Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Culture Shock: What Makes A Startup Culture Healthy?

4 tips on building a culture that *maintains humans*

I once worked for a company where getting a job came down to a ritual. It wasn’t an official policy, but it was the done thing. The management would get together, and the candidate would be given a shot glass of an unknown mixture of spirits, and they had to down it without coughing it up, to get the job.

That was almost a decade ago.

Are startups that much better now?

I’ll get back to you.

…And it’s not an isolated example of just *how* fucked startup culture can be. At its worst, it can be downright illegal and personally damaging, and its best it’s often toxic, dismissive and entirely disposable.

Nobody likes to be treated like they’re in a frat house, but nobody likes to be treated like they’re a wet wipe, either.

1. It’s about maintaining personal values.

One of the best CEOs in startups (in my honest opinion) has to be Joel Gascoigne from Buffer. He espouses transparency, he supports his employees and he’s kind of a good dude.

Here’s his thoughts on culture:

“There’s no right or wrong with culture, it is simply a combination of natural personality of the founding team in addition to proactive work to push the culture in a desired direction and to maintain certain values.
I think to build a culture that can inspire people to want to work for you, you will want to take the time to make specific changes to shape it. At Buffer, culture is definitely something we’re starting to be more deliberate about.”

It’s not about “this is who we are, so this is our culture.”

It’s about looking consciously at the natural parts of who the founders and the CEO are, and making deliberate decisions about what parts align with the right values for the organisation. That’s a big thing. And it does not happen by accident!

2. It’s about establishing those values early on and sticking to them.

Here’s Jotform CEO Aytekin Tank:

“Define your company values early on, and talk about them often. Think about what is important to your company. You can also ask your team members to sit alone and write down the company values they feel are related to your company. For example, what is your approach to flexible work hours? These can seem like minor details, but knowing your values beforehand will help you prevent any surprises down the road.”

This is something I can’t stress enough. You’ve got to make defining, redefining, revisiting, questioning, analysing and tuning your values an integral part of everything that you do. You’ve got to involve each and every person in your startup.

You’ve got to imprint it on them that “values” aren’t something laid down in stone, they’re a living and breathing part of the company that everyone needs to maintain a relationship with!

3. Think about language and think about the role it plays…

This quote is from one of my favourite people, Annie Parker former Fishburners CEO and now Global Head of Startups for Microsoft:

“Words matter. Whether you like it or not, potential employees, customers or investors will make judgments about you or your business based on how the language you use makes them feel.
“The words we use become part of the social structures of the groups that we’re in — they become signifiers and symbols of belonging. But more than that, they become an ‘othering’ tactic.”

When you approach culture, you have to recognise that words are the most obvious signifiers of it. The words that are and aren’t used demonstrate, illustrate and in many cases define the culture of a company. Are your words aggressive? Do they shame people? Do they incentivise overwork? Do they incentivise unhealthy attitudes?

Words have more power in culture than anything else. You’ve got to start looking at those words carefully!

4. Put down the booze.

I worked on a contract for a advertising agency a little while ago. Not as long ago as I would have liked, but let’s not get into that…

Drinking was an issue. And look, I enjoy a few glasses of wine myself, but this was drinking over breakfast. Drinking over lunch. Drinking at the end of every workday. Drinking with clients. Drinking with providers. Drinking because nobody in the firm knew how to relate to each other without it.

I haven’t had many experiences like that since, but I have friends who’ve left startups because of it.

A writer who has summed it up incredibly well is Sarah Jane Coffey in a piece for Wired:

I was three months into my first startup gig, as a community manager at a small company in Boulder, and we had just closed a Series A round of funding. To celebrate, we gathered for a customary champagne toast in lieu of our 9:30 a.m. team standup. By this time, my non-drinker status was well-known amongst the team; I declined my colleague’s offers of post-work drinks, beer from the office fridge. Of course, I’d been peppered with a litany of questions, but had never felt unwelcome. As one of the founders was pouring the bubbly liquid into glasses, I quietly mentioned that I would be passing on the champagne, but could we just pour some water in the toasting glass for me? He was visibly irritated, giving me a disappointed look, and pushing it in front of the small handful of other employees.
“Seriously? You won’t even have this small glass to celebrate with us? This is a huge deal for us.”
He handed the glass to me. The only thing between me — a sober alcoholic, terrified of not fitting in — and my boss — a man, whom I deeply feared confronting — was a glass of alcohol.

Danger.

Alcohol as an integral element of culture is a massive danger. Teams can drink together, and have a few laughs, and I love it. It’s my preferred way to hang out with my friends. But there’s a line!


Startups have to be able to think about culture. Even more in a world that’s high paced, increasingly run on Slack and not always built around longevity. The best piece of computational hardware you will ever invest in is a person. And if you can’t keep that person healthy, happy and engaged through a strong and vibrant culture, I know exactly who you’ll wind up like.

Companies who sacrifice humans. Companies who spit humans out. Companies such as Uber, whose culture involves abuse and strip clubs. Companies like Tesla, whose culture prohibits unionising and standing up for workers’ rights. Companies like Groupon, where the women who worked there still tell horror stories about the harassment and the abuse they suffered in a culture of violent over-drinking.