Why every startup should define it’s culture from day 1 and how you should define yours?

Vikas Jha
Vikas Jha
Sep 29, 2017 · 6 min read

Your culture is your True North. It will guide you, when nothing else can. These are values that get you and your team where you want to be.

The world is crazy. The business world is even crazier.

With the explosion of the digital revolution, there are more ways to reach out to your customer than ever before. There’s absolute chaos because the digital world is a constantly mutating beast.

You might wonder — Is there an anchor in this turbulent sea? Something solid and reliable, that people can count on?

I say yes, an organisation's culture serves this indispensable purpose.

Company culture can be the surfboard to ride the exciting waves of evolving trends. It provides the necessary stability to balance constant or accelerating change. Just like how The Rolling Stones have been rolling for 50 years and Dreamworks is able to produce wonderful films year after year, culture is the glue that helps the best teams thrive.

Most companies take too long to define their culture. We took four years to define ours. During these initial years, we went through an exponential learning curve.

Before I tell you about why company culture is important, I’d like to share instances of how I realised why and how I wanted to shape our company culture. I’d be happy if one of you can learn from my stumbles.

There was Chaos.

The fact is, when humans come together to work, different aspects of their personalities are bound to collide. There’s bound to be chaos. A chaos that can’t be defined using one word. Arguments erupted over varying perspectives and it was not always calm in the beginning.

We slowed down.

Employees slowly arrange themselves into smaller groups and each group tends to form it’s own micro-culture, at times, even imposing their micro-culture on other groups. And when different groups move in different direction, they are bound to slow each other down.

There was attrition.

Even though you as a founder might be rational in solving the tension between groups, in most of the cases you will leave at least one of the groups unhappy, unheard and dissatisfied. And most of the times employees tend to rationalize their job dissatisfaction rather than consider that they may be part of the problem. The unhappiness will sink in faster than you can imagine and they will quit. Sometimes, even quit in groups.

There was stress.

None of the employees ever admit that if they were part of the problem, they can be part of the solution too. Culture will be associated with you, the founder. When you see that the thing that took so much to build starts falling apart, a lot of agony and self-doubt will creep into you.But then you need to face the reality head-on. While your growth might slow down for a while, you and your team might have more control over the situation than you can imagine.

With all this happening, I, as the founder found it imperative to define and refine our company’s culture and shape it right. So here are some thoughts on what helps us define our culture — to shape our surfboard, so to say.

Company culture needs to embrace speed, because once you’re in business, life will never be slow again.

Over the years, I’ve observed a lot of people at various companies sitting around and working on a single task for weeks. What this often implies is that the executive is slow and in no real hurry to go anywhere. Moving fast is scary, perhaps even unsettling. But once you let this feeling sink in, you see that this speedy state of being has a lot to offer. There are so many interesting things to do, new perspectives to share, and barriers to break. Gradually, this becomes your natural state of being, and the change in pace can help a company’s capacity grows exponentially.

Company culture must nurture talent, but never tolerate bad attitudes.

At the business school where I went to, a professor once wrote an interesting maxim on the board — “Never meet your heroes”. This contrarian advice intrigued me then, and has stuck with me since. The professor’s reasoning was simple — “The heroes might just turn out to be egotistical conceited mortals”. So encourage an environment of humility at work. Encourage talent, celebrate success but never ever allow snoots to thrive in this environ. It would only diminish the cohesiveness of a talented and promising team. My point is, not only do we work with each other blending our talents, we also spend an awful lot of time together at work.

Company culture should reward hustling small deals, while planning the big score.

To move mountains, you start by picking up pebbles. Those who head right to the mountain will end up only with sprained backs. Most people don’t see the importance of small jobs, or they might even see it as a waste of time. However, doing 20 small tasks really well set you up for the “One” big challenge too. Working on small tasks can give you massive insights to help you plan the big score and refine your processes, thoughts and actions, so company culture needs to reward the team for doing the small things well without losing sight of the big opportunities

Company culture must celebrate the willingness to learn, and the ability to share.

There are good practitioners who are bad teachers and there are bad ones who might be great teachers. Both are messed up in their own way. The key is balance. A company must foster an environment where individuals feel happy and proud of sharing what they know instead of feeling threatened if they give away their secret sauce. It is the boss’s duty to identify individuals who do their job well and encourage them to share their knowledge as best they can, even if it means partnering them with the great communicators who might not know as much as their smarter colleagues. Learning and sharing is a complementary process — Yin and Yang, and nurturing both equally is essentially.

Company culture must constantly feel the changing pulse of human insight, and use it wisely.

Behavioral change is the most important change we are dealing with in the digital age — and only the power of human insight can help us lead this change. The company’s culture must exude calmness to move from failure to success with confidence and vice versa.

These are some of the guiding lights to designing one’s company culture. Of course, culture isn’t something where one size fits all. For e.g. an Investment banking firm’s culture would be very different from a digital marketing agency. One must really think it through in detail but I hope the points I shared are industry agnostic, and hence relevant to most.

With these in place, I’m sure you’d have your surfboard ready to keep you afloat in all the crazy tides to come. I would love to hear your thoughts on company culture, and what you expect company culture to be like in your dream company?

Most companies define their culture with words like fun, progressive or future-forward. Even though work in progress, you can read little bit more on Culture at Alore here and here.

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