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While in the shaping phase of a startup, founders often forget about building an organizational culture. But the sooner you start, the better. What founders do not realize is that a culture will form one way or another – the one they want, or the one that develops on its own.

Changing an organization’s culture is a long and difficult process, it is harder to undo than to do, thus we recommend you give this a little thought and build culture into your startup planning.

What is Organizational Culture?

It is a system of shared assumptions held by employees – giving rise to feelings, beliefs and values, which are seen in symbols, processes and behavior.  In its deepest form, organizational culture is defined by the attitudes held by the leaders of the company.

Johnson, 1988

Entrepreneurs start both businesses and cultures. Founders set the goals and determine the values necessary. The business then gets distinguished by these core beliefs, values, and attitudes, that guide its practices. This is under the founders’ control, hence founders can shape their company culture.

During startup mode, the values and behaviors that shape culture are often unspoken and more often than not, are formed by the behavior of the founder and other leaders, with other employees following suit.

Building culture in your startup has been a hot topic of conversation in the last couple of weeks, amongst the 10 businesses who are part of the Techstars program here in Cape Town. Below are a few tips based on those discussions, on how to actively shape your company culture:

Document Your Values

Allyson Downey, founder of weeSpring, explained an exercise where each member of their team had 15 minutes to write down what they wanted as their company values. This made everyone part of the discussion, and helped reach agreement on what the company wanted to stand for. Documenting your company values and regularly sharing these helps to keep all your employees on the same page.

No Excuses Culture

While having a valid excuse for a late deliverable can be understood, this should not become the norm. Making excuses instead of delivering on time on agreed objectives means that you are not supporting the company, not supporting your partner or team mates and simply not pulling your weight.

The lack of honesty – when you have to make excuses on poor execution – shows disrespect to each member in the team which impacts trust, and has a knock on effect to the integrity of the organization overall. It is crucial to stick to deadlines and if someone slips on a deadline, there should be consequences.

Without consequences, you are creating a culture where schedules and commitments do not matter and are not respected, and that, you do not want.

Hire Well

Selection and ‘fit’ of new employees is key to company success. “Shaping your culture is more than half done when you hire your team,” Herrin from Stella & Dot’s says. This makes complete sense. During a founder story, a regular part of the Techstars accelerator program, Alan Knott-Craig explained that if you are yourself, you will attract others like yourself, and in doing that you will form your tribe.

Be specific about who you hire – not only their skills, but who they are. As we heard from Clive Butkow in another session, “It’s better to have a good team with a crap product, than a good product with a crap team.”

Ensure that your employees feel like a team. Two minds work better as one, and as a team you can support, challenge and complement each other, and ultimately accomplish so much more, so much faster.

Set the Environment

A popular Brad Feld quote states that you cannot motivate people, but that you can create a context in which people are motivated.

An environment can be set by how communication happens within the company, how often, in which forums and in which form (written e-mails, posters, meetings). By practicing certain ceremonies and rituals, you can emphasize and celebrate the things you value – birthdays, product launches and achievements. Celebrating a teams wins is such a basic thing, but goes a long way. Be sure not to over-look celebrating achieving short-term goals.

Set employees up for success from the beginning. Set realistic goals that can be achieved; hitting them and celebrating them creates excitement and motivates your team towards the next goal.

Manage Risk

Starting a business is very stressful and creates much uncertainty. Managing risk reduces employees’ stress and fear. Creating a safe environment with open communication, where trust and transparency are upheld is a crucial responsibility of founders. Managing fear turns anxiety into energy, that in turn solves problems.

Trust by Trusting

In the uncertain world of the startup, trust is possibly the most important and fundamental aspect of building a strong company culture. This starts with a founder sharing his idea to a possible partner, or getting the first employee and hoping he/she will not run away and realize your dream faster than you will.  

When we heard from Alan Knott-Craig, he said that the only way that we can know if we can trust someone, is to trust him/her. He believes in trusting from the start, and then you can learn fast whether you can or cannot trust them.

Allow Freedom to Fail

One of the greatest gifts you can give your employees is letting them fail without making them feel like failures. In startup mode, failure is unavoidably part of the growth process. By ensuring clear communication and objectives, employees will get a good understanding of what is expected from them. Then if their experiments fail, be sure to respond in a way that allows for the growth and confidence to try again.

Allow for collaboration and innovation by assuring a no-fear environment where failure is understood and integrated as a core value. A no-fear culture allows people to take ownership of their work, whether it fails or not, and eliminates any need for excuses. This requires honesty and asks that employees communicate when things start going pear-shaped, which is always a good practice – in a startup or a big corporate.

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

We all need it – the tap on the back that says “well done”. Not only is it one of the highest motivations, but acknowledging someone’s effort and value, and not claiming it for yourself, shows great leadership.

Be Purpose-driven

Steve Blank asked his marketing department why they are here. He got task and function-orientated answers, which he was not happy about. You need to ensure that everyone in your startup knows what is expected from him/her, even down to a daily deliverable and what success looks like. In uncertain times, guidance gives clarity but also ensures alignment.

Be sure to make purpose central to all business strategies, but please, do not only do it because it is something you’ve heard is the right thing to do. Spend time and identify your business’s purpose, and let everyone be guided and motivated by it.

High Performance Culture

While you are working hard to shape your organizational culture, you should also focus on how you can make this a high performance culture. This requires an environment where everyone knows exactly what to do and how to do it. As mentioned earlier, set ambitious, strategic objectives and create an environment in which they can be achieved.

Ensure you attract and retain the majority of high performers, and be cognizant of creating the environment where these individuals want to be. Make sure your team and culture is energized, disciplined and goal and task-orientated. Demand clarity of thought, honesty, and dependability from your employees. Help them to understand a problem, know what to do, and then execute on this well.

Being consistent in applying core values at all levels is a crucial prerequisite. Ensure that work systems that are well executed are integral to your business.

Lastly, treat each other with respect and appreciate that you are a startup and that you need to evolve with growth. The startup’s corporate culture can and will grow and change. Work hard, but have fun and try to embrace consistency and continuity.


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Cerina Bezuidenhout Cerina Bezuidenhout
Cerina is an Operations Associate for the Barclays Accelerator, Powered by Techstars in Cape Town. Cerina has a background in operations, specifically focusing on manufacturing. She recently finished her MBA at UCT focusing on Lean Startups. Her core skills include Project Management, Continuous Improvement, Strategy and Lean Management Approaches.







  • Discipline, determination and drive ! Thanks for these structured thoughts that give us concrete key takeaways. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Facebook User

    The foundation supporting every corporate Business Model Canvas, from startup to going concern, is passion and culture. Companies with well-aligned cultures are six times more successful per Jim Collins in his book ‘Good to Great.’ You can have the best processes and people with the right skills but without an enabling culture, these resources will not translate into anticipated value.” Business Model Canvas diagram from dynalucid.com.