5 Tips For Shaping Your Startup’s Culture

An experienced VC and entrepreneur tells us what you need to make your company’s culture stand out.

5 Tips For Shaping Your Startup’s Culture
[Image: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson]

You might think that, early on, startups don’t have a defined culture, but that’s not true. The founders , will likely set the organizational culture from day one (whether it’s defined in a formal company document or not).


Some are zen. Some are wacky. And some are straight-up nerdy to the core. Regardless, those preferences will shape the culture and ultimately the talent attracted to the company, and it’s very important that new hires understand the pace, values, and vision of the company–even if they are unspoken.

But to build a truly unique and inspiring culture that will attract the best talent “fit” and skill level takes thought, time, and energy, and an extraordinary amount of self-awareness on behalf of the founder.

Culled from my experience as an employee of a startup, a VC, and now an entrepreneur, here are five ways to build a company culture that delivers the best products and solutions and, ultimately, has the power to change the world.

1. Start with a foundation of trust.

Trust is possibly the most important and fundamental aspect of building a strong company culture, particularly early on when there are a lot of fires to put out and late nights at the office.

How do you build it? Start with doing your best to follow through on your promises. It may seem trivial, but showing consistency and resolve even in the smallest aspects of your business does wonders for securing a high level of trust among employees. If you say you’re going to do something, do it.

A company culture built on trust moves a company forward with less friction and ultimately makes the experience more enjoyable.


2. Teamwork trumps talent alone.

When times become trying (and they will), the talent needs to consist of a pool of team players who can coalesce around a problem, support one another, and ultimately reach outcomes that would not be possible individually. Without a team mindset, it becomes markedly more difficult to steer an often tenuous and quickly changing ship.

Leaders can cultivate team-oriented environments by creating incentives that reinforce this structure. While personal goals are certainly important, groups must also feel rewarded for things they achieve together. Set team goals, then celebrate the milestones as a team. This reminds everyone that they are a part of something bigger than just themselves.

3. Allow your team the freedom to fail.

When a team member is attached to their company culture, assuming it is one of open doors and active listening, they possess the greatest freedom of all: to fail without feeling like a failure. And there is a difference. Assuming their slight misstep was an attempt to innovate based on an intelligent hunch or well-informed strategy, failure is an inevitable part of the growth process. Ultimately, the team is improved not by how a leader responds to success, but how he or she responds to failure.

4. Give credit where credit is due.

Nothing is worse than a company culture where the leadership takes all the credit for countless hours their tech talent, marketing team, or key advisors have put into solving an insurmountable problem. While it is the leader’s job to drive the vision, often putting her/him out front for others to see, a culture devoid of sharing the proverbial wealth will kill any company–and in the startup world, this is even more pronounced. When your data scientist stays late every Friday night to solve a problem for the greater good, you better believe come press time she gets a shout-out.

5. Follow the golden rule.

It’s important to cultivate a culture where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. You’d think this was obvious, but when things are moving at a million miles per hour and tension is high, it’s easy to get into habits of impatience, negativity, and frustration–and often, those behaviors are aimed at other team members. Simply put: treat others as you would want to be treated, and watch your company flourish.

Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer is the CEO of AirPR, a company he co-founded in 2011. He was an Entrepreneur in Residence at Shasta Ventures focused on consumer internet and the social graph. Prior to joining Shasta, Sharam was a Senior Associate at Sierra Ventures focused on consumer internet, enterprise software (cloud computing / virtualization), and mobile. He served as a Board Observer at Makara (sold to RedHat) and TouchCommerce. Sharam began his career as a technologist at Appian, a BPM software startup where he managed the first enterprise-wide tracking system for the Department of Homeland Security.


The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is 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 that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.