The concept of company culture is often perceived as just another buzz term that the startup world loves to talk about. However, while culture isn’t going to make a startup profitable, it is the key element of building a company that is both innovative and successful in the long run.
Culture affects hiring. Companies like Google, Netflix or Amazon, have defined their company values and made them publicly available, and for a good reason. If a person identifies with it, they are more likely to go and work for that company. And vice versa, the company gets to attract people who will fit in with the rest of the team.
The values you represent and the vision you’re after also directly relate to productivity. Most startups teams aren’t motivated by money alone; they want to make a difference. This desire for intrinsic motivation is what makes it possible for startups to outperform big corporations and disrupt established industries.
But just as startups are known for extreme growth, they’re also known for implosions. When rapid growth disrupts the company so much, it can lead to a complete collapse.
This occurs when a startup grows so fast and needs to hire a large number of people quickly. In such scenarios, you don’t always get the luxury to interview candidates with both skills and culture fit. Many companies end up hiring people who have the skills but do not fit into the culture of the organisation. That often disrupts the dynamics of the original team and can lead to dramatic cultural change.
Hire for culture fit
When it comes to managing growth from the cultural perspective, the first and simplest rule is to hire based on the right cultural fit. One of Appster’s biggest challenges during our growth was identifying and recruiting people who not only had the necessary skills we required, but also fit in with the rest of the team. Nothing ruins a great startup faster than an employee who doesn’t fit in with the bigger picture – it’s like a poison. Eventually that person’s attitude and habits will spread amongst the entire team.
But in many cases, companies tend to focus on one or other – skills or culture – and in such situations, skill usually trumps cultural fit. At Appster, we believe you can always train employees and improve their skills, but you can’t always influence people’s beliefs and values to better get along with others.
Implement the “no a**hole” rule
In his book, The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton, a professor of Management Science at Stanford University, describes a certain kind of people who turns out to be dishonest, manipulative, belittling, or egocentric towards others. Whether you like it or not, the chances are you will experience this person at your company at some point.
Sutton advises a zero-tolerance policy towards these people, no matter what value they bring to your business. Multiple studies have shown that failing to protect your team from such employees can seriously decrease your team’s productivity, increase employee turnover, stifle communication, and lower employee self-esteem and sometimes even health.
Build a congruent culture
Probably the most important element of strong company culture is congruence. When defining your values, there is no point in coming up with ideals that sound appealing, when they don’t promote harmony and compatibility. They have to be consistent with who you are, your vision for your company and what you want your staff to follow and believe in.
In 2004, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh sent an email to all employees asking everyone to write 100 to 500 words on what they liked about the company’s culture and what made it different from other workplaces. These were then collated to create the 10 Commandments of Zappos, or their core values that influence everything from hiring, to daily decisions and even firing.
We could argue that congruence is more important, than the actual appeal of your values and how they are perceived externally. In Oracle’s early days, it maintained a strongly individualistic and dog-eat-dog culture that made it so successful; however it was not particularly likeable. Despite this, it was real and matched with how everyone in the company viewed the world and the ‘game’ of business.
Oracle may be an extreme case, but the point here is that putting up a facade won’t get you anywhere. Hopefully, you’ll end up with something more inspiring. At the end of the day each company can make a choice between striving for better culture or embracing the status quo.
In any case, having strong values alone doesn’t mean anything – every great idea requires a great execution. A great startup founder or CEO needs to be able to communicate, foster and protect those values. As Jeff Bezos recently pointed out, “My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture.” Culture is more than just a buzz word, it is essentially the core of a company.
Josiah Humphrey and Mark McDonald are the co-founders and co-CEOs of Appster, the leading mobile app and product development company in Australia, with offices in Melbourne and San Francisco.
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