How can you translate your values into sustainable startup culture?

Innovation, Transparency, Accountability— These are buzzwords entrepreneurs often throw around when they imagine how their startup will operate. In the midst of figuring out your cap table, building your product, refining your business model, acquiring users, and fundraising — taking time to cement foundations for company culture often get pushed to the wayside.

Dane Atkinson, CEO of SumAll emphasized, “Culture is the lowest returning immediate ROI, but the longest returning ROI you can make.” Sacrificing the time to discuss the culture of your company may seem unproductive, but in the long run, these discussions will determine the fate of your company. Think about what you want to represent in your organization, and let that become your ethos, the glue that holds your team together through the toughest times.

How do you translate your values into tangible systems that can actually manifest these values within your company? Dane Atkinson came to the recent SheWorx breakfast and expanded on how SumAll takes their overarching values and brings them alive by implementing practices that reflect their foundational beliefs.

  1. Transparency — Many startups claim to value ‘transparency’; however, as teams grow, it becomes increasingly harder to balance a variety of opinions and inevitably, hierarchies arise. At SumAll, Dane has managed to take this ever-elusive value and create absolute transparency in every structure of the company. Every document, board meeting, VC negotiation is available to anyone. Every employee’s salary and equity is available to anyone who wants to see it.
  2. Downward Accountability — Another policy SumAll puts in place is downward accountability in which leaders are voted in. This means that not only are employees accountable to their managers, but managers must also perform at their best because they are accountable to those below them. Bad managers are often one of the major reasons employees leave, and working for someone who employees do not respect results in disputes, malaise, demotivation. At SumAll, the ability to vote leaders in has resulted in stronger team DNA, significantly faster learning curves, and subsequently, a highly effective meritocracy in which anyone who performs well has a shot at taking a bigger role.
  3. Help the world — Whether incrementally or in large strides, most entrepreneurs begin with a genuine desire to impact and improve the world; however, as entrepreneurs become focused on building a great company, they often lose sight of why they were building it in the first place. When Dane set out to ‘make the world a better place’, his team found a way to imbue their hopes for improving the world in the company itself. At the outset, they had asked themselves “What are we here for?” and the answer was to not just do well for themselves, but to help others along the way. As a result, during the formation of the company, they set aside 10% of their cap table and created a shell company for a nonprofit of their choice. With this structure in place, they have provided exponential aid to those in need in parallel to the company’s success.
  4. Prioritize Culture — It’s worth re-emphasizing just how important it is to have this talk with your team as early as possible. In fact, Dane and his team started debating culture even before they had decided what product they wanted to build! Ideas will constantly be evolving, and your company will inevitably pivot, but having a strong cultural foundation is what will allow you and your team to consistently weather any storm. Moving forward, set a schedule to discuss and review your company’s culture on a regular basis whether every month, every quarter, or every six months. What are your most important company values? What systems have you found to be most effective? Ping us at sheworxnyc.com to share your thoughts.

Ultimately, the ability to clearly define your culture will allow you to quickly identify and hire the people best suited to join you on your journey. As Dane described, “Startups are like pirate ships.” For better or for worse, you’re stuck on this ship with a limited amount of people sailing towards the X on a treasure map, all hoping that when they arrive, they’ll find the coveted treasure chest. But the truth is, you really have no idea if you’ll ever get there, or if the treasure even exists… So while you’re on this ship, figure out what is most important to you, and make the most of this journey

If you have stories that you’d like share with the SheWorx community, please reach out to us at sheworxnyc@gmail.com.

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