The 5 step gardening guide: How to build and cultivate a great startup culture

Sparrow Ventures
Nov 10, 2020 · 8 min read
Picture by: Markus Spiske

How would you describe your startup culture in one sentence? This seems like an easy question but in a lot of startups (or companies in general) “culture” isn’t really tangible and just a nice concept. So how can you build a startup culture that your employees feel connected to and why is it even important? And what has a gardening guide to do with it? Before we dive deeper into these topics, let’s first look at some basics to have a common ground of understanding.

Let’s start with what the definition of company culture is. Startup culture is well known for its perks like fancy offices with motivational posters on the wall, Friday afternoon beer sessions or no dress code. And of course, also at Sparrow Ventures we have certain offers for the team, such as team events, table tennis or snacks in the office. But is that really what a culture defines? Yes and no.

So what is a company culture then? While there are many definitions out there, I asked our Head of Talent, Angela Higgs, how she would describe company culture. She says that

“Culture is the common ground of people from all different backgrounds that believe in the same things in order to be successful.”

Another approach is to divide culture into two levels:

  1. Philosophical level: the intangible atmosphere of a company. So, to say the “spirit” or “soul”.
  2. Practical level: a culture that is formed around common goals, values, expectations, mission, and the physical environment.

In conclusion, you could say that culture is the identity of your company in order to reach common goals.

Now, as we have a better understanding of what a culture is — why should you care about it? As a startup founder in an early stage, your main focus probably lies on building your startup, improving your product or service, and basically making money to survive. Building a startup culture might not be on the top of your priority list but let me give you three reasons why you definitely ought to care:

  1. Performance: Human beings have the urge to belong to a “tribe” and are more motivated to work hard for their tribe. By creating an identity, your team will be more dedicated to reach defined goals together and perform better in the end.
  2. Retention: Employees that are working in an environment with a great atmosphere are more likely to stay at a company.
  3. Scale-up: At the very beginning, your startup only consists of the founder team who makes all the decisions. As your startup grows, your team needs to have some sort of guidelines to pass on, reinforce, and maintain the company culture.

Makes sense, no? But after all, when is the right time to start defining and building up your company culture? The answer is easy: now! Take your time to set and define the company culture early on. At Sparrow Ventures we defined the culture a few months after the founding, implementing a set of principles that was lived by from the very beginning. Bringing it to paper and sharing it with the whole team was key to get everyone on board. Also, to ensure we can integrate it into our day to day work life.

Now that we defined the basics, let’s have a closer look at what you need to do to create a strong company culture for your startup!

A gardening guide to building your company culture

While preparing for this blog post I couldn’t overlook the parallels to cultivating a garden. Honestly, I never had a green thumb and my plants usually didn’t survive longer than a few weeks. Therefore, I might not be the right person for actual gardening tips but based on my experience in the field of talent and people management, can provide some guidance and inspiration on how to build up a strong culture in your company — or at least how we at Sparrow Ventures did it.

Here comes my step-by-step gardening guide for your culture to grow and flourish:

1. Analyze your current garden

Take a look at the current situation in your garden. Means, before you already jump in and form the culture you want to build, first analyze, and check what you already have:

  • Values/principles: You may not be aware of it but by the first actions you take in your startup, you already started to define your culture! This might be the way you are communicating, the type of methodology you work with or simply the values you have as a person which influences the values of your company.
  • Purpose / Mission: What is the reason for the existence of your company? What problem do you want to solve?

2. Plan your garden

After having analyzed the status quo, let’s define how our culture should look in the future. Take your startup’s mission and ask yourself what kind of culture would your company needs in order to be successful and reach, even exceed its goals? This is crucially important as your culture needs a purpose and you don’t want to run around like headless chickens. Also, take these aspects of your startup into consideration when defining your culture:

  • Existing culture
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Type of business

To make your culture tangible and not just having it as a “nice idea”, define your core values and fundamental principles:

  1. Core values: Defines who you are and what you believe in — these are non-negotiable, and every employee should live by them. Don’t define too many as you want to have values that are manageable and easy to remember for your employees. You can take a peek at our values here.
  2. Fundamental principles: Defines how everyone should act in their daily work towards business operations — here you integrate key elements for your business into your culture. For example, if your startup requires that you offer excellent customer service, one principle could be “Obsessive customer focus.”

