Build Your Startup Like a Cultural Architect

SGEi is a company that is engaged by Fortune 500s to refresh and redefine the business culture in order to positively influence their employee and customer experience. However, I often get approached by startups and asked when they should begin defining their cultures; the answer is now. Whether you like it or not, your company has a culture, as our VP of Learning & Culture Thomas Martin pointed out in his latest blog. The question you should be asking is whether the culture that you have is one you, your customers, and potential investors want.

Once your product is ready to launch, your culture will be put to the test. The longer you wait, the longer it will take to retrofit your business to one that is value-based; one that everyone wants.

Company Ping-Pong

So, let’s talk about culture, or more importantly, what culture is not. Culture is not Ping-Pong tables, nap sacks, cool offices, or an endless schedule of happy hours and team sporting events. These are all indicators of the atmosphere within your company, and they might be the result of your culture, but they are not what will continually inspire and engage your people to deliver the desired results.

Culture is the mindset and attitude of your employees about what they do, which manifests itself in how they do things; in other words, their actions and behaviors. These behaviors manifest themselves in their interactions with customers, vendors, and each other. These behaviors ultimately define your reputation as a business, and that reputation becomes your brand. Your reputation or brand is one of the most valuable assets you have, so you must do everything you can to take care of it. While its easy to put off defining a culture in favor of a focus on business and marketing strategy, the reality is, your culture will have a greater impact on your strategy and brand than any other thing. Tony Hseih from Zappos said, “Brand is the lagging indicator of your culture.” This is a great line to remember, because by investing in your cultural architect, you are ultimately investing in your brand’s reputation and success.

Values

The foundation of culture is the values you believe are important to your success. They describe the way things should get done. They manifest internally, but are demonstrated externally through a person’s actions and behaviors. Now, values cannot be something just written down on a piece of paper that is given lip service; it must be a set of ideals that you as the owners and senior executives must demonstrate, talk about, and follow every day.

While this might seem like a low priority as you focus on building-out a product or service, there are many examples of owners who have wished they defined a set of values earlier to avoid bad hires, poor decisions, and a lot of frustration; it can also prevent certain embarrassments. Jeff Lawson, CEO and Cofounder of Twilio, told the story of how early on they just copied Microsoft’s old values with no consideration of their impact – he just knew he should have values. When investors started to ask employees about their values, they heard things like “simple” and “easy” – probably not the best way to describe the mindset and attitude of your people.

Company Culture

As the owner or executive in a startup environment, you must invest time to define your values to help in hiring, driving performance, recognizing your best people, getting rid of those who can’t contribute, to help in making decisions, and to drive success. It also energizes and engages your people. Energy is one of the most important things you need as an entrepreneur and startup founder; the energy to overcome and beat the odds. According to SendGrid Co-Founder Isaac Saldana, “With our core values, it’s easy to love coming to work everyday. We also have a lot of fun benefits that help keep our energy strong.”

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