People Ops Question: How do we define our company culture?

By Sabrina Kelly, Techstars Vice President of Talent

At Techstars, we define our mission in People Ops as the following: “We are strategic partners in building Techstars business by maximizing the value of our most important asset—our people. We attract, retain, develop, and support Techstars employees globally and aim to uphold our culture and values, in a manner that is inclusive to all.” 

As VP of Talent, and former VP of People Ops, I hear a lot of questions from founders. This series aims to answer the most frequent questions. 

Q: How do we define our company culture?

Don’t overthink it. Get your leadership team in a room and talk about why you started the company:

  • Why did you choose this problem? 
  • Why did you choose the people around you and what makes your team uniquely awesome? 
  • What do you want this to be in five years? 
  • What types of behaviors do you value in the people by your side now and want to continue to see in them? 
  • Maybe more importantly, what types of behaviors DON’T you want to see in those people?

Lay all of those cards on the table, get excited, and put together a one-pager based on everything you’ve just gotten aligned around. Take that one-pager and pull out some core values that really seem to jump off the page. If you can do it in a way that feels genuine, create a mantra or vision statement that you’d be proud to put in front of your employees. Take those values and use them as much as possible in company communications, onboarding, interviewing, and management to create and maintain alignment. 

Lastly, while having a strong value-based foundation is critical, you shouldn’t be afraid to revisit and challenge your values often. And don’t be afraid of the people who do; they may just be the people who help drive the company forward at the right moments vs. allowing it to stay stuck in the past. 

Techstars Talent enables you to build highly successful teams! Check out what Techstars Talent can do for you. 

This piece was originally published on Techstars Stories.

Hiring, the Single Most Important Skill as a Founder

Today’s post comes from Moritz Plassnig, founder and CEO of Codeship (Techstars Class 22).

The longer I’m involved in Codeship (the company I co-founded), the more other founders I mentor, the more I’m convinced that people and a great team is the lifeblood of a fast growing startup. I would even go so far as to say that people are the foundation of every organization, big or small, high-tech startup or huge corporate juggernaut. But the startup world is unique in its constraints and also in its opportunities and thus, the emphasis on building a great team is more important at a startup than in any other organization.

There’s no such thing as overnight success, as much as countless books and movies try to portray well-known entrepreneurs as geniuses. Success is the product of a variety of factors, hard work as much as great and unique skills, the perfect timing and elements outside your control, such as luck. The more you as a founder, CEO or leader can remove the latter from the equation, the better off you and your team will be.

Building a great culture, hiring skilled individuals and forming an amazing team out of it allows you to make your own luck. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s within your control.

Investors Invest in People, Not Ideas

As much as you like your idea and believe that the market conditions are perfect, the truth is that most companies will change and adapt their product down the road. The founding vision of Slack was to build a gameInstagram started out as a Foursquare-like check-in app called ‘Burbn’ and you all know the story of Twitter being a side product of a podcast platform. What all those companies had in common was a strong team that was able to take new ideas and build new products until they were the success they are today. The people working at those companies were able to adapt and change and build a great product. Maybe your company won’t pivot completely, but you will learn, adapt and improve, as you gather feedback from your customers. And the more feedback you incorporate, the better you get.

The ability to do that, to listen to the small feedback between the lines, knowing when to stay stubborn and when to adapt is one of the most important and hardest to learn skills for a founder.

Great investors, angels and VCs, know that and despite the importance of a potential big market, an important enough to be solved problem, the team is the key reason why they will eventually invest.

Early On, Every Hire is Crucial

Summarizing a successful startup in one sentence is simple: Great people build great products, get great customers and eventually will build a great company. As simple as it sounds, doing it right is incredibly difficult. You will face a lot of challenges in the early days of your company and the more successful you are, the bigger your team gets, the harder it gets to keep your team members aligned and your company on track. The one thing that you should keep in mind is that at the end of the day, everything, good or bad is caused by the people in your team. Empowering your team and getting out of the way is key but it’s only possible if you hire the right people.

