How to Sculpt the Right Culture

How do you sculpt your culture for maximum success? There are many factors to sculpting the right culture for your startup, including value-based hiring versus intuition, discovering and embracing your values, how usable values hold everything together, sharing written values from the beginning, taking your values as precepts, value orientation over outcome orientation, ensuring values actually drive results, how values can change over time, and how you maintain values with remote workers.

Why You Need the Right Culture

Why is sculpting the culture such an important factor in startup growth? It's about holding the company together for the long term, especially in situations where the founder cannot control everything and every decision that people make. If founders want to trust people to be able to make the right decisions, values are what brings everyone and holds everything together in the right way. This means that creating the right culture should be a top priority for startup founders.

Value-Based Hiring

Hiring team members based on how they fit a company’s values is a better method of hiring than a founder relying on their gut. Intuitive hiring comes with several risks. For starters, it can lead to a lack of diversity because founders only tend to hire people who have similar backgrounds to themselves. Redeam CEO Melanie Meador is one startup leader who has tried to make a diverse workforce a point of emphasis. _"It's really important to have that diverse workforce. It's race, age, experience, gender, all of that matters when it comes to formulating who you are and making sure you don't actually build up key blind spots. It's not like we're building a fraternity where everyone feels and looks the same. It is really about building a company that can serve a broad market and understand many people in that market."_ A lack of diversity can also lead to blind spots within the startup. A team made up of people with similar backgrounds will all think along the same lines, missing problems that need to be solved or not recognizing the best possible solution to a problem. But creating a diverse team can help to eliminate these blind spots.

Embrace Your Values

It’s common for startups to draw up their mission, values, and purpose early in their history. These are all critical aspects to help keep a company going. However, often startups make the mistake of having aspirational values rather than values that truly reflect their identity. Instead, it’s often better to discover the values that the startup is already living up rather than trying to aspire to values that founders think will lead to success. Founders should also recognize that their core values may reduce over time. In some cases, a startup might have 10 or 15 values in the beginning, only to see that number dwindle to three or five values as they make their way in the world. This is completely normal and just means that the startup is narrowing its focus.

Holding Everyone Together

It’s important to keep in mind that the purpose of having values is for everyone in the company to believe in them and live by them. Having usable values helps to hold everyone together. When this is happening, decisions made by everyone - both founders and other team members - will be influenced by those values. This is another reason why it’s natural for the list of values to shrink over time. Founders need to occasionally consider whether a value is still useful and helpful. In a way, it’s akin to a product the startup creates. It’s something that a startup wants to have maximum usability and minimal friction. When that’s no longer the case, it may not be a relevant value for the company. CodeCov is one startup that isn’t afraid to go back and re-examine its principles, as co-founder Eli Hooten explains: _“It's very easy to look at a decision that you’re trying to make - or that others have made - and you can go, ‘Hey, let’s go back and look at these principles. Are you sure you're on brand here? Is this really the right way to be trying to solve this problem.’”_

Sharing Values from the Beginning

It’s critical for founders to share the values of a startup from the beginning. Values can’t just be something that’s inside the head of the CEO. By writing them down, there is transparency, as well as the ability to have an open discussion about whether those are the right values and whether or not the startup is living up to them. At CloudApp, CMO Joe Martin says that he and the other leaders literally put the values in their hands. _“We review it in our hands every couple of weeks, so everyone knows what the goals are and knows what we are as a company. And it feeds into how people are productive.”_

Taking Your Values as Precepts

It is important to not just write values down but to also live them and integrate them in other processes. For example, Data Gumbo founder Andrew Bruce says that one of his startup’s values is to be comfortable with chaos. This means that during interviews, candidates are asked whether they are comfortable with chaos and asked to explain what they have lived through that shows they are comfortable with chaos. This is a great example of how a startup holds true to its values and looks for team members that fit those values.

Don’t Become Outcome Oriented

It’s hard to deny that successful startups have done a lot of things right. But there is also an element of luck involved, which is why startups can’t always be too outcome-oriented. Instead, startups like CodeCov ask themselves if the right decision was made based on the company’s principles and in line with its values? This is how decisions and employers are evaluated rather than the end result.

Ensure Values Drive Results

Of course, when a startup finds success and is getting good results, it’s important to know that it’s the company’s values that are driving those results. Pipefy CEO Alessio Alionco believes this relates directly to using values to hold people together. When there are values that bring people together, people are happy and feel as if they fit in, which helps to drive results. _“We are a people-first company,” Alessio explains. “And we respect people’s uniqueness. And we want to create a safe space for everyone where they feel comfortable to share their professional aspirations but also their personal aspirations.”_

Values Change Over Time

As mentioned, it’s natural for the values of a startup to change with time. In fact, this can happen faster than founders sometimes realize. As Niels Martin Crochner of ContractBook explains, culture and values can change with a startup’s targets. That means that when a startup is growing quickly, culture can change just as quickly. _“The culture we had a year ago is not the same as we have today. And the culture we have now is going to be very different in half a year, in 12 months. And the culture is going to be defined by the targets.”_ Andrew Bruce of Data Gumbo has a similar take. In fact, even he was surprised at the end result when his startup re-evaluated its values. _“We reviewed the values of the company. We have values that we’d grown up with. We went back and revisited what our values were and that was an interesting process… We ended up with values that I didn’t expect.”_

Maintaining Values with a Remote Team

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more startups were having to adjust to working with remote team members. That trend doesn’t appear to be going away, creating new challenges for startups that must maintain their values and a strong culture with a vast majority of employees working remotely. Redox CEO and founder Luke Bonney believes remote work can actually be helpful for building a culture. Since Redox can hire people who live anywhere, there is a bigger pool of candidates, making it easier to find people who align with the company’s mission and values. Of course, those candidates also have more options for where they work because there are more companies welcoming remote workers. Meanwhile, Melanie Meador of Redeam believes that a remote team means investing in cohesion. That means Redeam has gone to considerable lengths to make sure that employees are engaged and don’t feel isolated. _“We often do game days where we play games online together. We do theme parties where people get to dress up and have some fun,” Melanie explains. “The more you know about someone personally, the better team player you can become.”_

Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with tech cofounders across the world.