Company Culture: Future-Proofing Your Startup Venture
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
Here is my weekly email with some insights and ideas pulled from conversations I had on my podcast as well as some other tools and resources you may find useful.
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🤝 Company Culture: Future-Proofing Your Startup Venture
Shirish is what you’d call a serial entrepreneur; he’s well versed in startup ventures, having co-founded Livemocha and TeamOn Systems to great success. Our conversation was a fascinating one – I highly suggest jumping over to my Success Story Podcast channel on YouTube to hear more about Shirish’s career.
Today’s topic is one that rarely surfaces when discussing startups and ventures, and that is company culture: the idea that all members of a company must align with its core values and purpose in order to reach true success.
As someone with extensive knowledge and experience in the entrepreneurial field, I asked Shirish what he thought about company culture, and where (or even if) it fits into the startup world. What he had to say both reaffirmed and challenged my thoughts on company culture – so let’s dive into this topic a little deeper.
Company culture: meaning and origins
In the early 1950s, a man by the name of Dr Elliott Jaques introduced the concept of 'organizational culture' in his book The Changing Culture of a Factory.
Jaques argued that organizational culture was not something that could be seen or touched, but rather it was the shared set of assumptions, values and norms that guided the behavior of members within an organization.
He had come to this conclusion through a study of the Glacier Metal company, in which he observed that the workers displayed different behaviors depending on which part of the factory they were working in.
The workers in the finishing department, for example, were much more likely to take their break at the same time and chat with their colleagues, whereas the workers in the furnace room tended to keep to themselves.
Jaques argued that the different behaviors of the workers was not due to their individual personalities, but rather to the culture of the factory in which they worked. The shared set of assumptions, values and norms that guided the behavior of members within an organization became known as 'company culture'.
Fast-forward to today, and company culture is more important than ever. With the advent of the internet and the globalization of business, companies are no longer confined to their local markets – so having a strong company culture is something that sets them apart from their competitors.
But what is company culture, and why does it even matter?
In the corporate world of today, the definition of company culture has evolved to become one of the most important strategic assets a business can have. Culture is now understood to be a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that dictate how employees behave both within and outside the company.
It's not surprising then that company culture has become an essential ingredient in the success or failure of companies.
A strong company culture can help to attract and retain the best talent, inspire innovation, and build a sense of community and loyalty among employees. On the other hand, a weak or dysfunctional culture can lead to employee turnover, stagnation, and even disaster.
Without a strong company culture that binds employees together and drives them towards a common goal, your startup is at risk of becoming just another failed venture. You'll experience symptoms such as:
- Lack of cohesion and direction. When employees don't share a common culture, they often don't know what the company stands for or where it's going. This can lead to confusion and a lack of motivation.
- Low morale. A toxic company culture can quickly sap employee morale, leading to decreased productivity and engagement.
- Poor customer service. A company with a weak culture is typically more focused on its own internal politics than on meeting the needs of its customers. This can lead to a loss of market share and damage to the company's reputation.
- Lack of innovation. A strong company culture is a breeding ground for innovation. When employees feel connected to each other and the company's mission, they're more likely to come up with new ideas and solutions.
Suffice to say that company culture is fairly crucial – and if you want your startup to succeed, you need to focus on building a strong one.
Company culture in the startup world: where does it fit?
In conversation with Shirish Nadkarni, I learned about some of his incredible successes in the startup world:
- He founded TeamOn Systems, which was acquired by Research in Motion in 2002 and later became the core foundation of BlackBerry’s Internet E-Mail service.
- Shirish then went on to co-found Livemocha, the world’s largest language learning site with over 15 million members.
Before all of this, however, Shirish was an employee at Microsoft in its early stages in 1987. He was given the responsibility of launching Microsoft’s email software at just 26 years old, and was also responsible for the acquisition and launch of Hotmail (which later paved the way for MSN messaging).
As our conversation continued, I grew curious; what had the company culture been like in those early stages of Microsoft? It was a rare opportunity to hear from someone with firsthand recollection of the company’s baby steps.
Surprisingly, Shirish shared that it isn’t common for startup companies to prioritize their company culture. Most don’t give it a second thought, at least until much later on – but the outcomes aren’t always pretty.
“When I was at Microsoft,” Shirish said, “Bill Gates didn’t define a culture and say ‘these are our cultural values’. We all emulated Bill – we were super hungry, super aggressive. This served us well for a long time, but also got Microsoft into trouble with the Justice Department.”
Shirish advised that founders take the time before starting their venture to lay out a set of values and attitudes they want to instill within their company as it grows. How will you communicate? What will your goals be? What behaviors will you practice? What are your standards?
“The reason that the culture is important is that at some point, the company is going to outgrow you, and you will not have the opportunity to work with everyone. And so you want to make sure that the culture defines the guardrails and the process by which your employees will make decisions...
...if you want a certain type of behavior, then you need to define that culture.”
Shirish gave the example of Amazon as a company that prioritizes its culture well. The company has laid out 14 principles by which employees should abide. These principles guide the employees’ decisions, and are meant to create a consistent customer experience.
Netflix is also a great example of a company with strong culture. They have a set of values that they live by, which has led to them being one of the most successful streaming companies in the world.
On the other hand, Uber is a company that has had some trouble with its culture. Travis Kalanick was actually forced to step down as CEO because of the company’s issues that were rooted in aggression, despite their incredible success to begin with.
How to create your company culture
Perhaps, like Shirish, you are an entrepreneur who wants to create highly successful startups. Culture is key to your success. But how do you develop it? What are the right steps?
