Julianna Davies, a small business writer who blogs primarily for students hoping to find MBA programs in project management, gives DMZ readers some weighty thoughts about an oft-discussed but rarely analyzed topic in today’s post: company culture. Culture, she argues, can be the difference between a startup that thrives and one that flounders. Her advice furthers prior discussions about the many things entrepreneurs need to think about when first launching their brands.
Starting an entrepreneurial venture is something that sounds attractive to many people. Even those with formal business credentials may not know how to get things off the ground, though; like so many things, running a successful small company is often a lot harder than it looks. One of the most important elements, in fact, is all but undetectable to the outside observer: company culture. To most, “culture” is somewhat synonymous with overall feel. A company with “good” or “positive” culture often runs seamlessly; employees get along, are productive, and present a shiny exterior to the world around them. In the same way, negative culture tends to align itself with dysfunction and underperformance. It can be tempting for entrepreneurs to treat company culture as a sort of pixie dust that simply “comes” when the stars are aligned. In the fast-paced world of today’s market, though, this strategy is usually unwise. If employees are to learn to work autonomously and in the company’s interest, culture usually needs to be a priority from the very beginning.
In its broadest terms, startup culture is the general ethos of the company: it is the goals, the expectations, and the future aspirations all rolled into one. Culture often manifests most obviously in things like dress code and workplace styles, but has much deeper roots. “Culture is what takes a group of individuals and melds them into something greater,” Robert R. Ackerman, Jr., founder and managing director of venture capital firm Allegis Capital, told CNBC. “A game machine in the lobby or free beers on Friday might support a culture, but they don’t define it.”
One of the easiest mistakes entrepreneurs can make is trying to “borrow” or mimic culture from a successful venture. The Googles, Apples, and Zappos of the world are often prided on their corporate culture – but the rules for startups are usually different in a number of significant ways. Much of this comes down to employee responsibility. In a startup, workers are typically expected to put in long hours and take on a lot of projects independently. A culture modeled off of a larger, departmentalized corporation where responsibilities are more linear is unlikely to foster this sort of project management ethos.
Entrepreneurs and young executives with a strong sense of their ideal culture are usually poised to make better hiring decisions, too. For starters, having a defined culture makes it easier to convey what a company is all about – which in turn makes attracting the right sort of employees all the more straightforward. “It seems like everyone likes the idea of working in a startup but for many different reasons,” TechCrunch said in a 2012 article on startup tips. “Some want the financial upside; some want a challenge and others like being involved in a business where they can make a direct impact. Whatever the reason, it’s important to make sure that your candidates know what to expect.” Being able to coherently explain the culture, as well as gauge potential hires’ abilities to mesh with it, is incredibly important.
Entrepreneurships are unique creatures that often need a lot of nurturing and adjustments, particularly in the early stages. Culture is something that can be gotten right on the first try, though, and can have lasting impacts on a company as it grows. Of course, culture will ideally shift and change with the business as it comes into its own. It is always better to outline the tenets at the beginning, though, and shift the parameters as needed than to come in with sweeping expectations later in the game. This way, employees will be encouraged to grow, innovate, and change along with the company – the best of all possible worlds.