Four Things No One Tells You About Startup Culture

For one thing, startup culture isn’t limited to startups.

Four Things No One Tells You About Startup Culture
[Photo: Flickr user Tech Hub]

Startup culture is alternately romanticized and criticized. But the reasons why tend to rest on clichés and sweeping generalizations–collaborative workspaces and weekly happy hours on the one hand, amorphous management structures and insane hours on the other–that don’t often reflect the day-to-day realities.


We have a tendency to foist popular ideas about Silicon Valley onto startups in general, whether or not they’re actually in tech or based in California. The truth is a little more complicated. And while these four features of startup life do give rise to certain stereotypes, they’re seldom talked about as practical realities–things that actually impact people’s decisions in looking for a job at a startup, and how well they do once they start working in one.

1. Uncertainty That Breeds Teamwork

Because of their size and the fact that they have only been around a short period of time, startup teams tend to be close-knit groups of people who genuinely care about what they’re working toward. Those that don’t share that sense of camaraderie or purpose tend not to survive very long.

And they need to be, too, because there are no guarantees that a company here this year or this quarter will be around the next. Those shared bonds of trust and respect make it easier for startup teams to overcome the sorts of hurdles that small and growing companies face in their earliest stages.

This brings up a stereotype that startups seem to earn–the notion that they’re always flying by the seats of their pants. Certainly, they often are, but that fight for survival doesn’t necessarily create a culture of near mayhem. Instead, the fact that things can change at virtually any moment forges strong teams that can often channel uncertainty into possibility.


2. Experimentation Is A Necessity

Startups’ lack of corporate structure is one common reason for their appeal. But while the fact that everything tends to flow a little more freely is appealing to many, few realize that that isn’t necessarily a matter of choice. Startups do have a structure, even if it’s one that encourages things to happen on the fly–because they must.

The vast majority of projects have no precedent and so don’t come preplanned. They require everyone on the team to collaborate quickly and figure out problems on the spot. Experimentation isn’t just an attitude startups adopt in order to appear to be or become more innovative than their competitors. It’s a necessary reality, and it has real consequences for startups’ cultures. Strong communication is crucial in that environment as a result. Without it, getting work done can easily turn into a nightmare that can imperil the business.

3. Startup Culture Isn’t Limited To Startups

Collaborative workspaces, a more open managerial approach, freedom to work remotely–these are some of the perks that tend to draw people to startups. The thing is, they may not be the most defining features of startup culture. They’re the very features more established companies have begun to adopt in order to attract top talent and stay nimble.

And it’s no wonder why. “There is no red tape, no bureaucracy, no hierarchical hoops to jump through,” Ikhlaq Bhat says of BQE Software, where he’s the director of marketing. “The management team, including our CEO, has an open-door policy. Any employee, from any team, can walk in and talk to them directly.” It’s a mistake these days to imagine that startups have a monopoly on transparency in the workplace. Companies everywhere are finding that it’s crucial to their cultures and their business.

4. Change Is Felt By All—Good, Bad, Or Indifferent

Many of us would like to think that we’re good at rolling with the punches, and those who tend to seek out startups do so because they want to be in dynamic, changing organizations. But while that can make for an exciting experience, it can also be an unsettling one–regardless of your temperament. Why? Because in small, young companies, even small changes tend to impact everyone. Right when you think you’ve got something pinned down, you learn you need to rethink it at the most basic level.


That can be thrilling, or it can be frustrating. The upside, of course, is when those changes are positive. When a good thing happens, it happens to everyone. But it’s the reverse when bad things happen. Either way, a domino effect is rarely avoidable.

It’s common for outsiders to imagine startups as laser-focused, high-intensity organizations barreling ahead. But the truth is that culture takes time–especially the sort that lasts for years to come. And in the shorter term, changes can be challenging at least as often as they’re energizing.


About the author

Barry S. Saltzman is CEO of Saltzman Enterprise Group and Partner at Culture Measures, a business focused on turning the art of culture into a science.