Why Should Culture Be Your Number One Priority When Building a Startup
If you do not define your company culture, your company culture will be defined for you. Culture should be taken seriously as it is a way to make or break a startup. Nico Platypus’ co-founder explains that testing skill is quite common, but companies should prioritize values.
Nico Blier-Silvestri founder of Platypus (after having been involved with Unity, Trustpilot and Peakon just to name a few), wanted to share his knowledge with us, for which we are so grateful. He will explain three points as to what the hidden gems of startup culture really are and how you can navigate them.
Nico Blier-Silvestri, CEO & Founder of Platypus:
1.Culture is the only leverage you have as a startup
When my co-founder, Daniel Bowen and I were looking to hire our first employees, we were in a situation similar to most early-stage startups: Little to offer and not a lot of candidates to pick from. Claiming that culture was our main concern would have been misleading.
We needed to go somewhere, build our Minimum Viable Product, attract funding and so on. Whoever we would bring on board would have to hit that very narrow sweet spot. This was a startup journey that required being able to perform a super human-like variety of tasks and enjoy the prospect of working, to put it plainly, in a less than a luxurious basement with a stressed-out founder team. All we had to offer in return was an awesome mission statement and our culture.
It might be good news for startups that 65% of millennials are more motivated by culture than salary when deciding on where to work. A motivating and inspiring mission, together with a great belief in your product could get people’s attention. The only thing you need to do is persuade them to join your startup. (And that´s what worked for us).
Culture matters to people because cultural alignment is one of the main drivers for engagement and thriving. Once you find people that will thrive in your culture means they will stay. Hiring people that don’t thrive means expenses on turnover that you simply can’t afford. You have to keep an eye on whether your startup culture will get you where you need to go in terms of talent, and innovation. Did you actually know that hiring the wrong people is among the top three reasons why startups fail?
✅ Takeaway: Do your homework first and then stop hiring the wrong people in the early stages of a startup. For example: “Are you communicating your culture in a clear way?”
2. Pay attention to your culture or you will never catch up with it
One of the things I have seen again and again working as a recruiter in startups is a laissez-faire approach to building a culture that will work for you. You do not want to face an unconscious decision on who you hire, because after all, they will determine the unwritten code of conduct of your startup.
Let’s get one very common misconception out of the way: Culture is not something you get or add later. Culture is something you have. No matter how much or little you pay attention to it. The moment you set up your company and start hiring employees you are starting to build your startup culture. Founders and employees will each bring specific values and practices to the daily life of your organization. Your culture as a startup is those unwritten rules: The values, behaviours, and practices that flourish and get rewarded – and on the other hand the values, behaviours – and people – who don’t. In short, your culture is an ecosystem that allows certain businesses and people to thrive.
For us, this meant being very clear on the decision that our very first hire needed to be a woman. Our founding team consisted of three white, heterosexual guys close to forty. If we weren’t conscious of mixing this up right from the start, we would have established a strong consensus on what it takes to be part of the group. We couldn’t afford to build a team of people that looked or thought like us. We needed people who would help us grow. Not affirm what we already thought.
✅ Takeaway: Your culture is there whether you pay attention to it or not. The future of your company starts with your very first hire. See the 10 ideal first hires for your startup.
3. Mission statements are important – but they’re not your culture
The key to building the right culture for your startup is being true to yourself. It is about who you are as founders, who you are as an organization, and who you want to be. Mission statements are useful for this but they’re a recipe for your culture. A mission statement is where you as a founder can put the core values of your organization into words. A good mission statement is a reflection of where leadership will lead the organization. It showcases how they will behave daily and the business decisions they will make even when setting your team and creating your culture.
A useless mission statement is usually just an empty positive value statement. They remain just words on the wall. They will eventually hurt you in the long run, because people signed up for promises not fulfilled. A good mission statement stays true to what made your company great in the first place – but evolves when the organization does. People currently working in the organization are the ones putting words into it. While your actual culture will change as new people join, the role of leadership is to make intentional and honest decisions that reflect both the core values and the people who make the organization.
✅ Takeaway: As a leader, you have the responsibility to excite your team. Your mission statement should complement your culture and be the north star of the values you are committed to. Learn how to build your startup team with no money.
Conclusions: How to pay attention and keep up
- Grow an intentional culture mindset – You simply cannot afford to let bad habits ruin your culture. The energy and mission are what you have to offer. Pay attention to who you are, what you bring to the organization as founders, and what each employee will bring with them. Because this is the energy that will inspire and motivate others to join. And this is your actual culture: What you value and how you act. Not whatever goes on at Friday bars or having a ping-pong table.
- Stick to honest employer branding – When culture is the only thing you have, your focus should be on honest employer branding. Overselling isn’t worthy of the risk of disappointing your team. And neither is overspending on things that might not matter to the people who work for you. Check what are the actual values and practices of people and act based on this. Don’t assume that they value the same as you. And don’t assume that they will value the same as whatever great culture is in Google’s playbook. Gather specific data and act on this. It’s as simple as that.
- Reduce unconscious bias One of the single most important things when hiring for culture is letting go of the idea of hiring for a culture fit. You want people that will be just the right addition to your team. Getting out of your comfort (bias) zone is crucial for you to build an intentional and inclusive culture. For us, at Platypus this has meant always inviting different people and perspectives into the hiring and decision-making process.
- Accept – and manage – the fact that your culture will change as you grow. The people you need to launch the rocket will be motivated by different things than the people that will help you scale. Keep the track of how your culture changes with every new hire. Then you can evaluate if you are going in the direction that made you unique in the first place.
There is no perfect recipe, it is hard to build and maintain a culture. But if you are genuine and honest about what you are trying to achieve, you are already on the right path. Good Luck!