While it might seem that thinking about culture is a luxury in the early stages of a project, it is something you cannot afford to postpone. Establishing a productive startup culture from day one is essential because when your venture starts growing, the values you’ve installed will quickly spread to your new team members, and once attitudes and behaviors take root in your growing team it becomes harder and harder to influence them.
Since culture is in essence an implicit values hierarchy that drives behavior, it’s important to consider what values you want to nurture and encourage in your new organization.
1. It Is OK To Make Mistakes, It Is Not OK To Repeat Them
Ironically, when you’re working on the cutting edge of an innovative field, you’ll find yourself relying on the oldest empirical method in the book – trial and error.
Experimentation is in the DNA of a startup, and a startup that doesn’t encourage experimentation is doomed to failure. Yet, it should be obvious that experimentation leads to mistakes and undesirable outcomes.
Consequently, encouraging experimentation and nurturing a high risk tolerance is a very good idea. However, the most successful startups are those that learn the fastest. So, you should be careful not to become too lax in your tolerance of mistakes and bad outcomes.
Making mistakes is expected, but repeating the same mistakes should be highly discouraged. In his book “Principles”, Ray Dalio writes that this exact startup principle is one of the main ones that helped him grow his company from a small startup into one of the biggest hedge funds in the world.
2. A Loose Culture Births Creativity
Should your employees call you by your first name or family name? How strict would you be about dress etiquette, starting hours, etc?
While these aspects of the organizational culture seem superficial, they are important because they shape the attitudes of your team members, and these attitudes will determine behaviors.
While there are pros and cons to each decision of that sort, in general you should try to build a loose, rather than a tight culture (as defined by Michele Gelfand).
A tight culture – one that adheres strictly to social norms, is generally speaking better for efficiency, but it doesn’t encourage creativity. If you want your team members to be creative, they need to feel that they are not being judged all the time and that they have the freedom to make decisions on their own and to play in their work.
3. A Sense of Urgency
Generally speaking, startups are running against the clock. If you don’t find product-market fit before you run out of resources, you’ll be forced to close shop.
So, you don’t have time to loose. You need to make as many attempts and as many experiments as possible if you are to find viable solutions.
The balance between play, creativity, and urgency is a hard one to strike as they are in a way opposite attitudes. Yet, this is not entirely true.
Creativity needs freedom, but this shouldn’t be misinterpreted – freedom doesn’t mean a lack of pressure. On the contrary – pressure could be a creativity multiplier, as it drives people to act, rather than to theorize.
Deadlines attached to launch dates, pitches, or important meetings as well as KPI goals are some of the tools you can use to build a sense of urgency.
4. Knowledge That Hard Work Is Rewarded
Last but not least, work ethic is crucial for startups. The most valuable resource early-stage projects have is the time and effort of the team. Putting in more time and effort simply results in more productivity. And since early-stage startup teams are small, the effort of one person could have a big impact on the overall success of the project.
While there are many ways to promote hard work, the important ones are two.
First, you need to lead by example. As the founder, you can’t afford to be less committed than the other people on the team.
Second, you need to reward people for showing the right attitude. You can do this simply by praising them, but explicit rewards are also important. Performance bonuses and employee stock options are important tools to motivate hard work in your team.