First-time founder? Here are 4 easy, actionable ways to build a rewarding culture at your startup

Building a connected and collaborative team can be one of the hardest, most intimidating efforts for a first-time founder to tackle. You have an amazing idea (at least, that’s the hope, right?) and you want the best and brightest people to help bring it to life. But after you hire a kickass crew of employees, how do you keep them engaged and excited in the day-to-day at a new company?

Everyone talks about “startup culture,” but what happens when you’re self-funded, early-stage, and don’t have the budget for office kegerators or weekly catered lunches? And what about when your team is working crazy hours or your freelance designer is 600 miles away?

Our team has faced all of these challenges since founding in 2014. Launchpeer is self-funded and has grown from three in-house employees into a distributed team of 15. Any given day, we have developers, designers, and strategists working in multiple time zones and on multiple projects. And (#HumbleBrag), we’ve been able to build a really positive and thriving culture despite all these challenges…all without ping pong, vaguely inspirational quotes on the walls, or Friday afternoon brewskis. (Just kidding, happy hours are the best hours).

So how have we built a rewarding culture? Here are four easy (and actionable) tips that any founder can replicate:

Culture is all about intentionality. The tone and environment at your startup don’t just come out of thin air, and your #OfficeVibes will not magically be like Google’s overnight. As the founder, you need to make culture a priority. Be intentional about creating connectivity and camaraderie. Write it into your company’s core values, and block off time on your calendar to brainstorm how you’ll put those values into action. Will you provide health insurance, childcare, work-from-home days, team building retreats? How will your culture be more than just words? Map out a timeline of how and when you can implement culture-related and team-building efforts.

We heard an interview with Richard Branson recently in which he said, “After all, a company is just a group of people,” and yet again, he hit the nail on the head. Yes — you’ve got a product, but your PEOPLE are turning that “ah-ha” moment into a scalable, profitable business, and when you make culture a priority, your team will feel inspired, challenged, and supported….and we guarantee they’ll keep working their asses off. If you really don’t think you have time or you’d rather be behind-the-scenes building the product, then hire an HR Director or Operations Manager who will make culture a priority. It’s worth it.

Open communication and transparency are key. For this, we swear by using Slack — it’s our go-to communication and collaboration tool at Launchpeer. We have team members in South Carolina, Colorado and beyond who can’t just chat with each other at their desks or in the office kitchen. Slack helps us create a fun and supportive “office” environment even though we’re not all in the same place. We highly recommend leveraging integrations and plugins to get the most out of Slack. Giphy’s integration supplies us with our daily dose of dancing cats, crying Drake, or, depending on their algorithm, a crying cat dancing to Drake. It’s a must for bringing subtle humor and camaraderie into our digital office.

We also use a plugin called Bonusly. The Bonusly integration allows anyone on the Launchpeer team to give peer-to-peer recognition for their work that week. Think of it like a virtual shoutout — if someone jumped in to help with a project or was just really on their game, give them some bonus points and let everyone else on the team know how much you appreciate their work. It’s a simple way to boost morale and help employees share how much they value one another’s efforts.

Make sure every employee feels valued — whether they’re full-time or just contracting with you a few hours a week. This doesn’t have to be time-consuming. We do a few simple things to create a sense of value and trust amongst the Launchpeer team.

Add all of your team members’ birthdays to your calendar (or to a shared company calendar, if you have one). Acknowledge their birthday in Slack or via a company email. Consider highlighting them on your blog or social media if that’s in-line with your brand. If your team is primarily located in the same place, plan a quarterly lunch or happy hour to celebrate recent employee birthdays. It might sound trivial, but we all want to feel noticed and appreciated, and simple, small efforts like this can make a big impact without incurring a big cost.

Book professional headshots for everyone on your team. Yes, even your regular contractors. Even the office dog. This is kind of a win-win. It sets the tone that all of your employees play an equal role, that you want each and every one of them featured on your website, and that you’re willing to include this in your budget. It also means your website will look fly as hell. If you have remote employees, consider sending a gift card or reimbursing them to book headshots with a photographer in their area.

Give your employees flexibility. This will take different shape depending on your industry, but for Launchpeer, it might mean employees working from home, attending events or workshops during business hours, or setting their own timelines for projects. Some of you might be all like “say what?!” but building some flexibility and autonomy into the work environment also, in turn, creates a sense of trust and value.

We’ve honestly never had issues with this because we have open communication (ahem, Slack), we set clear expectations and deadlines, and we know our team members actually work harder and smarter when they feel ownership over their own tasks and career trajectory. If our Social Media Specialist wants to check out a Facebook Live lunch-and-learn, why wouldn’t we pay for her to attend? Yeah, it’s in the middle of the workday, but she’s gleaning inspiration that will enhance what we offer our clients. Events are also awesome as the founder yourself. In the early stages, events give you a chance to connect with other entrepreneurs, tap into the community, and, let’s be honest, have some face time with the outside world. Later on, the allow you to share your company’s progress, build a network and support system, and discover new technologies or ways of doing things.

Ultimately, we don’t really care if our team members are wearing pajamas in their home office or working on something at midnight as long as they’re doing good work and getting it to our clients when promised. (They always do).

Foster collaboration by leveraging one of the many project management tools out there. We use a tool called Teamwork and it’s a critical asset not only for our weekly operations, but for creating a sense of, well, teamwork. Employees can create or assign tasks, add collaborators, contribute to projects, or offer feedback. They can also track their own time, upload notes and files, and see what everyone else is working on that week. Teamwork is a really helpful addition to our toolkit because it helps keep things centralized and streamlined (and improves the overall level of sanity at Launchpeer).

So there you have it. In less than three years, we’ve added 12 team members in multiple cities, taken on over 100 new clients, and managed to still really, really like each other.

Are you a first-time founder? We’d love to know how you’ve built a rewarding culture at your startup. Share with us on Facebook or Twitter with #LaunchChat and we might feature your story or question on next week’s podcast!