How to Build a Great Startup Culture

Being a startup founder is hard. It’s a lonely world where you need to make constant sacrifices, work more than 16 hours a day, and constantly struggle.

Startup founders are often focused on growing the business, gaining new customers, building their product, developing marketing strategies, and solving about a hundred other problems every week.

With such a hectic work schedule, they can easily overlook the importance of creating a good startup culture. They usually think: “I’ll deal with this later when the company has more than fifty workers.”

Well, guess what, ‘later’ might be too late. Why? For this reason alone: Research has found that the quit rate in new companies goes up to 60% in the first two years.


That means you need to start working on your startup company culture ASAP.

But wait, what exactly is company culture? Why is it so important, especially in newly-founded companies & startups?

What is Company Culture

Before we start sharing tips to help you build a kick-ass startup culture, let’s try to understand what company culture actually means.

To get things clear from the beginning, every company already has its own culture. The fact that you aren’t working on it is a sign that your company culture probably sucks.

Company culture is formed from the company’s goals, vision, programs, beliefs, and daily routines. In startups, company culture is usually heavily influenced by the founder(s). So, it’s their responsibility to create a strong & positive startup culture.

The problem is, most executives can’t even define their company’s culture or figure out how to disseminate it through the company. They seem to believe that culture is reflected in the amenities their startups offer, like pet-friendliness or catered meals.

Company culture is much more than that. It’s your startup’s mindset and ideology. It’s the immaterial things that keep your employees happy, motivated, and engaged.

Why Company Culture Matters

Here are some stats that show why company culture matters and why you should make it your top priority:

  • Over 50% of executives say that positive company culture has an impact on productivity, profitability, creativity, and growth rates. Having a great culture attracts highly-skilled talent, which can increase revenue by more than 30%.
  • More than 45% of people who are looking to change their job site company culture as the main reason for doing so.
  • More than 80% of employees say they’d work longer hours if they felt their employer was more empathetic, and 75% say they’d stay longer at a company that cares about their feedback.
  • More than 85% of potential employees wouldn’t apply to work for a company that has a negative reputation with former employees.
  • More than 50% of employees say they’re not engaged at their current company, which means they’re indifferent about their job.
  • Companies where workers are engaged registered lower absenteeism rates and lower employee turnover.

After looking at these facts & numbers, it’s not hard to conclude that positive company culture influences productivity, creativity, profitability, and growth rates.

It is also vital in attracting and retaining top talent and ensuring that highly-skilled workers stay invested in your startup.

In other words, ignoring the importance of company culture is a shortcut to closing your startup’s doors.   

Fortunately, startups have two big advantages:

–    they tend to attract young, passionate, hard-working people

–    the number of employees is very small

This allows you to start building your startup culture early on, without investing too much time and energy.

Tips to Help You Build Great Startup Culture

Part 1: Take Care of Your Employees

Research has shown that happy employees are more productive, creative, engaged, and successful.

But with more than 90% of millennials expecting to remain in their current job for fewer than 3 years, keeping top talent has become a great challenge.

In addition, there is a strong connection between employee happiness and customer happiness.

When choosing a company to work with, clients are looking for a team of people who motivate each other, who have fun together, and get on well. The bottom line is, you might be great at your niche, but if the competition is fierce, it’s your employees who’ll make or break the deal.

Still, making your employees happy isn’t impossible. Take Gore for example. Even though it isn’t exactly a company you’d expect to master startup culture, thanks to its strong employee values, Gore has kept the same workers for more than twenty years! Gore refers to its employees as ‘associates’ and there are no managers, only leaders.

So how do you build a culture that keeps employees in it for the long run?

Be Clear About Your Company’s Purpose and Values

If you can’t articulate your company’s purpose, goals, and values in detail, chances are your employees also have no clue about them.

Studies have shown that people who have a clear purpose in their work (i.e. are not working just for the paycheck) are more engaged, better at teamwork, and tend to look at mistakes as opportunities to learn. All these qualities are linked to improved performance.

Zappos is a great example of a company that makes sure its employees are not there only for the salary. As part of their recruitment process, the company offers new employees $2,000 to leave after the first 2 weeks in order to distinguish those who are there only for the money. All new employees begin their work in the company’s call center, no matter what position they’ve been hired for. Zappos believes that great company culture leads to great customer service and a strong brand image.

