Startup Culture Blog

Culture: The Foundation to Any Startup Dream

Business Culture

There is one word you’re probably hearing way more often since the dawn of internet startups …Culture. While it has always been an important element of a company, especially since the Social Media bubble began in 2007, it seems like Culture has taken its well deserved seat in front of the conversation about business. Even if it’s just a marketing ploy.

At this point, you’ve seen the companies that acquire “Ping Pong Culture.” A startup will proudly display their ping pong or foosball tables to show their employees, but more importantly their customers, how much fun it is to work with them.

“See how happy our employees are? We let them play table games before slumping back to their cubicles and the 60-hour workloads required to get our company off the ground, but you know, because there’s always disposable time to spend on some pong.”

This is not the approach to Culture I’m referring to of course. I’ll use the capital form of the word Culture because it is a concept to be respected. After all, it is the soul of your company.

Culture is also not a “thing”, something you can slap a sticker on and write bestselling books about. Zappo’s has taken the belt for champion of “productizing” culture. You may have read Delivering Happiness, the semi-narcissistic story of the Zappo’s culture and style. However, as so many Zappo’s employees have complained about, it seems more like lip service than a baring of the company’s soul. This story is all too common, and has provided quite a bit of skepticism to be drawn out over other companies promoting their culture, or even speaking about it.

I didn’t write this to bash on Zappo’s. To be honest, there are WAY easier targets to pick on, with the exception that they don’t advertise it front and center like Tony Hsieh did. I wrote to talk about why Culture is so much more important and should be exalted as a company virtue. It is your CORE. It’s your company’s soul. So how do you set it and maintain it? This is the really hard question. Where Hsieh struggled was in the maintaining, but he had the right idea from the start. He knew what experience he wanted for his customers, and he used that as the central rod from which he spun his culture around. As they grew and he had to keep hiring in massive numbers, however, this became a little unwound over time.

I have experienced the nightmare of trying to “square peg” someone into a company that doesn’t fit their ideal Culture. Speak Social has a great sense of Culture, and it’s very specific to us (as it should be) and very hard to pinpoint. So it was very difficult at first to know who fit and who didn’t, especially as we were new and developing. We had the habit of “dating” the wrong sort of people sometimes. It was hit or miss, because some people we got SOOO right. Others we got especially wrong.

This is always more than just a hiring blunder. These decisions can cost you heavily, including costing you the company entirely. If I added up just the monetary cost Speak Social has incurred on hiring bad culture fits, the total would be over $200,000 easily. That doesn’t take into account the exposure to litigation arising from some of those decisions, adding another almost $350,000 of risk, which we luckily staved off (if you need a good lawyer in Austin, let me know). Not to beat a dead horse, but when you add up all the time wasted on bad culture fits, that’s where the numbers can give you a heart attack. It’s the waste of time that hurts the most because it comes with healthy doses of added stress, heartache, tension, anger, frustration, and the list goes on.

Be particularly careful when hiring sales people for your startup. In fact, never be more protective of your Culture than when hiring for sales people. The worst part about the position you’re in as a startup owner is that sales are always so crucial, and there are people out there to help you achieve them. Add to that an inability to pay a competitive salary for the best, and you’re left having to interpret which of the ones out there have enough skill to succeed as well as the ability to understand what you do and why its different. Also, the way sales people are “bred” sets them up to be misaligned to your Culture. For many schools of thought in sales, the singular focus on money through commissions obscures the perspective of why Culture is so important to promote in the sale. When Culture is held to such a high standard in your organization, the only way to successfully hire sales people is to ensure they embody your Culture, not just possess the ability to sell your product.

There are a few tips and tricks you can use to help prevent yourself from committing Culture suicide-by-hire. I had to learn some of these the hard way, but this list is now sacrosanct for me:

Startup Culture Blog1. When interviewing new hires, treat the interview like the person across from the table is a threat to your organization. When you feel the need to entice them into your organization, you stop paying attention to their potential damage.
2. Ultimately, you know someone is a fit to your Culture by their personality. Interviews are not set up to be the kind of environment where someone is open and honest about their personality. Let them be themselves. Ask questions that highlight their personality, like “what is your favorite karaoke song?” or “what would you love to change in the world?”. Read into their answers and watch their body language along the way.
3. Set the right expectations on the Culture right up front. Don’t forget, job seekers are often in the position of getting hired, not being 100% honest. Some will take a job even if they know the Culture is NOT for them. If you set the right expectations on Culture, they’re less likely to fudge the truth.
4. Put potential hires on a “Culture Probation”. Despite skills and talent, make sure you’re monitoring their alignment with your company. If you don’t see the right signs, this person will not succeed in your company. Keep in mind this is usually your fault if they stay, not theirs. They’re just doing their job. You hired them knowing they didn’t fit perfectly, and that is preventing success (potentially).
5. Use your team as a bellwether. Let multiple people meet and even interview your candidate. Ask your team often about them and how they fit the Culture. Evaluate very carefully here, because inside teams are also very protective, and generally show their claws and teeth in these positions. Make it fun and part of the process, and don’t position it as “change”.
These tips won’t prevent Cultural misalignment, but they should prevent disaster like we’ve experienced in the past. More than anything, don’t treat Culture as something fluffy and nice. Treat it as nothing short of the religion your brand follows.

Brad Bogus

Brad has spent over 10 years in the digital multimedia industry. In 2010, he started Speak Social, a digital marketing and advertising team that defies the traditional agency model. Brad has multiple industry related articles published online, has spoken on many panels and presented on Social Media, Search and the future of Online Marketing, including during SXSWi, and has appeared on numerous news stories and radio interviews on the industry. Brad is also a celebrated trainer and has educated Fortune 500 companies, entrepreneurs, and the US State Department alike on Social Media strategy and implementation. Speak Social creates the strategies and campaigns for brands utilizing all forms of Social Media for marketing, advertising, sales, crowdfunding and PR.

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