped up or stopped altogether. Without careful measurement of an experiment, you’re simply wasting time and energy.

Focuses

Product Quality - If you’re looking to your competitors products and wondering, “how can we do the same thing?”, you’re doing it wrong. Ignore the competition. Aim to be proactive instead of reactive and ask, “What’s missing”? Keep your standards high across the board. High quality should be evident across every single customer touchpoint.

  • Is the copy on our website optimized?
  • Does our product have a simple and intuitive user interface?
  • Are we answering customer queries in the most human and thoughtful way?
  • Is our content marketing actionable and informative?

Customers at the Center - If you’re building from within an echo chamber and fail to bring customer insights into the equation, you’re likely missing something big. Speaking frequently to customers is essential. If your retention rate is dropping and you can’t figure out why your users have churned, your customers will have the answers. Set up phone or Skype interviews where possible, and use e-mail and survey forms secondarily, to collect information. Regularly check in on your NPS and act accordingly. Let your customers assist you with building your product roadmap and let them guide you to increased revenue.

Driving Factors - What’s your “Why”? Is it to be the defacto team communication app? To build a B2B product that helps 1 Million + companies? To donate a sizeable chunk of profits to an environmental initiative?

Hint: it’s okay to have more than one “why”! Regardless of what it is, or how many you have, having a North Star for your team is the difference between being motivated and complacent. Having a “why” allows you to rapidly assesses every business decision to determine whether it gets you closer to your “why”. Does it? Great! If not? Leave it in the dust and get back to the actions that will take you where you want to go.

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