Think about your beliefs and values and help your employees understand that they’re contributing to a certain cause. This will help your team genuinely love their job.

Define the reason why you’ve found your startup in the first place, write it down, and share it with your staff.

Hootsuite, for example, has a manifesto documented on Slideshare for each team member to see. This manifesto articulates the company’s core principles, culture, and history.  

Similarly, L’Oréal has developed an employee onboarding app with a purpose to assist new employees to understand and master the company’s culture.

Fewer Strict Rules, More Flexibility

Technology has changed the way we shop, order food, travel, book tables in restaurants, etc. So, thinking that the way people work will remain unchanged is insane.

The times when workers had to sit on their fixed desks from 9 to 5 are long gone. Millennials are all about flexibility. More than 75% of them say that flexible working hours would make them more productive at their job.

To empower your workers, begin by determining which roles and duties can be performed remotely. Use tools like Skype, email, Trello, Derbutton, and Slack to manage remote teams and communicate efficiently. Tools like HubStaff allow you to track the time employees spend working on tasks, no matter where they are.

Besides remote work, companies like Dropbox trust their employees enough to allow them to manage their own tasks & schedules. They grant their staff the flexibility and responsibility to work on what they’re good at.

Stupid rules like banning mobile phones during working hours or taking disciplinary action if someone is five minutes late will only make your staff stressed and frustrated.

People are not robots and you must treat them with respect. Here are some ‘good rules’ to follow in order to motivate your team members to give their best:

  • Instead of trying to control your employees, try to make them feel comfortable to interact with each other or take breaks whenever they feel like it.
  • Trust your staff enough to stop micromanaging them (people hate being micromanaged, let it go).
  • Give them the freedom to share ideas, experiment, and come up with their own solutions to the problem.
  • Give positive feedback to those that deserve it.  

Shopify is a great example of a company that genuinely cares about its employees. It has an internal praise tool named Unicorn which employees can use to offer cash bonuses to deserving colleagues. The company also looks after the staff’s health, setting aside $250 for sports equipment and gym membership.

Rather than obsessing about how your employees spend every minute of the workday, focus on results. Who cares if John spent two hours in the nearby café if his results are exceptional?

Part 2: Energize Your Start-Up Culture with Startup Company Games

Energizing your startup culture may take more than a table football in the office but it’s a good start if you’re looking to make your employees exclaim “I love my job!”

However, since not all startups can afford additional expenses, here are some ideas for startup company games that are completely free of charge.

3 Simple Startup Company Games

Scavenger hunt. You can organize a scavenger hunt for new hires to help them learn their way around the office. This game works even if everyone has worked in the office for months. All you need to do is hide some silly items ahead of time. If you want to take the scavenger hunt to another level, get out into your community. Don’t forget to grab a drink together afterward.

Group games are a great way to unite people through a common goal – winning. Gather the team over lunch for a board game, card game, or a trivia game.

Build a mini golf course in the office. All you need is a tipped-over can to play the role of a hole. Whenever someone in the office feels overwhelmed, they can relax with an afternoon game of golf.

More Fun Activities for the Team

Friday happy hour. Once the clock strikes five on Friday, it’s time to relax together. Gather in the workplace or at the local café, but make sure to set business conversation aside. The goal of Friday happy hours should be to get to know your coworkers better and have fun together.

Gather for a lunch-and-learn. Once a month, gather everyone from the company (regardless of the schedule or meetings that day) for a lunch-and-learn. One person presents on a subject they’re interested in, a cause they support, or a side project they’re working on, while the others listen and learn over lunch in the nearby restaurant.

Volunteer. A few things can bring people together like a common cause, especially when that cause has a positive impact on others. Partner with a local soup kitchen or charity to help them out several times a year.

Try to include a fun activity every couple of weeks to build momentum with your team and start creating a great startup culture.

Final Thoughts

It comes as no surprise that the most successful companies are also the best working environments. Just think of giants like Google and Facebook. Even though they’ve developed into huge corporations, these companies are still nurturing startup culture which is strong, transparent, and full of benefits for their employees.

Facebook’s new headquarters

Image credit: The Independent

Your employees are the company’s most valuable asset. So, instead of breathing down their necks, focus on what truly matters – results.

Productivity and dedication come to the companies that work hard to ensure their employees are happy. With happy staff comes improved customer service and preparedness to take the business to the next level.

Related posts: