9 Entrepreneurs Give Their Best Advice For Building An Amazing Company Culture


This post is part of the “Small Business, Big Ideas” series, in which business leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators share their stories of overcoming obstacles and achieving success. “Small Business, Big Ideas” is sponsored by Chase.

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A great culture can be the difference between success and failure for any small business. It’s how you attract top talent and make sure they’re fulfilled and working hard.

Building a culture that inspires and unites a team occurs with every hiring and operations decision a leader makes, and if taken lightly, can quickly devolve into chaos and dysfunction.

We’ve collected some of the best advice and stories from our interviews with a few of the brightest founders out there on how to create an amazing culture.

Newscred CEO Shafqat Islam says to get culture right, you have to hire right.

'Probably the number one thing is to hire well, and hire using the right criteria,' Islam says. 'It's important to not get seduced by things on the resume. We hire for culture first. Will we get along? Can they play hard and work hard? We like to see passion in terms of the markets that we serve.'

You'll know when you get it right.

'It shouldn't ever feel like a job, I feel like I get paid to hang out with my friends,' he says.
Read more from Shafqat Islam.

GoodData CEO Roman Stanek didn't realise that running a small company is nothing like managing a big one.

'Culture is my main focus as CEO,' says Stanek, GoodData's founder and CEO.

He didn't quite figure it out until he was on his second company.

'My assumption 10 years ago was that a startup is just a smaller division of IBM -- that they had the same functions only on a smaller scale. And it took me 10 years to realise that a startup is a fundamentally different organisation,' he says. 'We function as a learning organisation. Every day when I go home I have to think: 'What did I learn today? What can I do to actually make the company better tomorrow?' '

Read more about Roman Stanek and GoodData.

HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan argues that it's not about perks, but realising that people work differently now.

'At the core of it, the happy hour and the ping pong table are not culture; they're like health insurance or a 401k,' says Halligan. What may seem like small details to some actually hold the magic of bringing people together, he argues.

'Companies need to change the way they manage and lead to match the way that modern humans actually work and live,' he says. 'We're trying to re-craft culture in a way that really matches that. I think that 99% of companies are kind of stuck in the '90s when it comes to their culture.'

Read more from Brian Halligan.

Dane Atkinson's SumAll reveals every employee's salary in its radically transparent culture.

'When we started this company we made a huge investment in our culture,' SumAll CEO Dane Atkinson says. 'That's why we created a non-profit. That's why we created transparency guidelines. A big piece of it was making sure that everybody on the team had alignment with our aspirations, that we weren't looking for a quick exit, but that we really wanted to do something meaningful under our own steam.'

That helped them resist early buyout offers and continue to build something.

'It's a lot easier to say with confidence that we should turn away millions of dollars when they aren't in front of you. When they're in front of you, it might still be the right decision, but the temptation, the fact that you can translate it into the new apartment you can get, that gets really stressful,' he says. 'One of our smart choices was to decide that step up front -- that we're taking a swing towards the better to do something more meaningful, to create a culture and environment that actually shows how companies can build themselves better.'

Read more about Atkinson and SumAll.

LivePerson CEO Rob LoCascio saw his company's culture starting to deteriorate, so he decided to start from scratch.

'I could see that there was a break point where things were changing culturally,' LoCascio says. 'There was this level of middle managers, and it was all about top-down reporting structure.'

His response was to ask people he really respected, including Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, how he should go about fixing things.

'I flew out to Las Vegas before I even got started with the culture stuff and saw what they did,' LoCascio says. '(Hsieh) said, 'It's a five-to-lifetime commitment, it's not a two-year execution and you're done. If you want to take it on, you've got to be willing to put that type of time into it.''

The whole company got involved and, after many discussions, narrowed their culture down to one statement: 'Be an owner and help others.'

Involving the whole company was essential.

'Our company is really about the people who work here really driving ideas,' says LoCascio. 'You can't have scale unless you're Steve Jobs, and I'm not Steve Jobs. You can't, at scale, build product from the top down. I have a vision for the company, and you need everyone involved in the process.'

Read more about LoCascio and LivePerson.

Kno CEO Osman Rashid says that the ultimate culture is one that doesn't need you.

'You have to maintain the same behaviour whether the company is 10 people or 100 people,' says Rashid. 'If you're scaling, you need to figure out a way to cultivate a team of people who can help build the organisation along with you. Can you cultivate a loyal group of people that you can trust to make good decisions? It obviously takes time to get there. If you hire B-level people, they will hire C players.'

'You know you've built a great culture when you're not needed,' he says. 'You have to be able to answer one question positively: 'Can the company go on if I get hit by a bus?' That's how I think how you build a great company and something that can scale.'

Read more from Osman Rashid.

IceStone CEO Dal LaMagna says you have to make sure employees are truly invested.

Dal LaMagna came out of retirement to help run Icestone, a Brooklyn-based countertop manufacturer. Last year, the company's factory was all but destroyed.

'I thought it was game over. I thought there is no way we can recover from this. It's like dropping your mobile phone in the water,' says Dal LaMagna, IceStone's president and CEO.

It's now running at full capacity again. He attributes the recovery to his company's culture, the core of which is making each employee actually invested in the company. That means paying well above market wage, making each employee a partial owner of the company, and making sure floor level employees have a degree of decision-making power.

Read more about Dal LaMagna.

WorkZeit CEO Kelsey Conophy started a whole business to help companies understand and hire for their culture.

'Most people think companies know what their culture is, but a lot them don't. We've found that a lot of companies have a really hard time discussing what (their culture is) and finding out what they actually have,' Conophy said.

To help companies figure that out, Conophy started WorkZeit, which looks at companies based on how they measure performance, how they motivate people, the pace of work, and the social culture. Then it helps them find people that actually fit.

People often oversell themselves on resumes, or don't show their real personalities during an interview. Small businesses cannot afford to make bad hires, so figuring out if someone is a fit early can save a great deal of time and hardship.

Read more about Conophy and WorkZeit.

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