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Lessons Learned

The Surprisingly Simple Rule That Helped Me Scale My Company's Culture

Your startup already has processes in place, formal or otherwise. You just need to articulate them.

The Surprisingly Simple Rule That Helped Me Scale My Company's Culture
[Photo: Flickr user Edwin Torres]

It's no secret that growing a company can pose a serious threat to its culture. Inevitably, getting it right is a learning exercise, filled with trial and error. But in my own experience of scaling up my startup from 44 employees to over 120 in the last eight months, it can be done if you remember one deceptively simple rule: The processes it takes to grow your business quickly—those that many entrepreneurs rightly fear can strangulate their work cultures—are already in place and can be built upon. You just need to know where to look.

Growing Pains

In most early-stage startups, processes take shape organically—so much so that few founders would even think to call them "processes." New team members aren’t trained in a structured workshop; they sit next to someone, get to work, and ask questions along the way. There are no formal performance reviews or promotion cycles at first, either: Employees are either rewarded for good work or told to rise to the occasion.

But as the company grows, procedures that once developed organically are formalized to accommodate a mounting influx of people who aren’t familiar with those unspoken rules. That means hiring a dedicated HR team, developing training programs for new hires, and setting up some form of performance management, whether through annual reviews or some other method.

Changes like these can cause employees to worry that the company is losing sight of its "startup" mentality, becoming too stuffy and corporate. But this is a natural—and necessary—growing pain for any successful startup. And getting through it successfully means recognizing that there were "processes" from day one, and growing simply requires articulating them so larger numbers of people can repeat them.

Structure Isn't A Bad Thing

The truth is that formalizing those processes doesn't need to force an upset. Don't impose management rules just because companies of a certain size are "supposed" to do that. By the same token, don't cherry-pick any procedures from outside your organization that you don't need to. Instead, look at the organic patterns that have emerged among your own teams and build on those. Do lunch meetings with senior leaders take place naturally? Great—try setting up a a "lunch-and-learn" mentorship program. Do managers already give feedback in real time, and is it working? If so, why would you ever want to replace that with a monthly review?

Early on, startups tend to have a more collaborative power dynamic. People share resources and knowledge, and a pecking order falls into place organically as a result of their relative expertise. As you hire more people, though, this dynamic changes. Roles become more specialized, and smaller teams develop around particular functions. When this happens, it’s time to develop a clearer structure.

But structure isn't always the death of a work culture that's grown up enough to need it. It simply means clarifying things like compensation packages, titles, and who’s responsible for making which decisions. All of these can be sensitive topics, but that doesn’t mean you can avoid them. On the contrary, by creating a thoughtful structure that reflects how your company already operates, you’re giving your teams the power they need to continue executing in ways that have already proved effective.

Hire For Culture

Not long ago, organizations used to value candidates from elite schools and specialized majors, but many companies today care more about experience and mind-set. At plenty of startups, mine included, the specifics of your degree matter a lot less. Most engineering candidates, for instance, have studied computer science, but in today’s environment, a computer science degree has an increasingly short shelf life. It's sometimes better to look at a candidate’s attitude and their body of work, which can be the better metric for whether an applicant is a good fit for your culture at time of growth.

At early-stage startups, founders and team leaders drive the hiring process, conducting interviews and recruiting interns on top of their regular duties. Once a company reaches a certain size, though, that falls to an HR team. Processes once based on a handful of leaders' intuition become a matter of tribal knowledge. This transition can be tricky. But here, too, the process is already there. All it really takes is communication. Have HR folks talk with individual team leads to find out what qualifications they need, or invite them to sit in on team meetings to get a feel for the personalities that thrive there already.

Just because a dedicated hiring team is taking over the mechanics of that process doesn't mean looping others out. Leaders in particular should remain active, making appropriate introductions and injecting a personal touch in order to attract top candidates—all while conveying and preserving your work culture.

Values That Let You Adapt

Early on, it’s essential that you decide the values and rules you and your team are going to abide by. Do you embrace the "work hard, play hard" mentality? Are late nights encouraged? Is social media allowed at work? Is transparency championed in leadership? Is competition friendly or fierce? Unless there's something deeply worrying about your work culture that needs correcting, just articulate the values that are already present in your teams' behaviors. After all, that's what your work culture will emerge from and rest upon as you grow.

Yet for much the same reasons, it's important to remember that your values aren't static. As you add new people to the mix and develop a better understanding of your company’s niche in a changing market, your culture will evolve. So don't try to hire people who represent the perfect fit right now. Instead, think about where your company is headed, then look for people who will draw your culture in that direction.

Growing a company is messy. But if you build off the processes and values that already exist in your company's early days—and give them a structure that lets you adapt—you'll find yourself on a strong footing for years to come.

Matt Barba is cofounder and CEO of Placester, a real estate marketing platform that he's recently led through funding rounds totaling over $50 million as the company prepares to open new headquarters in downtown Boston. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MatthewBarba.

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