3. Plant your seeds

We now have the base for our company culture: we know who we are and how we operate to reach our goals. But how to transfer words into actions? “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” is for example one of our principles at Sparrow Ventures, so let me show you how we have it implemented in our company:

  1. Communication: Make sure that every employee knows and understands your values and principles. This can be for example through a shared workshop session with everyone in the team to explore and discuss these as well as having visualized posters as a reminder around the office. It’s also crucial that your employees know the mission of your company in order to create a culture of purpose.
  2. Hiring: We have embedded a cultural fit check in the first interview, where we assess the candidate against our values. It is crucial and essential for us as well as also in the interest of the candidate to share a common ground to decide on pursuing the application further. You can learn more about how we are hiring here.
  3. Onboarding: As part of the onboarding process, every new starter has a company culture session together with someone from the management team in the first week. Part of that is a deep-dive introduction to our principles and values so the new colleague is fully on board and ready to live by them in the day-to-day work life.
  4. Performance review: Every team member goes through a self and manager review where they are assessed on each of our values and how they live by it.
  5. Pulse survey: We are frequently touching base with the team about their opinions and how they feel in the form of a pulse survey, where we also ask questions with regards to our culture. That helps us to evaluate/identify flaws in culture and actively solve them. Here’s an extract of our most recent pulse check with the team and what kind of questions we ask:

4. Nurture your garden

Plants in the garden are quite similar to company culture: After you planted the seeds you don’t just stop paying attention to it. It takes a while and requires a lot of nurturing until the work pays off, the plants grow, and you can harvest the fruits. Some actions we are taking to underline and improve the culture at Sparrow Ventures include:

  • Create a pleasant work environment: physically but also mentally.
  • Team activities: something that builds connections amongst team members, fosters collaboration, and trust in a non-work setting while having fun together.
  • Lead by example: don’t just preach — be a role model! Live your principles/values in your daily business.
  • Recognize and reward employees that live by values and principles in an exemplary manner.
  • Create an inclusive culture and foster diversity.

5. Look after your garden from time to time

Ok, so now we’re at the end of the process: you defined your culture and implemented it. Work done, tick the box, lay the topic aside, and tackle another project — WRONG! Your company grows and evolves, your mission might modify, and new people join — these kinds of changes influence the startup culture. Therefore, every now and then do a little health-check on your culture and evaluate if the values and principles are still aligned with your current situation. Don’t be afraid to make changes — as a startup you’re interacting in a highly dynamic environment where things evolve all the time. Changes are a necessity! Also, at Sparrow Ventures we have adapted along the way.

As you can see, building a healthy and performance-driven company culture isn’t only about fancy startup perks — it’s ways more than that. It definitely needs time and dedication to create a strong culture. But if you put in the work and effort, you’ll experience the benefits from it no doubt. Let’s recap on the key takeaways of this gardening guide to build and cultivate a great startup culture:

  1. Culture is crucial to improve performance and increase retention but also to make sure that your startup can keep operating the same way when scaling up. Start reviewing and building your culture now!
  2. Choose a structured approach when defining your culture: take your mission, strengths/weaknesses, and your type of business into consideration.
  3. Execution is everything! Make sure that you implement and nurture your culture properly so that it is not just a nice concept.
  4. Review your culture every now and then to ensure that it fits your startup's current situation.

In the end, there’s of course not only one right way to do it. This is the way how we at Sparrow Ventures did it and how it worked for us, aiming to share insights and inspiration with you. I’m happy to receive your feedback, discuss this interesting topic, or get to know about the culture in your company — just drop me an email.

If this blog post made you curious about Sparrow Ventures and you think about working with us, check our careers page!

This blog post was written by Marco, who is a Talent Manager in our team.

Sparrow Ventures

Building kick-ass ventures and investing in promising…

Sparrow Ventures

Building kick-ass ventures and investing in promising start-ups as part of Migros. Based in Zurich — CH.

Sparrow Ventures

Written by

Building kick-ass ventures and investing in promising start-ups as part of Migros. Based in Zurich — CH.

Sparrow Ventures

Building kick-ass ventures and investing in promising start-ups as part of Migros. Based in Zurich — CH.