What is Culture?
At its core, a company’s culture is aligned with its values and mission. Whether that’s centered around attitudes, internal processes, or organizational perspectives, it all boils down to establishing, building, and fostering the culture to ensure harmonious and sustainable successes in the long run for any startup.

Why is culture so important? As Casey Gustus, COO at Consumer United, frames it, “It’s easier to teach skills than it is to instill passion.” An entrepreneur and his or her founding team can easily hire for talented professionals to fulfill the responsibilities of a role, but it’s much more challenging, if not impossible, to teach a candidate or existing employee how to love the process and environment in which the job is done.

A common misconception behind building a startup culture falls on the appeal of boasted employee perks often heard about in the tech community. The happy hours, unlimited vacation days, catered lunches, and office ping pong tournaments may be fantastic boosts for employee morale but a strong company culture is what deeply connects employees to the company’s mission and values. This commitment is the engine behind growing and successful startups, and will thrive even if the company faces more challenging times.

How do I establish a company culture?
First off, whether an entrepreneur sees it or not, his or her startup has already developed a company culture. Thus, it is vital for the founding member or team to strategize and establish a culture with intent in order to create a clear direction for where the startup is headed.

Having said that, there is no such thing as a “right” culture; it all varies depending on the business in question. For instance, Even cultures amongst very similar companies within the same industry (Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.) can be very distinct, yet equally as functional.

Planning for a strong company culture requires pulling together the top leaders and answering a myriad of questions including but not limited to:
•    What does our decision-making process look like?
•    What are our top priorities as a company?
•    How will we communicate with each other?
•    What will internal relationships look like?

With decision making, will the company take after Facebook in their “move fast and break things” approach? Or does each proposed action or strategic recommendation need to be approved before taking those risks? Is the startup in question client-focused or revenue-centric? Are internal communications transparent across the board or private? And are team members expected to actively engage with each other even outside of work, or should work and personal lives be kept separate?

Questions such as these, along with unreserved reflection on values and attitudes, will set the foundation for a strong company culture. Although there is not necessarily a set outline for what culture should look like, there are some things entrepreneurs should keep in mind:

An early-stage startup needs to be particularly adaptable and pivot on a dime, so individuals or an environment centered around method, routine and red tape would not be the most conducive to the company’s success. On the flip side, if the company is in an industry with many regulations, employees who are inclined to act on a whim without regard for established restrictions may be too much of a risk.

How can I foster company culture?
Once company culture has been established, the next, and perhaps most daunting, task falls on fostering said culture in the long run. This starts with hiring the right people for the company. By prioritizing cultural fit with prospective employees and hiring well, most of the work fostering company culture will be done.

Everyone puts on a good face for interviews, so what’s the best way to see the true nature of a candidate? By observing their behaviors when they don’t think they’re being evaluated. For example, how the candidate interacts with the receptionist or other team members outside of the interview.

Other methods include holding interviews outside of the office or inviting candidates to a team social event. Going beyond the typical, rehearsed and disingenuous interview questions will also yield typical, rehearsed and disingenuous answers.

When vetting prospective employees, it’s also vital to keep in mind that hiring managers should be vigilantly looking for red flags, reasons a candidate will not fit in, as opposed to only looking for how they do fit in. It’s also in the startup’s best interest to be upfront and transparent about company values and culture. If a candidate is very routine and methodical, they may self-select out of the application process when hearing the company feeds off of quick change and taking risks.  

As for existing employees, one of the most detrimental mistakes CEOs and managers can make is resisting letting toxic yet high-performing employees go for fear of disrupting productivity within the business. Addressing potential conflicts sooner will help to preserve the foundations that support the company’s employees and culture.

One vital point to remember is to avoid having tunnel vision once the company culture has been fully established and flourished. It may seem ideal to recruit for those employees who fit exactly into the existing team, entrepreneurs and leaders of startups must be able to step back and recognize the bigger picture and how new employees will fit into the current workforce. If the sales team is currently very analytical, it would be most beneficial to recruit for someone on the creative side to complement each other.

Hiring for weaknesses speaks volumes to the abilities and humility of leaders in the startup world, as it requires a hyper-awareness to the shortcomings of one’s own business. In order to do so, consistent reflection and critique of oneself, one’s team, and existing processes is vital to ongoing success.

Is culture set in stone?
As previously mentioned, the earlier a company’s culture is set, the better. However, that isn’t to say once these values and attitudes are adopted they’re set in stone. In fact, it’s in an entrepreneur’s best interest to constantly review the culture that’s put in place. Often times, culture will evolve as the result of additional hiring efforts, team developments, and overall growth. By reviewing company culture, leadership will be able to see just how effective it is in effectively motivating and fostering the growth of both the employees and the organization.

About the Author
Lilian Shen is an Associate with the Rebel Venture Fund and an MBA candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Irvine in sunny Southern California. Most recently, Lilian led the Global Media team at Banjo, a fast-growing startup based locally in Las Vegas.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of RVF or UNLV. In addition, thoughts and opinions are subject to change and this article is intended to provide an opinion of the author at the time of writing this article. All data and information is for informational purposes only.