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Three Techniques to Build a Thriving Startup Culture

From hiring & firing to employee benefits, culture is everything when you’re running a business

If someone asked you to describe your organization's culture in five words, what would you say? Many companies underestimate the importance of having a clear set of values that define their personality. However, as some of the most successful startup founders argue, building and maintaining a positive work culture is imperative to a company’s success.

Startups known for their flexible and modernized culture have been attracting employees in the last couple of years. This might be because startup companies create environments that welcome creative problem solving, horizontal leadership models and open communication.

Marc Kuo and Suzanne Ma are the founders of Routific, a startup in Vancouver that uses route optimization to help businesses around the world save time. In their opinion, defining culture is one of the most important steps founders should take when embarking on their startup journey.

“Culture is how we behave. How we interact with people. How we conduct ourselves during meetings. How we treat team members. And how it influences the way we make important business decisions,” says Ma.

A genuine company culture is one of the biggest determinants of business success. Here are three approaches that culture-experts like Marc Kuo and Suzanne Ma take to ensure their startups thrive.

Establish a set of values

What core values will guide your employees’ decisions and daily behaviour? They could range from adaptability and integrity to commitment, excellence and self-motivation.

A defined list of core values can help you create your work culture and maintain consistency in the way that employees deal with customers, colleagues and suppliers. However, writing those core values on your office walls will not be enough.

“Talk about your core values aloud. Every day. This is not something that you set and forget,” says Ma. “Live and breathe your company’s core values, and set a good example for your team.”

Leading by example is one of the best ways to build a positive work culture for your team. If efficiency is one of your company’s building blocks, use smart tools like meeting schedulers, note taking apps and intelligent CRM. If one of your company’s values is democracy, make sure you’re giving all employees opportunities to share their ideas and contribute to decision-making processes. If your company is known for building relationships, make sure you know more about people than just their names.

Some companies organize weekly meetings to remind employees of how their core values can be put into practice in different scenarios. In fact, team and one-on-one meetings are essential to foster open communication: the second approach our culture-experts follow.

Encourage open communication

Effective workplace communication creates highly efficient teams. If you don’t do so already, schedule regular one-on-one meetings with your employees, or ask team leaders to meet with their teams. This will foster transparent communication amongst different levels of leadership, ensuring that everyone receives feedback and all voices are heard.

“Being transparent means not running the business like it’s a black box,” says Ma. “As an example, we share the company’s finances with the entire team.”

Another way in which startups are creating a culture of open dialogue is by using business collaboration apps. These tools create a shared virtual workspace where conversations can be organized around different topics, teams and even work schedules, facilitating better project management and better information sharing.

It’s important to highlight that cloud-based collaboration should not entirely replace in-person meetings and feedback, but they can save you the time, effort and cost of bringing dispersed teams together.

Look for the best culture fit, not the best résumé

Even if you create a list of core values, you will need team players who embrace your culture and live it in their day-to-day work.

“It’s a good time to start talking about culture as soon as you’re thinking about making your first few hires,” says Ma. “Establishing culture is not something you can do in retrospect.”

According to Ma, a candidate’s fit with your company’s culture is better than a great résumé.

“Don’t be afraid to reject job applicants due to a lack of culture fit. It’s better to focus on who you are as a team and to guard that culture at all cost,” she says.

Startup founders like Ma understand the importance of building a thriving work culture: “After all, individuals who stick with your company for the long run are looking for something much deeper,” she says, “something about your company and its mission that resonates with their own personal values.”