Culture is who you are, not who you want to become

The misconceptions of free booze and ping pong tables

Melody Koh 🤔
Jan 29, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

I chanced upon the founder of one of the start-ups I used to work at, and we decided to catch up over some drinks. I was heartened to see that his company had developed a great product and a fantastic team; a contrast to me letting go of a venture I joined just a few months back.

He asked me why I decided to leave.

One of the main reasons, I told him, was the lack of a culture fit. I didn’t feel like I was getting along that well with other employees and following their ways of working was interfering with my work. My hopes for them to change was unrealised, hence, I decided to call it quits.

I blamed myself for not compromising well enough.

“That’s where you’re not right,” he paused. “Because people don’t change, they grow. So you were basically not the feather to their wing.”

I blinked.

“We’ve had misses and hits for our hiring in the past two years, it wasn’t easy creating our culture. The realisation was that there was nothing to create. Culture is defined. It’s already in the personalities and attitudes we hired.”

All of the sudden, everything made sense.

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Culture is beyond beer night and board games. It’s not just companies who have too much time or money in their hands. It’s not something that can be compensated as financial rewards or welfare benefits.

The definition of your culture

I have a strong belief/bias that only certain personalities would work well together in a team. When I was a child, I studied Myers-Briggs personality types and a bit on enneagrams. I wanted to be an industrial-organizational psychologist.

Big companies like Google and Facebook pride themselves in hiring people from varying ethnic groups and educational backgrounds. These companies celebrate diversity while retaining their own culture and identity.

However, not everyone can enjoy a bite of a multi-flavoured pie.

Why diversity for start-ups can be fatal

Start-ups start with a headcount of having the essentials onboard their team. A successful team is well-balanced in terms of skills and personalities.

Diversity* happens when there is an abundance or an lacking amount of a quality. For example, if a start-up hires 10 tech people and 1 for every other specialisation, the start-up is diverse in its tech team.

Depending on the goal and needs of the start-up, diversity may not be a bad thing. However, the reality is that many start-up founders are young and inexperienced, hence, managing these diversities might be a tall task when the business is trying to gain some ground.

Another example is if a startup hires 10 of each specialisation, but only 1 in design. The lack of design input in the company will cause an imbalance in the product’s output, and the small design team will constantly feel the bite of not being able to perform.

*After getting some feedback, the correct word is actually ‘disproportion’.

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The big debate on ‘Balance’

Many founders argue that there is no right or wrong answer to creating your first team. However, statistical evidence states that the mistake of not creating the right team is one of the top causes of a start-up’s failure.

The ideal team consists of both pragmatics and visionaries. You need people who dream of a bigger picture, and you need people who get things done.

You also need people of specific roles to get your team right.

Product owners/Project managers: The one who defines the product and its strategic roadmap for delivery. They will understand the problem and transform it into a sizable solution.

Business/Marketing Analysts: The insight providers who are your experts in business and data. They will measure and track qualitative and quantitative numbers to determine the business’s next steps.

Front-end/Back-end Developers: The creators that establishes the early stages of the product’s architecture. They will bring the solution to life via code and logical thinking.

Designers: The definers of the solution. They will take on the problem and solution and visualise it for the team and key stakeholders.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

How to fix the existing cracks

It is not the end of the world if your current team is not ideal. There are many articles and resources on building the right team, but not so much when you’re talking about fixing one.

If you wish to fire everyone and start anew, click here.
If you wish to fix things and hold on to your talents, continue reading.

Define your majorities

Who and what is your current team made out of? You need to understand the contents of your start-up before you can fish out the problem within.

3 steps to the big reveal 🌟

  1. List down every employee, their designated role and their years of experience in that role.
  2. Group them according to the industry/specialisation they’re in.
  3. Calculate the total number of years in one group

Voilà! You should be able to see the very basic outline of what your team is made out of.

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash


Marie Kondo has been inspiring the world about getting rid of what doesn’t spark joy in our lives. What she is an advocate about is merely a small part of minimalism.

Minimalism isn’t just getting rid of excess, it’s making sure you have the essentials as well.

Look at the board and ask yourself what kind of team your start-up really needs. Go as lean as possible.


At this point it sounds like you have to let go of some people before you start hiring more. Fortunately for you, this is not only your decision to make.

Set an appointment with the person you wish to let go of, and be honest about the reasons why. If the person wishes to stay, discuss what he can contribute to what the team needs at this point. If the person wishes to leave, then letting go would not be a problem.

If you’re thorough when hiring people on board, you should be equally thorough when letting people go as well.

The details of why a person leaves the team is a learning lesson for you next time you start building another one.

While letting go of some people, be on a look-out for your next essential team mates. This will speed up the team re-structuring process and ensure that you have a functional organisation again as soon as possible.

Don’t just look out for the skill sets you need, but also the personalities you want to inside your company.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The best practices

The first step to even having a culture is building the right team. Assuming that you have now gotten the team right, you’re ready to start growing your own culture(which hopefully isn’t something toxic or bacterial).

Value preposition

Find out the key trait everyone values while working at the company. You can do that by initiating a group meeting or talking to each individual privately.

The mistake people make here is only identifying the trait and not the “Trigger Condition”. A trigger condition is basically the motivation for the trait.

For example, my most valued trait is ‘openness’. Hence, people assume I would automatically be open and also create an open culture within a company. However, my openness has a condition: I expect others to be open as well.

This phenomenon is called “Psychological projection”.

Humans are mirror reflections of each other. What is part of our personality may not be reflected when we don’t meet a complimentary environment to project it.

It is not sufficient to just find out about what someone values, but also how to make sure they stick to those values.

Organise your positives

Even with unique values and personalities, your start-up should be able to form harmony from within. Our behaviours and beliefs do not function as separate communities, but rather parts of the big, organised setup.

Imagine that each positive trait is a play-dough of a different colour. When creating something with play-dough, you don’t just mash all the colours together and be happy with a ball of mush. Instead you imagine the possibilities of what that colour could become and how it can fit with one another.

After sorting out your current team, you can now proceed with getting new people on board.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Hire personalities

I have countless stories of how companies hire someone who has great skill and expertise, only to have to let them go because their attitude didn’t fit in with the company long-term.

Sam Gerace highlighted that other than looking good on paper, the ideal candidate needs 3As in order to be considered a good candidate: Attitude, Aptitude and Adaptability.

Attitude: A settled way of thinking or feeling about something. You want to make sure the ideal attitude is something that is desirable for the next 5 years.

⭐ ⭐ Aptitude: An acquired capacity to do something. Basically how much the candidate is able to perform, and how much more they can take over time.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ Adaptability: The quality of being able to adjust to new conditions and the ability modify something for a new purpose. You want to make sure that the candidate is innovative, one way or another.

“Hire an attitude, not just experience and qualification.” Greg Savage

What’s next?

Brain Chesky’s open letter to his entire team at Airbnb sums it up. Once you have established something solid, don’t let it go back to mush.

I believe one of the key focuses of a start-up’s founder, or even a company’s CEO, is to maintain a good culture. Where there is good culture, there is lesser need to implement processes to manage the lack of it.

If you would do anything for the success for your company, then take my advice: Focus on your culture first.

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Melody Koh 🤔

Written by

Digital product designer ⭐ Most of the time I write to counter the bullshit I read |

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