Company Culture · Entrepreneurship

Everybody talks about culture, but we’re a startup. Should we really spend time worrying about culture?

Uzair Usman Partner at Usman Group | Independent Business Consultant

October 28th, 2016

If you check out startup blogs or entrepreneurship magazines recently you can see bunch of articles about company culture. I just started a company and I have so much on top of my head that I barely find time to spend time with my family, eat and sleep.

I am trying to make myself to think of something but I am postponing it all the time. Is this really so important? Can it wait or I have to spend time on that, or get some help?
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David Martin

October 28th, 2016

Culture is aways important.  I am baffled as to how someone could even remotely suggest this is not important, other than as Jerome stated (perhaps a little harshly :)) has no experience running a business.  Stating developing a culture is not important...ESPECIALLY when you are small and starting...yeh..ok..Im with Jerome on this one, probably some of the worst advice I have ever heard.  Delivering a good product is not culture, it is a result of what the culture builds.  Kepping customers happy is not culture, it is a result of a great culture that has values that support customer satisfaction.  Definitely some confusion there.


From the minute the idea to build a company pops into your head, culture is a key element in the foundation of your business.  But before that it is a key element in even getting to each new day.  To Laura's point, farrrrrrrr too many people limit culture to what kind of furniture is in your office.  It is part of it but very small in comparison to the mentalities and characters and values within the leadership and staff.  I always find it hilarious that so many start ups I see seem to tout having a pingpong table, or the company dog.  Seriously look up tech start ups in Austin or other trendy cities.  I would say at least 1 out 4 have a profile of a dog.
The damn dog is not culture!  Having people who are caring enough to clean up dog mess might play into that a little I suppose!

The people make culture as has been stated already, and the people impact it.  A recent job posting for a successful company I was dealing with bragged, "The culture is great.  All the free snacks you want."  I commented to the CEO, "Do you really think a smart employee evaluating financial planning for a household is moved by bulk snacks you buy at Sams club or Costco?  Do you think you will attract top talent with snacks that cost a quarter?" That is a smoke and mirrors presentation of culture, as is "cool."  As if eating free snacks encourages employees to work harder for greedy or manipulative bosses.  Knowing that you can not shower for several days or wear deodorant does not make your culture relaxed...and it likely annoys those with personal hygiene.

Be yourself.  If you are a jerk and lack integrity, people are going to see through it regardless of facades.  If you have character, which hopefully you do, let that be the example that shines through in all decisions and actions in your business.  As you attract the right people who posses valuable qualities that truly influence culture, then you can worry about how free snacks or a ping pong table, or dress code impacts culture. 

Culture is absolutely important for you as a startup, because you need to know what type of people you want to work with and for you.

To finally get off my soap box.  I want to say one more thing that is far more important than ANY of the advice given on culture.  If you are barely finding time to spend with your family, that is your first priority over defining culture or any other aspect of your business.  A lot of Alpha male (and female) business types brag about not having time.  I recognize you were not saying this trying to be cool like most, but rather seek advice.  There is nothing admirable or "cool" about not having time.  Whenever I hear entrepreneurs brag about this, I think "You are a poor manager, because you can not prioritize and delegate in a way that does not create chaos in your life."   There is nothing more entrepreneurial than having a family period.  And there is no greater entrepreneurial success than building a strong family.  Im sure you know this, but in the midst of start up chaos, I pray this always takes priority.

Frank Gartland Product & Marketing Leader | Technical Readiness & Online Engagement Expert | Vision/Execution Blender

October 28th, 2016

As Steve Blank says so well, if you're running a startup, your only goal is to no longer be a startup. If you want your company to survive and thrive, having a culture your team loves is essential. Startups are hard. There are times when the culture is the only thing keeping your team members there. Best of luck, Uzair!

M.H. Lines Inquisitive learner, voracious reader and technology enthusiast

October 28th, 2016

When you see most of those articles talk about culture, there is a lot of focus on artifacts and physical environments.  But the most important thing you can do when starting a company with employees, especially early, is to be intentional about the behavior you model.  How do you communicate?  Do you empower employees to make customers happy?  Do you have a solid rhythm of business, do you ask employees how to improve the business and act on their feedback?  As you grow, make sure that your first few "Management" hires manage the company the way you want it.  In my last large team, we grew so quickly that I was hiring 90% competence, but would up with two strong dev leaders - one who was magical and could make everything happen himself, and one who wasn't as fast but put in great qa process and every person on his team contributed.  The team admired and praised the first and emulated him, but to scale, we needed to be much more conscious about praising and focusing on the second sytle.  It took months and agile consultants to fix the team's approach back to something scalable. 

Laura Edwards Producer, Media - Tech Strategist

October 28th, 2016

Culture is everything but it doesn't take happy hours and ping pong tables to create it - it's basic: be straight with your team, and lead by example (if you are always off at burning man and every party worldwide, think how that looks to people you are asking to pull all nighters?)

Jerome Peloquin President, Family Fish Farms Network, Inc.

October 28th, 2016

I have the same problem and I'm an organizational psychologist. Whether you choose to accept it or not, at this point you ARE the culture of the company. It is your personality, your belief system, your management stylle that will establish the kind of company you will have years from, sorry but you kneed to think about it now ! This should be your personal contirbution to your company. First! DO NOT LIE TO YOUR EMPLOYEES Jerome Peloquin President The Family Fish Farms Network, Inc. 717 Lawrence Street, NE Washington, DC, 20017 cell: (410) 227-0498 (Skype) fishfarms1 LinkedIn Profile email: aquaponikus@gmail.com website: www.thefamilyfishfarmsnetwork.com We grow healthy local food ... save fresh clean water ... create decent paying jobs.

