7 Things I Learned About Company Culture from Working at a Rapid-Growth Startup
When you take it upon yourself to boldly forego the “traditional” career path laid out before you like so many others, you are, in effect, taking a chance.
Instead of opting for the cushy office, solid healthcare program, 10 yearly vacation days, and access to things like free coffee and a company phone — all of which are basically set in stone for you— you elected to join a startup, where anything that exists today could just as easily be altered tomorrow.
At least, that’s what I did, 8 years ago. And don’t get me wrong, many others are pursuing that path nowadays, too.
The success and popularity of Silicon Valley-style “unicorn” companies has both risen the bar for traditional businesses and created an entirely new career path in the minds of many of today’s youths.
But that doesn’t mean you still aren’t taking a chance by joining one. Many of today’s startup companies are well-funded, determined, and well-positioned to succeed… but success doesn’t often come quickly and many who fail simply just run out of time.
By joining a startup, you’re essentially betting on a much smaller company’s vision. You’re also very much betting on your own abilities to impact that company’s vision.
And culture is one of the most important things, which brings me to the list of learnings I’d like to share with you today…
#1. Company Culture is the Most Important Thing
Reflecting back on my 5-year anniversary at my former startup company, I realized then just how important company culture really was. As I said then:
Whether you’re in search of a job at a new company or looking to start your own, culture is the most important piece of the puzzle. It’s the DNA of your organization, and as cliché as it may sound, it is the difference maker.
It’s the DNA of your organization. DNA is important. It dictates everything about what we look like, where we come from, how we act, and who we are.
#2. A Strong Culture Can Help You Scale
Sometime between late 2011 and early 2012, we held a company-wide all-hands meeting I will never forget.
In it, Gary Vaynerchuk (our CEO) told us that as the first 100 employees, it was our responsibility to maintain the culture we had established as the company continued to aggressively scale.
“I don’t want employee 500 to think this is only about bubble hockey,” he told us. We were young and very much had a work hard, play hard mentality, but work always came first. It was our core competitive advantage at the time, to simply outwork everybody else in our industry.
And the company continued to scale, rapidly. When I left last April, we were approaching 800 employees and $200M in annual revenue.
#3. Culture Breeds Trust, Teamwork, and Speed
Startup companies tend to be small, at least at first, so that inherently means developing closer relationships with the people around you and the ones you see and interact with every day.
As an organization, when you grow, people tend to see each other less and less, and new people come in all the time, making it very difficult to maintain many of those close working relationships you once had.
But if you can pull it off, the organization wins as a whole. Teammates trust one another, which often means less meetings, less micro-management, and more productivity and results.
I can tell you from experience that trust is what enabled us to scale so quickly.
#4. You Can Hire Against Good Culture
When you have a strong culture, you have something to hire against as an organization.
People develop a better understanding of what to look for. They start to really notice the types of people who’d make a good fit, or could potentially bring something new to the team.
At that point, internal referrals quickly become your hiring team’s bread and butter. That’s what happened at my previous company.
When you have a good company culture, word tends to spread about it, too. Ask a new interviewee what interested them about your company, then don’t be surprised when they give you their answer…
#5. The Bigger You Get, The Harder it is to Maintain
In my experience, maintaining company culture over time comes down to the individuals executing on its behalf.
When we were a tight-knit team of around 100, it was very easy for those of us who had been there the whole time and seen it grow to execute on the company’s vision in terms of hiring.
Personally, I had an amazing track record of interviewing and recommending people who not only fit our startup’s culture, but ended up staying with the company for 5-plus years.
Once the company grew, however, the median age in regards to tenure shifted and, before long, there were more people that had been there 2 or less years than there were that had been there 2-plus.
In my opinion, that led to an increase in new hires that were less than ideal in terms of culture-fit over time, and the company’s rapid overall growth resulted in the formation of different niche groups and cliques.
#6. A Few Bad Apples Can Ruin the Whole Bunch
When a company grows as fast as the one I worked at did and you start to experience what I just discussed above, you end up with a few bad apples as a result — people who come in, aren’t a good fit, start to resent the company, and start to make their resentment felt amongst the rest of their team.
Negativity is as loud a voice as they come.
When someone is unhappy, they start to care less about the company’s culture and vision. Worse yet, they make their unhappiness known to the people who can least help them, whether over lunch, a daily walk with a teammate, or a company happy hour. Not only can these people not help them, it also causes them to start doubting their current standing.
It’s just not good, for anybody involved.
Luckily, I worked at a place that understood this, so the company was relatively quick to dispatch, relocate, or part ways with anybody who fell into this category and was more or less hurting the wider team.
#7. A Strong Culture Creates Staying Power
When the startup company you’ve created has grown into a huge success, and you’ve done so by instilling a company culture that hundreds of people have now grown to trust, love, and believe in, that’s when you know you’ve built something incredible.
That’s also when you know you’ve built something timeless, because a great company culture has staying power.
Would I have stayed in a company for almost 7 years if I wasn’t impressed and intrigued by the company culture each and every day? Absolutely not, unless, of course, I was making $120k a year… but we’re talking startups, remember?
On the flip side, though, because of company culture, I was willing to go to work for basically free. I was willing to work hard, too — to show up every day without some false sense of entitlement or security. I knew that whatever I got, I earned, and I believed in the company’s vision.
I not only wanted to stick around long enough to see the company’s success and growth, I wanted to be part of it as well. I wanted to leave my mark on the place, and when I left, I felt comfortable knowing that that’s what I had done.
Culture has that kind of impact on people. My advice: invest in yours today.