Setting the Culture from the Start

Defining the culture of a company from the start is part of a founder’s normal daydreams. Images of happy, dedicated staff who see the company as part of their family but without the emotional baggage. This may even be visual with bean bags, art, ping-pong tables and what sort of socials and how often forming part of this idyllic picture.

We all know the importance of culture in start-ups (as well as established companies). Yet often this gets dropped down to the bottom of the ever-growing list of to-do’s and is never actioned. I think in part because founders believe they are the culture and all will stem from them. To a point this is true, the behaviour, characteristics and attitudes of the leadership team are a critical part of forming the culture of an organisation.

However, as with everything it requires work and action. I have seen companies fail from not getting the culture right, one was ‘over-friendly’ and laid back resulting in an unfocused workforce that lost sight of the purpose of work and ended up floating along.

The more impactful experience was in a start-up where a lot of discussion about work ethic, culture, size, the character and values was spoken about and then not seen through. What started as a ‘we can be the best and disrupt’ became ‘we are better than anyone and will behave as such’. Checking the behaviour of an embedded culture is very hard.

I don’t need to retell the story of Uber’s culture that has impacted the company and its leadership team. With a start-up, culture is complex, with such rapid growth and change it takes time for the culture to become embedded. The word of caution I give anyone (including myself) in business is to not push culture to the bottom of the list. In fact, like digital, this should be a horizontal practice working across every element of the company from recruitment, processes, innovation, product development and beyond.

Build the right team with the right attitude, remember it is the team investors go for on day one, not the financial forecasts. Or, as an old friend of mine once said, ‘get the right people on the bus and then the right direction will be taken’.

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