Company Culture · Leadership

Early company culture on the cheap?

Joey Nima Investment Banker at Wells Fargo

July 11th, 2015

I find most talk about company culture, is just that -talk. And at the startup stage you’re mostly just trying to get things done. What are cheap, small things you can do to establish culture early - beyond posters and team lunch?

John Berg Privately Held Semiconductor Company

July 12th, 2015

Brent's YouTube video is spot on. Culture is defined as the beliefs that the organization has, which if tested, result in a visceral reaction on the part of most employees - similar to the monkeys in the cage. 

You as the founder of the company are owner of the culture. So, what belief system do you have that is being imprinted onto the company's? What employee behaviors do you encourage and discourage? Is everyone suppose to read your mind....that is likely to be a recipe for disaster. Is it acceptable to get into shouting matches and physical fights in your company? Don't laugh - that was part of Cisco's culture before John Morgridge became CEO. Another example, which I do not recommend, and goes against my own beliefs - try interviewing at major defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin proclaiming that there is a need for a new World order that demands the U.S. become a socialist-communist state - you would likely be asked to leave before the first interview was over. Why? You would not fit in the corporate culture, because your belief system does not match the corporate belief system.

If you do not overtly state what your company's culture is, then your own unstated belief system is what is the de facto corporate culture is. What a cheap way to find it out? Spend one hour writing out what you believe in...hard work, long hours, no lunch breaks, company over personal life, execution over creativity, pets not allowed at work, children are a distraction to the real goals, Python coding over ruby-on-rails, great sales people over great coders...these are examples. Be brutally honest with these...these are not beliefs you want in the company, these are beliefs you have personally. Then ask two of your employees who you trust to review the list and ask for them if they agree/disagree/add - again, what is, not what they think it should be...the ones you three agree on are the foundation of your current corporate culture.

If that exercise results in you and the team realizing that your belief system has a few beliefs which might stifle growth (I.e. - won't attract great coders or won't attract great salespeople are two extremely common ones), then you have a decision to make...change the belief or accept the consequences...Your choice.

If you need help with this, look me up on LinkedIn and contact me personally at


Most people 

Brent Wittke CEO, Co-founder at Resale Therapy

July 11th, 2015

You must first define, for yourself, what a 'culture' is. Here is a video I often use to help leaders understand what a culture is:

A culture is not slogans, posters, or the like. Culture is a representation of how all things relate to one another within organization. 

Think about it - You can have an amazing culture within an organization that is entirely outsourced. How, can that possibly happen without them seeing those motivational 'Hang in there' kitten posters, or those compulsory free lunches with the boss.

Lead with why you are doing what you are doing, then always ensure what you do is consistent with why you are doing it. Because, the culture that develops is a result of the actions that are taken, not the words that are spoken.

Good luck, - Brent

David DeMember Co-Founder at Toi

July 11th, 2015

It starts at the top. Leaders set the culture of a company. I entered the startup world pretty early (18) and I haven't had a "job" my entire career. While me and my first partner were the classic CEO/COOs of a 2 man startup, that was the last time I focused on titles. I've always strived to create an environment where titles don't matter, everyone is important and every job is one that I would want myself. I also express a desire for people to grow and become more valuable. I've had very low employee churn rates over the years.

I believe every founding team should have at least 1 founder who is fairly charismatic and can help foster the culture in the company that you're looking for.

Most studies (google some on your own) say that whether its business (leading), education (teaching), sports (coaching) or parenting (all of the preceding), positive discipline, continual learning and an atmosphere of respect will achieve more successful and sustainable results.

Axel Schultze Founder Society3 Accelerator & Fundraising market place

July 11th, 2015

cheap things to develop a culture... makes it a cheap culture ;)

No - seriously, forget all the culture mambo jumbo. Forget "setting up a culture" and especially forget writing a culture manifesto - or worst hiring somebody who does it for you..

It's like in the real world: A culture is what you demonstrate to others and how you pass on what you think how to treat everybody in your ecosystem. I.e. how you treat your team and how you treat customers, vendors, partners, how you treat the cleaner when they run through the office to put away your garbage. Demonstrate how you handle a disgruntled customer a customer who does not pay the bill, a prospect who asks millions of "stupid" questions... Show how you encourage people how you motivate those who are really stressed... Just do what you would consider the best culture in the world.

Pass it on to the first team mates, ask them why the handled things the way they handled it. Ask them how they feel if they did this or that instead. Do this with co-founders, employees and temps no matter how short they work for you.

Team lunch is great for motivation - has nothing to do with culture though (other than it's great how you treat them). 

Select your first employees with maximum care. They are more important than the million $ sales people or the engineering super stars you hire after you closed your $200 Million D-Round, The first humans that you surround yourself with are the ones that co-create the culture. And guess what it's all FREE.

Ravi Challu CEO at PARC Technology Research Labs Pvt. Ltd.

July 11th, 2015

Hi Joey,

I would agree with Axel. If we were to look at examples outside the company, that is, a family, a neighborhood, a circle of friends we don't write up what would the culture be. It happens as an outcome of who we are, what we believe in and how do we behave with each other. 

I am sharing a link where Ricardo Semler is talking about a unique approach I find truly inspirational as a model. It is worth a look.

Joe Albano, PhD Using the business of entrepreneurialism to turn ideas into products and products into sustainable businesses.

July 11th, 2015

Culture is not an answer to "what do we want to do?" it is the answer to "who do we want to be?"


You cannot define culture by actions. Rather, culture defines your actions.

Patrick Malone Interim President & CEO at Blairsville Union County Chamber of Commerce

July 11th, 2015

Culture is all talk at organizations that rely on posters and a team lunch and think it can be established with something small and cheap.

John Seiffer Business Advisor to growing companies

July 12th, 2015

Culture should be thought about consciously - but as others have said it's the guts of your company not the trappings on the wall. Things like - and I'll try to be non-judgmental here
  • What info is the company transparent with and what does it keep close to the vest?
  • How are people rewarded, and for what? Not just monetary rewards, but public accolades.
  • How are decisions made: consensus, directive, some combination? Does that vary with the personality or the position of the person or is it consistent throughout the company
  • How is risk handled?
  • What happens when a decision goes wrong? How is it learned from, communicated, shamed or celebrated?
These kinds of attributes are part of almost everything that happens in a company. If not thought about consciously they grow out of the personalities of the leaders. That can be good or bad. 

Paul Dowling Founder at Dreamstake

July 11th, 2015

I would say at early stage, don’t even play lip service to it. Best just to set the expectation that it is all hard work until some major funding comes in. Best, Paul

Denis duNann Co Founder at Hempworks Ventures

July 12th, 2015

Every start-up creates a Business Operating Plan measuring the financial forecast, the pro-forma, the budget.  A company should also create a Cultural Operating Plan measuring non-financial, employment needs and wants.
Both written plans are reviewed and adjusted with equal attention and intention.  A healthy culture is impossible to manage as you grow without a measurable written Plan.  No different than one could not successfully operate a business without a measurable financial plan. 

Talking about culture will not achieve the desired goals.  In fact, merely talking will destroy a culture.  Everyone in the company must have confidence that the company values a healthy culture as much as a healthy financial statement.  The employment needs to have confidence the management will make the necessary cultural adjustments, not just financial adjustments.  To be effective, these adjustments must be made based on measurable feedback.