Rob G

October 28th, 2016

as a startup CEO your most important skill (and there are several 'most important skills') is prioritization and your priorities will change as time goes by (as they should).   Culture is what you (and the founding team) make of it so if it's important to you today you'll make it a priority, if not you won't.  Chances are that right now culture is not a live or die issue, building a product and getting customers are probably much higher on your list.... and that in an of itself is reflective of your current culture - a startup with a culture that prioritizes survival over, for example, the kind of swag you have in the office.  That will appeal to some and turn off others, but it is what it is for now.   That said, culture is something you should give thought to as you bring on co-founders and early employees to the extent that you at least have an understanding of what you think your company culture will/should be.  Just be cognizant of it so you screen for compatibility as you hire.   

Jerome Peloquin President, Family Fish Farms Network, Inc.

October 28th, 2016

To paraphrase the great Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi when he talked about winning ... " Culture is not the important thing. It's the ONLY thing.:" Absent a supportive, open, and participative culture the workplace becomes drudgery, fear, and recriminations. The management model becomes "... Search for the Guilty." Do not believe the big sign behind the receptionists desk ... because it ain't so ! Management Integrity is the single most important factor ... next are transparency, openness, honesty. The first time you or one of your managers lies, or condones lying you have lost data integrity ... It does not have to be that way. With the right culture you gain an asset of in estimable value ... The Loyalty of the Staff and/or Employees. Culture is the Queen and King of organizational managers everwhere. A company can be profitable with a shitty culture but if money is the only reason your staff comes to work ... your company is in trouble. The best culture uses management and supervision not as police but as mentor coaches. Very few people do not want to do a good job (data says less than 2%) Mangement's job is provide two things: Information and Incentive ... properly incented workers do not need supervision ... wanna know more - ask me! Jerome Peloquin President The Family Fish Farms Network, Inc. 717 Lawrence Street, NE Washington, DC, 20017 cell: (410) 227-0498 (Skype) fishfarms1 LinkedIn Profile email: aquaponikus@gmail.com website: www.thefamilyfishfarmsnetwork.com We grow healthy local food ... save fresh clean water ... create decent paying jobs.

Rick Normington Dean, Dept Chair and Professor at Sierra Nevada College

October 28th, 2016

Don't be confused by overly complex definitions of 'company culture.'  Think of it simply as your pany's values regarding how you want employees to treat customers, suppliers, each other.  In that context you are already creating a culture by the example you set and the behaviour you tolerate and/or encourage.  Yes, it's vitally important, but doesn't necessarily require lots of extra work.  Just be conscious of  the examples you set. Rick Normington

Rob G

October 31st, 2016

Uzair;  you have a thousand+ things to think about at this stage.  Should you spend 4 weeks putting together a 100 page, NetFlix-ian culture manifesto? No.  You'll never get off the ground.  Should you spend 2-3 hours next week with no distractions to think about the kind of personality/culture you want for your company? Yes.   Should you produce some kind of a 'culture checklist"?  Not a bad idea so you can use the checklist to screen candidates for your early team.  Your company culture is a reflection of you and your management team and i'm guessing your team currently consists of you. You will hire the management team and either unconsciously bring in early team members that mirror your personality (and cultural priorities) or consciously screen for character traits that fit your 'culture check list' or, as is often the case with startups, you will bring in whomever you can find and afford to fill the holes you need to fill at the time so you can make some progress so that there is a tomorrow for your company.  If you don't build a product and sell it culture doesn't mean a thing.  

Also understand that culture in Pakistan is different than culture in the US or Europe (for example).  I don't have business experience in Pakistan, but i do have experience building teams in India, US/India combined teams and with US teams with members of Indian heritage.  If you plan to do business in the US be aware that US business culture and Pakistani business culture are likely different in key areas and you would be wise to seek some US-based expertise. 

Shel Horowitz I help organizations thrive by building social transformation into your products, your services, and your marketing

October 29th, 2016

I will join the chorus. It's not a coincidence that 15 of the 16 responses note that culture is quite important, and that the lone dissenter has received three downvotes. I don't know if you've been following the discussion on how to tell good advice from bad, but near-consensus is often an indication that there's something real.

I'll repeat and elaborate some of the advice.
  • Culture is not about the toys, but about the mindset. Creating happy employees is a culture decision. Putting in a ping-pong table or whatever is merely one among many tactics to carry that out. Giving employees an ownership in the outcome is IMHO a much better tactic. When they feel they have real input and that input impacts operations and marketing, they will be well on the road to happiness. When they feel empowered, listened to, respected, and well-managed, they get farther down that road.
  • Key elements of culture include a 100% consistency around business ethics. Truth in all aspects of the business--what you tell every type of stakeholder)--is key to success.
  • Here's where I'm adding something new: setting yourself up form the get-go as a planet-friendly business is a key part of organizational culture that's often overlooked. Build not just sustainability but regenerativity into your core products and services. When everything you sell actually makes the world better (e.g., turns hunger and poverty into sufficiency, war into peace, and catastrophic climate change into planetary balance)--not through a charity add-on but in its core design--and when everything you manufacture is designed to consume minimal resources, be disassembled at the end of its life for reuse/recycling, and not pollute in either its manufacture or use, then you attract idealistic employees who want their jobs to mean more than their paychecks.
And yes, I can help in these areas. As a start, I'd recommend that you visit http://goingbeyondsustainability.com/freebies/ and do one or both of the assessments (no cost and you actually earn some time with me), watch the TEDx talk and look at the slides, and download and read the sampler from my 10th book Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World.