Small companies don’t have the luxury of making a lot of mistakes. You are always resource constrained, both money and people, and despite not having enough you have to build a great product, nail the distribution and find a viable business model. This can all work out great if you did your job well and found great co-workers, but it can also go sideways instantly if you did a poor job. Nothing is more dangerous for an early-stage startup than one bad hire, one person who isn’t a culture fit or who is simply not good enough at their job. Even if you together resolve the situation fast, you will get distracted, most probably won’t build a great product during that time and lose a lot of time.

Bad hiring is one of the most risky and costly mistakes you can make in a startup.

Great People Attract Great People

Nothing is more attractive for talented job seeker than a team full of really skilled co-workers. Despite all the potential problems of a bad hire, the huge upside if you do it right is tremendous. With every great person that you can convince to join your team, your team gets better and it will also get easier to attract the next person. Hiring is a self-fulfilling prophecy and therefore gets simpler over time. The hard part obviously is to get everything started. How to hire the first employee if you don’t have an amazing team that everybody is talking about?

Solving this chicken-egg problem is crucial for getting your company off the ground. The good news is that you already have a team, even before your first hire. You and your co-founder(s) are already a team (which is one of a countless long list of reasons why you shouldn’t found a company alone). You found your first follower, you did the hard first step already. Maybe, you even managed to get a small investment or you convinced somebody to be your advisor. You will have a team long before you have hired for first employee, although it might not feel like that.

Culture is More Than the Sum of Every Team Member

Even if you hire only smart individuals, despite their respective skill sets you won’t automatically create a high-performing team. Great teams are generally a group of amazing individuals mixed together in the right way. The glue between the outstanding senior engineer and the young up and coming designer, the magic that makes sales work well with product is having the right culture.

Culture is not about free food, nice X-mas parties or other perks. It’s about shared values and beliefs, the common ground of every discussion and the bigger reason why you are all working on the same idea.

Great culture makes you win, great culture will help tremendously to survive tough times. Having a great culture will simply make you feel that it’s easy to build a successful company.

The importance of culture heavily impacts your hiring. Every single person you bring on in the early days changes your culture, in a good or bad way. Figuring out if somebody is a culture fit, if somebody is the right person for your team instead of finding the best person is crucial. Although culture is defined by your team, by every single individual, you still have to work hard on it and you won’t get it automatically by hiring right.

Your job as a leader is to facilitate discussions, offer a vision and set the guard rails. Nothing defines culture more than actions and your team can’t take any actions if you don’t provide the guidance they need.

Cultural fit is really important for every new hire but it’s only working if your culture is great. That won’t be the case all the time. You will face times where your culture starts getting sideways, where you can’t be as proud of your company as you wish you could be. Especially in those moments it’s important that you critically challenge the status quo. What’s great, what’s broken? If your culture is broken and you’re blindly hiring with an emphasis of culture fit, your culture will actually get worse. You can’t use your culture as a safeguard if it’s broken.

As much as great people, a great culture attract more great people and can result in a better culture, as much as it can go into the opposite direction. Be aware of your own bias.

Hiring is a Skill and It Should Be Your Most Important One

Hiring is not magic, it’s not luck, it’s a skill. Some people are better with it from their first job on, others not. Maybe you are but if not, you can learn it and even if you do great right now you should still work hard every day to improve. The faster you figure out if somebody fits into your team, the faster you can evaluate the skills of an applicant, the better it’s for you and your company. Even more important in today’s hiring market, the better you are in convincing people to join your team, in selling your vision, the better people will eventually work for you. Again, it gets easier over time to more great people are working for you.

It’s important to understand that it’s not just about you interviewing a candidate. You have to design a hiring process that involves your team, that gives the candidate a lot of opportunity to evaluate you as well. Every growing company faced the same challenge and you can learn a lot from the best practises of the industry, from companies that did a great job with hiring and also from companies who failed. Luckily, now more than ever, startups are willing to share their journey starting with small insights and some tactical advice as far as being completely transparent like Buffer. Take the opportunity and learn from those companies and their failures and successes.

Don’t forget that you are always hiring. It doesn’t matter if you are doing a job interview in your office or if you are at a friends party. You are always leaving an impression, if you want or not. Maybe you aren’t looking for anybody right now but you surely will in the future. Or at your next job or company.

Making sure that you always have a big pool of great people to work with will set you up for success — and since it’s all about the people, it will make the difference between being successful or not. Always be hiring.

A shorter version of this post was originally published in

The Secret to Company Culture

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post. 

The words “company culture” by definition have taken on an entirely new meaning within the past few years. Culture is the current all-encompassing word that can describe the type of toilet paper you stock in your office to how many remote workers you allow in your company. While those variables are only a few of the hundreds that create a successful culture within a team–there is often a deep, untapped reservoir of awareness among many companies large and small. This team wide awareness is your most powerful resource in a world cluttered with beer perks and promises of stale pretzels.


Defining Culture
The translation of culture is often as far fetched and vague as you may expect. For those working in the startup space or another fast-paced and emerging industry, the word culture is often uttered a few times a day. While every organization clings to certain definitions, the global obsession with company culture is more intoxicating than ever before. But what does it all mean?

At UP, we tend to recognize company culture as a series of consistent behaviors, the aggregation of multiple minds that probably spend too much time together, and a strong dose of spirit and discipline. The best companies allow their core mission to shine through every email they send and every product they ship. While many do produce a manifesto with pretty info graphics and witty social media posts, it’s not always necessary. All of those actions only supplement the natural culture already in place.

Recent publications may insist companies should display a numerical list of perks that serve as a checklist for teams. Entire conferences and panels now educate people on how stellar company culture should look and feel. Zappos, who happens to nail company culture, gives an entire public tour that showcases how zany and wonderful their people are. But the core of Zappos culture is the people and they know it. Of course they offer fun perks to the team but at the end of every quarter, they value their team. Most company websites now include vignettes of what happens under their company roof as a recruitment tactic. And while there is certainly no shortage of advice on culture in the workplace, there is a shortage on how to make this trendy buzzword tangible.

Lost in the midst of what the other companies are doing, we are forgetting about the key aspect of culture — the people. The more you focus on the culture of other teams, the more you can forget your own. Too much influence from another company could also prove to have a negative effect on your existing culture. Of course, there is always room for inspiration, but too many companies boast cultures that simply begin to bleed together. Does everyone in America truly enjoy foosball? We need to stop assuming what works for one team, will always work for our team.

Even when organizations seem to have amazing, Forbes-worthy culture, those on the outside are only seeing the public-facing elements. We are seeing what they allow us to see. Companies that are smart enough — and sometimes, lucky enough — to have a great culture know they must protect it. In Noam Wasserman’s The Founder’s Dilemmas, he suggests the reason some companies falter is due to their leadership transitions which will naturally disrupt company culture. If the morale of a team is terrible, they are going to have a damn hard time accomplishing anything of importance.

Google has stated “there are 2 million applications sent for every 500 jobs available.” That kind of demand is partially due to an applicant’s desire to be on that famous team. Prospective employees are no longer applying for jobs for the sole purpose of the the role. People want to work on fantastic, productive teams and those teams are not built overnight. The culture of highly functioning people who work well together is something to be admired and respected.

Who Owns It
All of the team happy hours and company curated experiences are fun. But behind the paintball trips and games of Cards Against Humanity, something quite magical is happening. If you do it right, there will be an organic and worthy sense of trust amongst your team. The ultimate goal for any group of people who spend 10-12 hours a day together should be to have an aligned sense of fun paired with an equal portion of ambitious hard work. How a team defines the two is totally up to them. It is not a task that is set aside for the CEO or the Office Manager. A company’s culture is shared by each and every person on the payroll. It is an accomplishment every single person in the company must fight for.

The true heart of any company resides in the hands of every employee. Culture is an idea that is often difficult to communicate. At UP Global, our culture is constantly being redefined with every new hire, every .gif sent, and every failure we experience. The power of great people on a team does not need a “rockstar” and they certainly do not need a foosball table. They just need the people.