Maintaining startup culture when you’re scaling up can drastically affect your business. Although scaling up is positive, there can be negative consequences. We’ve compiled a list of tips that will hopefully help you keep your startup vibes, regardless of how much your company grows.
Hire people, not their qualifications.
This is where most companies go wrong, which is why we’re including it as our first point. Hiring people you like, that you get on with, is crucial to the success of the company. This is also where trial periods come in useful if you’re not sure.
Make sure that people involved in the hiring process are part of the team that intend to work with whoever is being hired. If you’re hiring a developer, make sure they meet at least one member of the development team and so on.
If you hire based solely on qualifications, or simply to fit a diversity quota, that’s a bad idea. We mention more about diversity in our article ‘Diversity: Conscious Decisions for Change’. Someone who isn’t as qualified for a job, might be more willing to learn. They might be more enthusiastic about their role as you gave them a chance, you provided them with an opportunity they might not have been given elsewhere. As long as the onboarding is substantial and the communication is transparent, it will work, trust us. There’s more information about creating and maintaining a well structured team in our article ‘Rapidly Growing Teams’.
Authenticity and accessibility are keys to a successful startup culture.
Setting boundaries is important but one of the major problems with growing startups, particularly those with a flat structure, is that hierarchies can creep in. With hierarchies come egos and that’s when you know there’s a problem.
Now, knowing who to ask for help and who sets your targets and who supports and manages the strategies for different teams makes sense. Not being able to access them or being too nervous or afraid to communicate with them because ‘they’re the boss’ or ‘they’re more important than me’, doesn’t make any sense. You are the boss of what you do. They are the boss of what they do.
It just so happens that they make sure you stick to the task or strategy at hand and keep the vision of the company in mind. It’s only in corporate structures where this ‘fear’ is implemented in order for employees to ‘work harder’, which as it turns out, doesn’t work.
“Drive out fear, so that everyone may work more effectively and productively.” Edward Deming
By creating a culture that minimizes fear, you encourage creativity in the workplace and the freedom to express ideas without prejudice. When we’re able to work without fear, we’re more authentic, which means the company itself, is more authentic.
Keep your startup culture obvious.
Encourage it. Talk about it. Write about it. Take photos. Document everything. When people are able to look back and see how things were, they’ll try to keep those things up. Maintaining company culture isn’t a task that should fall solely on the shoulders of founders, everyone needs to be involved.
If remote or flexible work is part of your company culture, make sure people know about it. If you have a meeting every month where the whole team gets together and hangs out, make sure everyone knows about it. If there are snacks and drinks available, makes sure everyone knows what they can have.
Even something as simple as showing someone where the recycling bins are or how the coffee machine works will make a difference. If you see someone emptying the dishwasher, help them. Leave your ego at home (unless you’re working from home). The office is about working together as a team. If someone suggests an activity during a break in the work day, get involved, even if it’s as simple as leaving the office for lunch, for a walk, or to meditate, go for it.
“Good culture creates an environment where people can do their best work.” Mike Curtis, VP of Engineering, AirBnb
It’s proven that a positive work environment is a better place to work. In a study entitled ‘A study on the effect of workplace negativity factors on employee engagement mediated by emotional exhaustion’ researchers explain how negativity has a detrimental effect in the workplace, particularly in relation to ‘emotional exhaustion’, which is often referred to as burnout. Burnout can spread throughout teams, once one person leaves, a domino effect can occur, something that growing startups obviously want to avoid.
We’re human beings, not machines.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, don’t hate, delegate. There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. You might even be surprised at how many people are willing to help.
Everyone has both good and bad days. Sometimes, those days affect the way we work. It’s important not to judge anyone because no one truly understands what another person has been through or is going through. When a company understands that, it’s more likely to retain a team member going through some personal problems.
A company that is there for their teams is a good company. A little bit of empathy goes a long way. It can be useful to remind people who are from corporate backgrounds that they need to unlearn some of the things they got used to, in order to function well in a growing startup. It might not be easy but it might help.
Imposter syndrome, not wanting to take days off due to illness, fear of communication, overwork etc. are all tell tale signs that someone was once part of a company missing culture. When founders, who started with a team of five, still act the same way they did with a team of fifty, you know you’re on the right track. Don’t lose that recognizable startup energy, try to keep it up!
Organize physical and digital workspaces.
You’ve hired twenty more people and none of them know where anything is. What do you do? Well, you make sure your onboarding process is on point and if there are people who know where everything is in relation to a specific team, make sure old and new team members meet relatively early on.
Documentation often ends up all over the place when using shared drives in a startup, so a growing startup needs to encourage a more efficient use of their digital workspaces. Searchable and obvious document naming is one thing that helps. Rather than your new team mate saying “I can’t find X.”, they’ll say “Oh, I typed X into the shared drive and I found lots of documents about X.” (hopefully)! There’s a good article about decluttering your digital workspaces by Mudita. It goes into more detail about the ways in which you can organize your devices. They also have a lot of advice about working more mindfully.
Respecting your teams and their space will help remove any internal friction. Using other people’s desks and leaving them a mess when they’re away isn’t OK, nor is storing rubbish or office junk in their space. Removing or replacing their seats, cables or monitors can also be quite frustrating. Try to discourage that kind of behaviour by making sure there are enough desks, chairs and monitors to go around. If someone needs some kind of equipment to do the job they need to do, they shouldn’t be expected to buy it themselves, strong office organization is crucial when the company grows.
Take feedback and roll with it.
One to one meetings, lunches, anonymous feedback and general discussions can be the best way to find out what’s going on where you work. Talking to people and trying to figure out where things are going wrong, sourcing a problem is the only way to solve it. If someone is causing a lot of issues and their name has come up several times, it might be a good idea to have a chat with them to understand what’s going on. If you can’t trust your teams, or specific team members, then there’s a problem. Sometimes all it takes is a very simple change to make a huge difference, these changes can make all the difference. When people find their work environment more comfortable, they’re more likely to do better work!
Learn from your mistakes. Giving people new titles and not paying them more doesn’t constitute a promotion, not letting employees know about holidays they’re entitled to does mean they’re more likely to burnout, enforcing enigmatic new rules doesn’t mean everyone will stick to them. If you run a startup, make sure your communication with the whole team is crystal clear. We favour the ‘no bullshit’ approach, where everything can be challenged by everyone in order for issues to be dealt with quickly.
It’s not all doom and gloom.
On a more positive note, acknowledging team members and rewarding them for their hard work is always a nice touch. We have a system known as ‘kudos’ but there are lots of ways to thank people! If it’s your company that’s growing, don’t forget to thank yourself for the work you do too.
Stay focused, stay humble. Remember that good things come to those who wait (and more importantly, those who work hard). We hope this guide has helped you learn more about maintaining startup culture in growing teams.
If you’re looking for a venture builder who knows how to maintain their company culture or you need help working on your own growing team, get in touch with us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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