Make It Weird, And 3 Other Ways To Create A Profitable, Cult-Like Culture

Forget "people first, strategy second." Nurture culture in that No. 2 slot or prepare to watch business suffer.

A mentor once told me, "a great business needs to be much more than a business and just barely less than a religion."

I’ve always interpreted this to mean that great organizations are much like cults: passionate and vision-obsessed and with profit-based motives. This makes sense because every great business I know has a strong culture. Thus, the best advice for entrepreneurs isn’t just, “people first, strategy second,” but more accurately, “people first, culture second, strategy third.”

Being perpetually obsessed with company culture leads to higher profits as well as a lot more fun for everyone involved. Though not always superficially discernible, profitability and culture are intricately intertwined. And, here’s the kicker: Even if you haven’t put the time into developing your company’s culture, it has one. It may just be more like Initech’s (Office Space, anyone?) than Google’s.

The good news is that your culture can change. In fact, it’s changing right now. The only question: Is it getting better or worse?

Here are four ways to make culture more than just a buzzword at your organization:

1. Make it weird. Take a note from some of the nation’s most successful brands: Make it weird. That is, make it 100 percent you. There is no right or wrong when it comes to company culture as long as it's genuine and transparent. When in doubt, do the opposite of what most other organizations are doing. We all want to be a part of something unique and special, and hopefully laugh and thrive along the way!

2. Understand what company culture is and what it’s not. Company culture is the shared philosophy and values of the team as a whole. It’s unique to the circumstances and nature of the business, as well as the people and processes that make it up. This is not to say there are not cultural subgroups within the overarching culture--there always are. But together, there is a definable, overarching culture. And, it’s not just the things a company believes in–-it’s the things a company does.

3. Live the culture and display it boldly. Your company’s culture should be easy to define and easily visible. Zappos has their employees wear their 10 core values on their nametags. Other companies have the core values listed in the employee handbook, framed on the wall and/or displayed on their website. Some companies have a theme or a mantra. In addition to having our core values displayed widely, we have a few key phrases and words (e.g., “YES!” & “Crush It!”) displayed as company artwork. It’s those words and phrases that become part of our own company nomenclature.

4. Give your culture some breathing room--and a feedback loop. As your company grows, you have to think about scaling your company and personnel without losing your culture. Consider the examples set by Google, Patagonia, and Zappos--three companies known for their exceptional company culture. They’ve all grown tremendously without losing their company culture. However, this is not to say their company cultures have not changed. They have--and that change often starts with employee feedback. For instance, when Google noticed that they were losing female talent, their HR department started offering better maternity and paternity leave. But they don't stop there; the department monitors whether such perks are successful based on data tied to employee behavior, attrition rates, and happiness. There is a lot to be said about the type of company culture that's dictated as much by the employees as by the leadership (instead of going from the top down, like Initech's “TPS reports”).

Remember, your company culture is a constant work in progress--you’re never, ever “done” when it comes to this essential aspect of your organization. People first, culture second, strategy third…100 percent of the time.

--Sean Kelly is a nutrition-focused social entrepreneur whose work centers on crushing the causes of obesity and malnutrition. He is the CEO and cofounder of HUMAN (Helping Unite Mankind And Nutrition), a company that has the vision of "making healthy food more convenient than junk food."

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization composed of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library, and email lessons.

[Image: Flickr user Sleep Tålk]