Culture in a startup: Why it is important and how to build it!

Startups are generally known for high pressure, high activity and chaotic work environments, where employees juggle multiple roles as they strive to achieve the next big milestone. In the initial years, majority of startups have a fluid work culture. The startup Founders are busy building their product, raise funds and juggling multiple roles. They do not have time or intent to work on building a work culture that can be big differentiator.

However, it is extremely important for startups to focus on building a culture of their own, from early days. This enables to define an organisation wide operation style from the very beginning and it can be followed across teams, as the organisation grows in terms of team size or number of offices.

So, what is culture all about and why is it important?

A culture is what defines an organisation. It is important as it can impact positive brand equity. It is not only about cool workplaces with foosball tables, game rooms, snacks on the house or casual Fridays. It is much more than that! A culture is an ideology, a mindset. It is all about how an organisation operates, how the teams work with each other, how the organisation communicates, who it recognises and rewards, and what it believes in. 

A company with a large sales team will probably have a more customer-centric and more extroverted culture. A company full of insecure or distrustful people will have a political or even toxic culture. If the team hates conflict, the culture will probably be indecisive and passive-aggressive. A company with experienced people will draw on established best practices, where a company full of people new to the workforce will tackle problems based on intuition and extrapolation from first principles.

Culture is set by the leaders, starting with the Founders. Culture should be defined early and is hard to change. Culture is what defined by the HR leader. He/she can work to propagate this culture and ensure it moves in the right direction, with high employee awareness.

Culture is the top selling point when the company wants to hire good talent. Today, people join organisations not only for the role they have to offer or for the monetary advantages, but also the culture that they are signing up for. There are numerous startups in the country that are seen as respectable/ sought after organisations, because of their culture, which is beyond the usual startup culture. Take example of brands like Goibibo, Make My Trip, Oyo, Curefit that are seen as startups with a good culture.

How to build a great culture

The Founding team of a startup has a critical role to play, with regards to building and driving the culture of the organisation. It is important for the Founders to understand that in the highly competitive and tough startup environment, a company culture can go a long way in enhancing employee productivity. This might take a lot of convincing as the Founders have other immediate priorities, but if explained well, there is no reason why the Founders will not support the building of a good culture.

Some of the tips to build culture in a startup:

Start early – It is important to start early. The Founders should not delay defining the culture of the organisation to when they have a team of 50-100 employees. Instead, they should realise that the culture of an organisation begins to take shape the moment the company hires its first employee.

Hire the right talent – Cultural fitment is the key to better success and lower attrition, as the organisation grows. It is important to hire the right talent. However, at the same time, the company should try to get diversity of thought and experience/background  to add on to the existing skill set of the Founders

Leverage your strengths – For startups, the culture is defined by strengths of its Founders. If a company is founded by salespersons, the focus will be on sales and anyone who gets the best business to the company. If the Founder is a technology expert, then technology will always be in the forefront of whatever the company intends to do. This works well as the Founder is an integral part of building the company in the early days and leveraging his strengths helps him drive the company in the right direction

Lead by example – In a startup, it is important that the Founders and the Core team members lead by example. They should practice the brand values in how they lead their team, how they talk or how they respond to feedback.

Define a set of values – This is imperative for every organisation. Values are what will be define the company. The Founders should set down key values for the organisation and ensure that they lead by example. For example, if one of the values of the company is collaboration, the Founders should encourage multiple teams to work together to achieve the desired goal. 

Weave in processes and technologies that empower people – Irrespective of the size of the organisation, it is advisable to bring in the best of technology and processes that help in empowering its workforce. These tools should help the employees to work effectively 

Create lateral communication channels – Startups are fast growing organisations and hence,  it is important for them to have a robust communication channel. It is imperative that startups have a communication channel that cuts across levels. There should be communication between leaders and new hires, irrespective of their position. This helps in creating a culture of trust and transparency. It also goes a long way in creating a sense of belongingness to the brand, across levels.

I have worked with a very young startup where the Founder led from the front and lived the values that he wanted his brand to stand for. Today, that brand is amongst the list of soonicorns. Another one of my stints was with a fast growing startup that was a renowned name in the business. It was very motivating to see that the Founders took active interest in driving the culture of the organisation and would take time out of their hectic schedules to conduct ‘all hands meet’ and connect with employees on an ongoing basis.

To sum it up, it is the culture that is the backbone of any organisation. It can be the differentiator for a startup that can in turn help it to attract and retain the best of talent and contribute to setting up a successful business. Also, an outstanding work culture can help carve a differentiated positioning for top investors. There are examples of companies like Facebook and Google where a great company culture has contributed in a big way to the success of the organisation. 

Hence, it is advisable that startups focus on building a culture from day one. A culture that is well synced with the brand’s mission can not only give a competitive edge, but also contribute in a big way to the brand’s success story. 

Akanksha Jain
Akanksha is a seasoned brand communications professional with over 15 years of experience in working across global/digital public relations, corporate and brand communications, crisis communications, brand and market communications domains.

In the past, Akanksha has successfully planned and executed public relations/brands campaigns across India and over 30 other countries. She is a start-up specialist and has extensive experience of working with emerging brands. She has been associated with brands like Pine Labs, MobiKwik, VLCC and Power2SME and spearheaded their PR/brand/communication campaigns.

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