Six ways to build a great startup culture

Global HR Leader, Weyinmi Barber shares six ways startups can cultivate a great culture within their organisation.

Weyinmi Barber
Weyinmi Barber

Tech startups are similar to traditional organisations in that they are set up to achieve a vision targeted toward providing products or services to an identified market. However, tech startups differ from traditional organisations in multiple ways. These startups are companies with strategies that are focused on growth over profit, targets to raise capital via VC or Private Equity funding, and a keen desire to disrupt the market with an impactful new product and business model.

Certain elements of organisational culture have permeated across the tech ecosystem, thereby creating a sub-culture often referred to as the "Tech startup culture".

In recent times, conversations about tech startup culture have dominated the airwaves. As an HR leader in the tech space, I am passionate about the subject. While examples abound of tech startups that have positive, wholesome, and vibrant cultures that inspire employees, unfortunately, there are other examples of startups with less-desirable cultures.

In this article, I will provide a blueprint on how to develop a great culture for your tech startup.

Start with the what and why

Great culture rarely happens organically and without intent. It's important to define what your ideal culture looks like. Be clear on questions such as:

  • What is the company vision?
  • What problem(s) does your product aim to solve?
  • What are the values that will help drive it?
  • What behaviors connote those values?
  • What are the behaviors that go against it?

Patty McCord, Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer (1998 - 2012) and co-Author of the famous Netflix Culture Deck described the process of defining the company’s values as a series of lightbulb moments that occurred after conversations with employees. These moments led to the development of "Freedom & Responsibility" as the underlying values that drive the Netflix Culture.

Defining what actions demonstrate the way things should be done in your startup is critical. This is because the definition provides employees with clarity and clear examples of what they should reflect or not. It also helps employees know what to expect from their colleagues and other members of the organisation. Furthermore, it helps to set the tone that drives activities critical to innovation such as collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving.

Check for Culture Fit

Have a process for assessing job candidates for culture fits. This can be tricky.

Some tech giants such as Microsoft and Google include Culture Fit Interviews as part of their hiring process. Google, in particular, requires that candidates demonstrate “Googleyness” (i.e. Google's Values) to scale through.

In general, interviewing can lean towards being more of an art (or at best a social science) as opposed to pure science, as humans are prone to degrees of variability.

It's important that in assessing culture fit, you avoid any form of unconscious bias that might exclude or discriminate against others who come from diverse backgrounds. To mitigate this, Facebook replaced the term "Culture Fit" with assessing for "Values" and rolled out a "Managing Unconscious Bias" Training which about 100% of their Senior Leadership completed.

In summary, a good culture fit assessment enables the identification of candidates with strong soft skills, who display the company values and are therefore more likely to be good team players, collaborative and overall contribute positively to the employee experience.

We're better when we're united
Diversity in the workplace // Photo by Clay Banks / Unsplash

Establish team activities and routines

Fully remote and Hybrid work teams continue to dominate the work culture within the tech space. This can make the job of driving and reinforcing organisational culture extremely challenging.

Ensuring that distributed teams across various locations and time zones are able to develop a sense of connection to the organization, its people, and values requires some level of intentionality towards actions.

Activities and routines are key drivers of organisational culture as they can help to both distribute and instill elements of culture via developing a set of norms, creating shared experiences, and providing platforms for cross-functional engagement. These activities can be virtual, in person, or a combination of both at alternate intervals and can include the likes of company town halls, team bonding events, and company-sponsored social clubs for employees with shared interests

For instance, Airbnb offers a series of online experiences and interactive activities, hosted virtually by experts within various fields.

Activities and routines provide remote and/or work-from-home employees with unique team-building opportunities to the benefit of the organisation's cohesiveness.

Reinforce—Make it Stick

After defining the desired behaviors for employees, and assessing candidates for culture fit during the recruitment process, reinforcement of the organisational behaviors is required.

It's important that those who demonstrate these behaviors are publicly acknowledged [and when possible rewarded] as a way of encouraging other members of the organization to replicate those behaviors. This can be done in a number of ways. The Walt Disney Company for example has an Employee Recognition Award that’s named after Fred, a longtime employee who exemplifies the qualities the company values - like dependability and friendliness. Every year, Fred is given the honor of making plaques for winners of the “Spirit of Fred Award”.

It’s an effective strategy to allow for recognition to be given from people across all levels of the organization, and not have the ability to commend employees be reserved only for Leadership and the C-Level.

Boss and employee or exclusion of a person because of their appearance or ethnicity?
Lead by Example // Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Be Human Centric

If company values serve as the building blocks and foundation of a startup's culture, then company policies are the lifeblood of it. In developing both People policies as well as other policies that affect employees both directly and indirectly, it is important to adopt a human-centric approach. To consider ways in which policies might not only help to provide structure and efficiency for the organization but also ways in which they can help to shape the organization's culture by focusing on its most critical resources—its people. Policies around things like employee benefits, e.g. Paternity Leave, employee well-being e.g mental health support, productivity coaching, and the likes also help to tell the story of a startup's culture as they highlight the value system and beliefs of the organization.

Lead by Example

In a perfect world, the geniuses who are able to think outside the box and develop solutions that drive mankind towards new levels of innovation would also be extraordinary people leaders and all-around amazing humans. However, in reality, this isn't always the case. In 2017 the Founder and CEO of Uber, the pioneer ride-hailing app that revolutionized the taxi industry resigned from his position. Amongst the series of events that led to his exit were the complaints about the aggressive and problematic culture that several employees stated existed within the organization.

For startup founders, it's important that they take some time to reflect and become self-aware of their leadership styles. To identify and acknowledge their people skills and soft skills for what they may be, and if or where there are areas which require room for improvement, to then solve for it by working with intention towards making changes and by hiring People Managers and Leaders to help bridge the competency gaps.

About the Author

Weyinmi Barber is an HR Professional with experience across multiple industries. She has worked across the span of the Human Capital Value chain including in Talent Acquisition Strategy, Talent Management & Development, Change Management (is Prosci ADKAR Certified), Employee Engagement, Total Rewards & Remuneration, HR Projects & Internal Communication.

She is currently serving as an HR Leader in the Tech space, working to build progressive Talent Management strategies and implementing organisational redesigns to enable tech companies to scale effectively.