What is startup culture anyway?

Aaron Asaro

12 minute read

Seasoned entrepreneurs often give a good culture as the starting point for replicating their success in business. I can't tell you how many times I heard that in my youth, and then promptly ignored it. Many years ago I was part of a startup[1] with culture that went off the rails. It's only at that point that I realised why these entrepreneurs talk about culture so much.

Picture this. It was a cold day in winter. My co-founders and I had just raised some money and were drawing up plans for how to build the company. We put together a cultural outline (vision, mission and values). We picked cool, inspirational words[2]. Then we finished the meeting and got back to work.

I focussed on hiring engineers and building tech (my area of expertise). From interns to engineers we recruited people based on aptitude alone. I had forgotten the cultural outline. I think the others did too. We never applied the cultural outline to anything so it never shaped the culture we wanted.

After just a few months the atmosphere in the office became difficult. People were bitchy. Everyone became anxious. A little while later the startup failed.

Since then the spirit and culture of a company has become an obsession of mine. I've seen how wrong it can go. Now I work to build tools to help others do it right; to create a beautiful workplace culture. If you want a beautiful culture for your startup, it starts with the founders creating and applying the cultural outline.

Can your team see your vision clearly #

What's a vision? It's the answer to: "what does the world look like if you manage to pull off your mission(s)?". It's supposed to be inspirational. It's supposed to give the company a purpose.

If truth be told, when I read stuff like this I hear "bla, blah, blagh". Why? Well, the form of the question makes me uncomfortable. It invites vague soul-searching answers. I prefer something tangible - something that can be measured. I guess it's because I tend toward tactics, rather than strategy. Execution of tactics gives you more of a sense of accomplishment. Strategy (and the pursuit of vision) is slower, and the results take a much longer time to show. Unfortunately tactics, without strategy is a disaster waiting to happen.

The point of a vision statement is that it helps different people in your startup align on why they're there. So, super duper marketing Margret, and radically cool Engineering Angie can independently tell their families what value they're creating for the future.

The vision is a guiding light. The clearer it shines the easier it is for those you hire and lead a team to build the future you inspire.

On a mission to build the future #

Okay. So your vision is how you imagine the world to be when you succeed. Your mission is what you're aiming to do to bring about your vision. This is what people can practically measure themselves against. This is what will allow people to suggest products, services, etc. that aren't totally left field - as they have to be consistent with the mission.

Think about not having a mission, but having a vision of establishing a colony on Mars. Your team could propose anything from:

  1. A Martian Olympic games, featuring all yet-to-be-established nations of Mars
  2. A pair of sunglasses that would look fabulous against the red-tinged soil
  3. An operation to take future tourists to historical artifacts like Perseverance (the Mars rover)

Not terribly useful in the here and now... The cure for this is the mission. Perhaps the mission is to develop an exoskeleton for use in building the first Martian habitat in 5 years. With this, your team knows what the world they want to see looks like (vision). They know what they're aiming for (mission). Now their suggestions will be more sensible e.g.

  1. Batteries that work in low pressure and temperature environments
  2. Joints that work well in a dusty atmosphere
  3. Lasers just in case of martian attack 👾

So, the mission makes life easier. It gives your team all the goodness of SMART goals, which in turn means you don't have to micromanage. The mission is managing for you! Yay for force multipliers!

Your startup legend, and the values that create it #

In my experience, values only work if they're consistent with what wakes you up in the morning. Yes, you can choose nice words that everyone likes the sound of. What's better though is to think of a story where the co-founders were all working at something together[3]. If you were to characterise that scene - what would it be? Relentless? Playful? The story is important for you now, and will be essential later. The stories you choose become your startup legend.

Okay. Values. Startup legend, check. What now?

  • When you hire, think about how a candidate might have fit into your value stories.
  • When giving employee's feedback, invoke the stories to shine a light on where things might improve.
  • When you're making decisions for the business - check it fits in the spirit of the values, and the narrative of the stories.

If you want your culture to have real power, the values (and their stories) need to permeate every part of the business. So. If you have stories that fall short of the values, those are useful too. Use them as counter-examples of how and why things went wrong, because you were inconsistent.

You know you've done this right when some prospective candidates see your value-stories and think "this isn't for me", while others see them and react with "this was made for me".

"Nature abhors a vacuum and so do strong leaders and they will project ... their own wants and dreams and desires and that's how hyper growth companies can go off the rails" [4]

Wherever you turn smart, established startup founders say something like: "codify your cultural outline as soon as possible.". The reasons given vary but the message is clear.

I honestly wish I'd known about the value of the cultural outline 20 years ago. I heard smart people mentioning it, but never understood how to apply it. Here's hoping you learn more quickly than I did <3


Footnotes

  1. I'm using the definition of startup a little loosely here. It's not the pg version of 10% growth. Instead it's when you have a group of people that's more than just the co-founders. ↩︎

  2. We were just copying the big kids. We didn't know why we should do this at the time (at least I didn't) - that's why it didn't really help us. ↩︎

  3. If the founding team doesn't have shared values - worry. As a simple example: if you want to build something meaningful for humanity and your cofounder just just wants cold hard cash it's going to be hard. There is a world where those values overlap, but it's tough to find - and you're not exactly setting yourself up for success. ↩︎

  4. Blitzscaling 19: Jeff Weiner on Establishing a Plan and Culture for Scaling, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYN3ghAam14 ↩︎