Cultivating a Tech Team Culture that Lasts — a Founder’s POV
Creating a great company culture isn’t about an all-you-can-eat cereal bar or a skateboard-friendly policy. It’s about something much deeper and more fundamental.
The community of startup tech companies has smartly cultivated an image of tee-shirt-and-jeans quirky genius. A creative, solutions-first culture that crosses intellectual, technical and social barriers is the ultimate prize for entrepreneurs. It’s what clients are searching for and CEOs are dying to obtain. But it can’t just be skin deep, and going through the motions isn’t going to get you there.
When we launched App Partner, we knew we wanted to establish this kind of creative culture, so we did what so many startups do — we stocked a great snack bar, offered unlimited sick days on the honor system and kept to a pretty casual dress code. We also made an effort to talk to our small team about what was happening in terms of the larger business goals and growth. And it worked. For a while.
When we did surveys to explore how happy our team was, it was always off the chart. Until it wasn’t. We got bigger. We got busy. And then it hit the bottom line — turnover went up and great work became harder to obtain. There were growing pains and deceleration — textbook phases for a startup that can often spell the end.
Two years ago we reevaluated and refocused, and results have been incredible. We made a huge leap ahead and have finally created the kind of culture that not only creates fulfilled employees, but that also generates company-forward solutions that drives the success of the business as a whole.
Here’s how we did it — and some advice on how you can, too.
As with any project, strategy is the foundation of success. Spend some time identifying what it is your culture needs to promote within your company. What do you need your culture to do?
At App Partner, we want to deliver the best quality work to our clients efficiently and cost-effectively, in an industry that’s constantly evolving. So, for us, we needed our culture to sustain — and generate — continuous learning opportunities, knowledge transfer and long-term emotional investment from our team members.
Every company is going to have its own unique requirements for long-term, organic growth. Consequently, the culture that will reinforce those goals and help sustain that growth will also be unique.
Management doesn’t have the exclusive market on good ideas. Put a team on it. Make two or three people responsible for gathering and evaluating ideas based on your goals. Or open up the floor completely and get input from the whole team — start a group instant message or Slack channel specifically for brainstorming on how to improve the working environment. Not only will you get ideas for creating better company culture, you’ll also see red flags faster if something isn’t working quite right.
Ideas that have been generated collaboratively at App Partner have included everything from software changes that allow for better idea sharing to subscriptions to valuable online learning tools anyone can access at any time.
Our most rousing success has been our lecture series, where team members present on areas of their particular expertise to the entire company. Rather than always talking round-table style about tasks, we take the time each month to go into detail and explore various aspects of our industry as a whole. It breaks down those invisible walls that can pigeonhole team members with different skill sets and increases the likelihood for cross-department solutions.
Above all, don’t underestimate the value of just plain fun. Truly collaborative teams have to be on good terms — in the office and out. Game or movie nights, cook-outs in the park, random pizza on the house or dinner ordered in when the team is working late to meet deadline create a general sense of goodwill, meaning you’ll have a team more likely to understand (and forgive) cranky days, or put in extra effort for others.
Startups unquestionably rely on each and every employee rowing the boat in the same direction — and being responsive to changes in the industry. Keeping a team aligned with your mission in a creative culture was a question we wrestled with. Creative doesn’t mean everyone does his or her own thing.
This is where management transparency is critical.
To give an example early on — we made a poor decision of basing our schedule on a 35 billable hour workweek while most of our competitors were doing 40. We could’ve just rolled out the change in an email blast. Instead we explained our reasoning behind the change, asked for their input, and ultimately rolled out a Flexible Work Hour program that accomplished our business objective while letting employees have more control over their start and end times.
They loved the policy and more importantly the approach we took in introducing it. The lesson learned? If you want your employees to be consistently self-motivated to make the company’s mission a priority, they have to understand how what they do fits into and impacts the bigger picture.
You have to put the work into diligently and honestly sharing the trajectory of the company — for better or worse — because transparency breeds trust. And nothing unlocks innovation faster than trust.
Whatever you do, be consistent. We have institutionalized culture building at App Partner. It is a core component of our business and we treat it as such. From our pet turtles to our weekly team-wide meetings to our annual “State of App Partner” management presentation, our culture building activities have turned into traditions.
This is probably the toughest bit to stick to. How incredibly tempting it is to cancel that team trip to the movies when you have a project deadline looming? The key is remembering that it isn’t just a trip to the movies (not so valuable) … it’s cementing the company culture (invaluable). Remember: If it isn’t a priority for you, it will most certainly never be a priority for your team.
Ideally, if you’re doing everything right, you’re going to be growing. How do you make sure the culture you’ve worked so hard to build isn’t diluted by more people?
Plan for this positive problem now. Rely on some of those institutions and traditions you’ve already set up. Have a regular plan to review your culture strategy, ask your team for feedback and keep things transparent. Consider a mentorship program, matching new employees with those who have been there for at least a year to show them to cultural ropes.
Fostering creativity vs. providing frivolous perks creates real culture — an underlying vibe of camaraderie, mutual respect and a more resilient and progressive team. The time you invest building these relationships comes back many times over in efficiency and quality.
Never underestimate the value of nurturing a solid, responsive company culture. If you understand it, articulate it, debate it and communicate it consistently, when there is struggle — and there always will be — not only will your company culture endure, it just might save your assets.
— Drew Johnson, App Partner Co-Founder
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