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The Secret to Building a Vibrant Startup Culture

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The Secret to Building a Vibrant Startup Culture

By Jill Evin
November 18, 2015

You have a great idea. Through a magical combination of the right people, the right timing, and the right goals, things take off and over the next two years you hire something like 20 people. There’s an energy, a buzz, and everyone’s highly engaged. You have everything you need to get where you want to be.

“Things continue to go well. You hit targets, refine your ideas, and your client base is growing fast. A handsome chunk of funding is on the horizon and you wonder, how on earth are you going to double the bodies in the room without disrupting the energy of your group? Is it time to define your company culture?”

It’s a loaded question. Before we even think about defining our culture as a company, it’s very important to keep something in mind: If culture is about inviting engagement and facilitating a sense of ownership and belonging which inspires people to contribute, then the moment we try to pin it down and start saying things like ‘it’s really important that you’re a culture fit’, we’ve already shot ourselves in the foot.

Here’s why: culture starts to become a limiting status quo, a guideline for what people should and should not share. This can prevent you from fully employing the people on your team. If you want to maintain a sense of life as you grow, you have to resist the temptation to dictate what culture is and stay open to new influences. Think expansion, not contraction.

I got turned onto the genius of this approach at by watching Foodee grow, because it’s going really well. Without any kind of top-down finagling, we are hanging out at hack-spaces on weekends, doing yoga, playing Magic the Gathering, knitting, making perogies, organizing group bike rides, hosting charity events, watching fireworks from boats, trading stickers and partying together. It’s weird.

I say it’s weird because I haven’t seen anything like it before. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen if people have an uninspiring and oppressive work life. People may pursue other interests outside of work, but the company can’t benefit unless people feel compelled to share.

Sometimes the dizzying speed we grow at in startups can lead us to overlook the importance of culture along the way, and when we do have time to think about it, we want it to be easy; hence the tendency to throw FB&S at the culture problem. Unfortunately Foosball, Beer and Swag won’t really make it go away. They aren’t bad as symbols of culture, but we miss out if we confuse them with culture itself.

“Culture is the multi-faceted chaos from which a brand emerges, not the other way around. The real secret to building a vibrant culture is to be receptive to your growing tribe and to draw inspiration from it as you brand your identity. Doing it this way gives your product the kind of character that people respond to.”

A company’s culture is a lot like a country’s culture. Some governing body has to clearly set guidelines of what is and is not acceptable behaviour so that everyone feels safe and respected. After that, culture is an incidental thing that ebbs, flows and changes with the people in the room. If it’s not allowed to grow and change it will lose meaning.

It’s easier to feel comfortable with this change if you trust that you have the right people on your team. The most likely contributors have an ambitious and passionate approach to life that drives them to set goals and adopt congruous habits and routines. They tend to explore several different interests, which gives them a lot to offer. I know this because the same guy who taught me how to build an auth system taught me how to shampoo a mullet.

Once you have the right people, get to know them. Ask what they got up to after work or how they lost their left eyebrow. Culture is about sharing our humanity. If you want to bring that out of people, you’ve got to interact with them and treat them with respect. Don’t chronically overwork them. Encourage them to lead sustainable, balanced lives. Give them time for their rabbit agility training or their art practice and encourage them to share.

Along with verbal encouragement, people like to see that others are participating before they take the plunge. If you’re in a position to be a role model for others in the company, start with modelling this yourself! You didn’t get to where you are by knowing nothing, and culture doesn’t have to mean playing guitar or painting. A lot of people would love to learn how to write a business plan, pitch an idea, or mix your baba’s famous Molotov cocktail.

“All of this operates on the assumption that people feel comfortable at work. It’s a strange truth that talents are a kind of soft underbelly that people only show when they sense safety and receptivity around them. Set this environment up by carefully considering how you treat your employees when they aren’t meeting your expectations.”

Instead of threatening them, let them know that you want them to get some support, hook them up with a mentor, and give them a reasonable chance to improve. You’ll end up with people who have benefitted from the skills of others in the tribe and are eager to pass on what they can.

Companies that allow people to contribute in unconventional ways are livelier and better-equipped to take on the world. They benefit richly from leaving off dogmatic definitions of culture in the name of celebrating who they are and fully sharing their talents. They know how to build robots and roast pigs on spits and that is why they rule!

About Jill

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