The key is to begin working on your culture before you have even made your first hire. The culture of a company is like the DNA of a human being. It starts to develop from the moment of conception and evolves over time. As an entrepreneur, you are the father or mother of your company culture. You create it, shape it and pass it on to future generations.
But don't worry, you don't have to do it alone. You can involve your team in the process and get their buy-in.
So, how do you go about creating a company culture? Here are four steps:
- Define your values. What is important to you and your team? What are your core values? Define them and make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Create a mission statement. What is your company trying to achieve? What are its goals? Again, make sure everyone is on board with this.
- Establish rituals and traditions. These help to define and strengthen your culture. They can be as simple as daily stand-ups, team lunches or Friday beers.
- Be consistent. This is probably the most important step of all. You have to be consistent in your values, mission and rituals if you want your culture to take root and grow.
Creating a company culture is not an easy task, but it's well worth the effort. A strong culture can help your startup venture to thrive and survive in today's competitive business environment.
Ideally, what should your startup culture look like?
Company culture can't be cut and pasted from one business to another. It needs to be tailored to fit the specific company, its employees and their goals; otherwise, you'll just create another meaningless corporate buzzword. But that's not to say that there aren't some essential elements of a strong company culture.
Mirror your values
First and foremost, your company culture should reflect your brand and values. If you're passionate about giving back to the community, for example, then your company culture should reflect that.
Employees should feel like they're part of something larger than themselves, that they're contributing to a greater good. They should also be able to see the company's values in action, in the way that they're treated and their work is structured.
Be ready to adapt
Company culture should also be adaptable. As your company grows and changes, your culture should grow and change with it. It should be flexible enough to accommodate new employees, new ideas and new challenges.
Support and appreciate employees
Of course, company culture is about more than just values and brand identity. It's also about the day-to-day operations of your business.
Employees need to feel like they're able to take ownership of their work, that they have the freedom and flexibility to be creative and innovative. They need to feel supported and appreciated, both by their colleagues and by management.
A strong company culture can help your business weather any storm. It can help you attract and retain top talent, and it can give your employees a sense of purpose. But most importantly, it can help you build a strong, sustainable brand that will stand the test of time.
Final thoughts on company culture
It's not easy to launch a startup, much less a successful one – so you'd be forgiven for neglecting the all-important task of building a strong company culture early on. But as any experienced entrepreneur will tell you, it's never too late to start putting the pieces in place.
Why is company culture so important? Simply put, it's the glue that holds everything together. A strong culture provides a sense of identity and purpose for employees, and it helps to attract the best talent possible. It can also be a key factor in determining a company's long-term success or failure.
I'm going to leave off with a quote from Airbnb's co-founder, Brian Chesky, which I think sums up company culture perfectly:
"Company culture is simply a shared way of doing something with a passion."
If everyone in your team shares the same passion that started the venture in the first place, your potential for success has no limits.
Interested in hearing more of Shirish Nadkarni’s story? Be sure to check out his interview over on the Success Story Podcast. More to come next week!
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For interviews, sales calls or vendor calls it saves a ton of research time before meetings so you can go in prepped and ready. For internal calls, it will pull all relevant data/talking points so you don’t forget to cover something important.
🎧 Things You Should Listen To: Shirish Nadkarni (Livemocha, TeamOn, Rim)
Shirish Nadkarni is a serial entrepreneur with 20+ years of experience in creating consumer businesses that have scaled to tens of millions of users worldwide. He was the co-founder of Livemocha, the world's largest language learning site with 15+ million registered members. Livemocha pioneered the concept of social language learning and was later acquired by RosettaStone. Prior to Livemocha, Shirish was the founder of TeamOn Systems, a mobile wireless e-mail pioneer that was acquired by Research in Motion in 2002. The TeamOn technology served as the core foundation for Blackberry Internet E-mail, which had over 50 million users at its peak.
Here’s what we spoke about on the last episode of the Success Story Podcast…
- How To Plan To Sell Your Company
- Some Strategies To Raise Funds For Startups
- How Do Founders Reach More Investors For Fund Raising
- Crafting A Standard Agreement With A Venture Capital Firm
- Why Is Strong Company Culture Important To Build Or Grow A Company
📚 Things You Should Read: From Startup to Exit
This week I’m just going to give you a quick rundown of From Startup to Exit: An Insider's Guide to Launching and Scaling Your Tech Business, which was written by my amazing guest, Shirish Nadkarni. Of course if you enjoyed the podcast or the article, you’ll probably pick up the book, but I’ll give you a rundown of why I personally enjoyed it.
Of course, outside of Shirish’s resume (which is impressive enough for me to pick up a book regardless), it delivers an absolutely absurd amount of value.
With successful tech entrepreneurs (including Shirish’s insights) interviewed and featured throughout, From Startup to Exit will help you:
- Understand exactly what tech startups must do to succeed in all phases, from idea stage to IPO.
- Gain invaluable insights from the journeys of other successful tech founders that can be applied to your own situation.
- Learn how to raise millions of dollars of funding from angels and VCs to give your company the fuel it needs to take off and succeed.
Basically anyone who wants to start, understand, invest or work in a startup should read this book. Full stop.
It gives coverage of almost every stage of startup life from ideation to exit.
💡 Other Thoughts
1. On Innovation
We are currently living through a period where old ideas are packaged as innovation and bad ideas are packaged as innovation. Make sure your product passes both tests.
2. On Ego
Ego is not synonymous with experience.
3. On Money
They say money can’t buy you happiness. They’re right. But it can buy you freedom.
4. On Learning
You can learn just as much from a poor leader as you can from a great leader. The question is what lessons you take away.
Success Story Podcast
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