Culture in the Early Startup
A few years ago I came across an article by Todd McKinnon who asserted in a WSJ blog article that “long-term success is not predicated on creating a world-class company culture.” In this article he goes on to to describe attributes of culture like Yoga Wednesdays and executives droning on about corporate values, with the conclusion that “culture slows things down” to the detriment of early stage ventures.
Now fast forward a few years, in today’s world, with the now often sounding morose startup climate, I thought it would be good to revisit my own reactions to this perspective.
Given the increasingly harder conditions to raise capital and attract talent I continue to deeply believe that it is critical for founders not to ignore company culture. You can batten down the hatches all you like, but if the crew doesn’t believe in the captain they will still abandon ship. The culture you nurture is the foundation for a set of belief systems that will enable your team to persevere through tough times.
Beer on Tap, No Meeting Thursdays and Foosball are simply shallow aspects of company culture and are less important than the character and intent behind the venture. The most important characteristic of company culture is answered through the question of Why. When I get to know founders, I often ask them “Out of everything in the world you could be doing, why this company? Why now?” Each individual you seek to join the team will fundamentally ask themselves these same questions.
The people you want have a choice in how to invest their time. If a startup seeks their talent they will need to actively shape a culture that matches their expectations. That’s a flaw I see in McKinnon’s argument — people have a choice and the success of a young venture is based on its ability to attract top talent and they are more often than not looking to align purpose with passion.
In addition, I do hope that beyond the economics of success, founders place equal importance on building a lasting venture that can have a positive impact on their communities and society. For some, consider establishing such aspirations irrevocably via a B Corporation declaration.
But for all, explicitly shaping the character of the company through culture must occur before a company scales. Founders need to establish a foundational culture at an early stage because their power to influence diminishes in proportion to team growth. This becomes especially true as a team becomes distributed across a larger organization or geography. Culture should be adaptable over time and be sensitive to localities, but as a founder you’re going to want your extended leadership team to carry your ideals to all corners of the globe.
Establishing a culture that promotes strong character does not imply spending every waking hour producing inspirational posters or constantly debating ethics. Participate and encourage a conversation fueled journey that complements your growth. By choosing not to consider culture the void will be filled by others. And one day you may awake and not recognize the company you started.