5 Ways to Build a Strong Startup Culture

Beyond Formation Startup Culture

Have you heard the medieval parable of the three bricklayers? A traveler was crossing a strange land when he came across three men working on the same task. He asked them what they were doing. The first man said, “I am making bricks.” The second man said, “I am putting up a wall.” The third man said, with great pride, “I am building a cathedral.” The first man had a job. The second man had a career. The third man had a calling. Someone had shown him the bigger picture, and that vision gave his work purpose. That is what defines a strong startup culture.

Early-stage startups run on passion. You are constantly asking talented people to put in long hours for less pay or put up their own money to fund your growth. And when you can’t promise a certain outcome, you need to clearly communicate your vision and your plan to achieve it. All your bricklayers need to see the cathedral and their place within it.

Architectural blueprints illustrate a goal and how to get there in language every construction worker can understand. As a founder or foundational employee, you are the architect, and you must do the same. 

Only you can create a company culture that makes common cause, inspires action, facilitates change, and accelerates growth. And these are the framing beams capable of supporting the building blocks of your business and shaping your future success.

What does startup culture mean, anyway?

Every business — even those with just one employee — has a culture. Even if it hasn’t intentionally set one. The culture guides business decisions, employee interactions, customer service, and the org chart. It’s the sum total of all the employees’ values, beliefs, personalities, and relationships. 

If you don’t establish a culture, it will develop on its own — and it might even become toxic. When you intentionally set your values and mission, communicate them, and encourage your team to act on them, you build a culture that aligns everyone not only toward a common purpose, but toward behaviors that affect every single aspect of your business, including how your team feels on a daily basis and how your customers perceive you. 

Tips for creating a strong startup culture

  1. Spend time choosing your values.

You probably already know the kind of culture you want to create — even if you can’t put it into words yet. Rather than pulling some corporate jargon out of a hat to list beneath your mission statement, invest some real time into thinking about what you (and the other founders) truly value. Consider:

  • What words would your friends and family use to describe you?
  • Who are your role models? What values do they convey through their words and actions?
  • How would you describe the kind of person you want to be? Do those words apply to your business, as well?
  • What is your working style like? What kind of communication do you prefer?
  • What do you like that other companies do? What bothers you?
  • How do you want team members to act in the work environment? 
  • How do you want employees to treat one another and the customer?
  • What positive or negative experiences have you had in former workplaces, and how can you re-create or avoid them?

Remember: businesses are made up of people, which means they will be just as respectful, innovative, and trustworthy — or not — as their employees. If you tell and show your team how to act, they will follow your lead.

  1. Hire the right people.

Skills and experience are incredibly important aspects of a potential candidate’s resume. But if you hire someone who doesn’t share your values, their talents won’t outweigh the negative impact on your startup culture and environment.

When you’re recruiting, don’t look for people who are just like you — candidates who are interested in the same things, come from the same background, or have the same sense of humor. Those similarities are only surface-deep. While maintaining a diverse workforce, comprising individuals from different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, may seem challenging, it brings immense benefits to your startup’s culture and environment.

Ask candidates about their core values and how they’ve acted them out in the workplace. Have them share what they liked or disliked about their previous employers. Ask their references about the candidate’s working style and relationships with direct reports, co-workers, and supervisors. These are all indicators of whether a candidate has the same values as you and the team.

By prioritizing diversity and inclusion in your hiring process, you can foster an environment where different perspectives and ideas are valued, leading to enhanced creativity, innovation, and overall team performance.

  1. Get people interacting.

Employees on the same team usually get to know each other fairly well — and learn how to work together through trial and error. But this won’t happen among people on different teams, in different departments, or on different levels of the hierarchy. You have to make it happen. 

Start a mentorship program, schedule regular cross-functional meetings, and encourage people from different teams to go to lunch together. Not only will these strategies cement your startup culture, they will make your team more flexible, more efficient, and more likely to put in the extra work when it’s needed.

  1. Communicate as much as possible.

No one will know what your startup’s culture is unless you tell them. Unless you show them through your own words and actions. Live your values out as much as possible — in every meeting, hallway interaction, and email chain. 

Share what’s happening in the business — the good and the bad. Ask people for feedback. Listen carefully to what your team is telling you — and what that says about your startup culture. 

There are dozens of ways to communicate well. No matter your personality, skills, or preferences, you can find a way that fits you and your startup. 

  1. Take your culture into the community. 

As an early-stage startup, you might not have the resources to sponsor a local baseball team or host big community events. But that doesn’t mean you can’t share your values with the larger community.

To promote community engagement and social responsibility, consider implementing these ideas: host volunteer events and offer volunteer time off (VTO); organize a fundraising campaign for a nonprofit; provide internship opportunities or shadowing experiences for students; participate in career days and offer assistance with interviewing and resume-building at local libraries or community centers.

When your employees see that your values and culture are more than just lip service, their actions will follow suit — both in and out of the office. 

Your startup’s mission, vision, voice, and values are your framing posts, the vertical supports for the business you are building. Learn about the rest of the structure your business needs in the Beyond Formation Blueprint.

Here are a few helpful articles that we looked at for startup culture inspiration when writing this blog: