Building Culture in a Startup

Does the title strike a jarring note? The first two words border on oxymoron, does it? How does one "build" a culture? Isn't culture a melting pot that is created by the coming together of various factors such as the people and their personal values, circumstances and environment which drives towards a mutual goal?

All true. In fact there are researches conducted in leading universities such as Harvard on organizational culture. But these are organizations that are evolved and have an existing ecosystem. In a startup, as with anything else, everything is built from scratch. How do you build something intangible like culture? Before we delve deeper into the subject, lets address a basic question.

Why should founders pay attention to Culture in a startup?

Rand Fishkin Founder of MOZ, who has the quirky title Wizard of Moz once mentioned how he decided to define the company culture after learning the hard way how it influenced work.

Given that it is one of the most important ingredients of success ( as it decides how the organization resolves issues in times of conflict to how does an organization support its team when they are in trouble and thereby ensures the loyalty of your best players), Culture is definitely not an aspect that you can choose to ignore. In fact, the earlier you pay attention to it, the better.

How does one go about building culture?
1. Define your Values

When Fourth Ambit was being formed, I don't think we sat around talking about what our values should be. But I believe that never proved to be a problem for us as we have known each other for nearly 2 decades (being classmates) and knew that each one had the same or comparable values in life - in fact, that is what brought us together in the first place.

We value Integrity, Hardwork,Team Play and in individual's dignity. The last one is very important especially when you have an organization with 50% women and have a zero tolerance policy of harassment.

Defining your core values becomes more significant when you are ramping up and your HR manager should be able to pick up the right cultural fit easily.

And its not enough that the top management or founders know about the values. TALK ABOUT IT. So much so that everyone knows that you are very serious about it!

2. Defining your End Goal

I have seen way too many start-ups with great ideas (or even a great product) that fails to bring in revenue. It is not just because of lack of expertise in implementation or marketing. The core issue here is lack of discipline or focus - not knowing your end goal and sticking to it.

Just because Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie to work, it does not mean he sees work as a fun thing to indulge in when fancy strikes him. Unfortunately today, startup culture has a bad rap because many of the college drop-outs just adopt the fun part of the hoodie culture and ignore the focus and discipline that comes along with this.

Reversing a popular adage, I would say Play Hard, Work Harder

3. Be flexible - but with boundaries & limits

One of the key aspects associated with working in start-ups seems to be the perceived relaxation in rules such as office timing, dress codes, etc

This is one perception that is leading to a lot of heart ache and disappointments these days. When you are just 3 people sitting in bean chairs hacking away, you can afford to have a beer at 3pm, sleep off till 11pm and then work non-stop till 7 am the next day.

But when the organization grows, and you work in a team it is just not practical to work at random times. Hence office has working hours and you will be expected to stick to it. While the Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer drew of lot of flak for stopping work from home options. If you are an individual contributor, you may still be able to afford more flexibility but if growth and responsibility is important to you, then you need to live within the constructs of common timings.

As Marty Fukuda says in his article

"attitude of letting things take their own course can, and often does, have disastrous effects."

Define what is important to you and lead your team towards it. With a committed and intentional approach, you too can create a Google, rumoured to be the best place to work in!

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