Entrepreneurs fret over just about everything: marketing plans, product features, investor pitches, sales collateral, management team hires, company valuations, financial projections, cash balances. But an often neglected, yet critical part of success is the culture that a startup founder fosters and the key role that it plays in the company’s eventual success.
Culture permeates everything. It spurs innovation, inspires resilience, promotes collaboration, wins customers, builds a winning mentality—all key success factors to any business, let alone a nascent young venture.
Yet since culture is not something that can be easily measured, tracked or quantified in conventional terms (ever seen a balance sheet with an asset entry called "Culture"?) it’s often neglected or even dismissed as somewhat of a luxury.
But culture is something that grows within any organization whether you actively work to create it or not, so setting priorities for what’s important and taking an active role in shaping it is absolutely critical. Fail to pay attention and you risk the build up of a poisonous environment that can envelope the entire venture.
1. Write a Culture Plan
We have business plans, financial plans, marketing plans, sales plans, even office plans, yet very few founders ever sit down and articulate in writing the kind of culture they want to build around them. Writing a culture plan can help clarify to employees the key organizational values that the founder aspires to. It also guides behaviors that affect everything from the way a company treats its customers to key hire decisions.
2. Take the Pulse Often
You don’t focus on what you don’t measure. With my company, I created feedback mechanisms so that I would ensure I was always aware of company sentiment or shifts on morale or focus. Such mechanisms included weekly office hours where any and all employees could book time to chat with me; walking each morning around the office to informally chat with teammates; having occasional anonymous online surveys; putting feedback boxes around the office.
3. Foster Frequent Informal Interactions
Meetings are important though my experience tells me that newer or younger employees often feel intimidated or inhibited in these staged environments where hierarchy is obvious. I deliberately designed a large kitchen with long tables and promoted an environment where the company, regardless of role, sat and ate lunch together every day. These informal interactions not only broke down perceived hierarchical walls, but they also gave me direct engagement with younger employees and interns than may have normally felt intimidated to interact with the CEO. I found that basic human friendship is a more powerful motivator than a top-down command.
4. Mean What You Say
It’s not enough to say that culture is important. As leaders, founders need to continuously reinforce it. Culture and values ought to permeate everything from company benefits, office arrangement and design, employee reviews and, perhaps more importantly, in whom the company promotes, hires and if needed, fires. These clear signals help continuously reinforce a company’s priorities, convictions, and ambitions with respect to the culture it seeks to foster and promote.
—Panos Panay is the founder/CEO of Sonicbids, the leading platform for bands to book gigs and market themselves online. He is also a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.