5 Ways Every Company Can Embrace Startup Culture (Without Overdoing It)

While you can’t mimic an existing startup, you can embrace the energy and ethos of one.

5 Ways Every Company Can Embrace Startup Culture (Without Overdoing It)
[Photo: Flickr user Heisenberg Media]

In 2014, I served as executive vice president for Cricut, a small company that manufactures personal electronic cutting machines for creative design. At the time, the company was struggling. Once an industry leader, it was being outpaced by competitors, and it was my job–along with senior management’s–to turn things around. We needed to do more than rebrand; we needed to think and act more like a startup.


That’s a familiar solution to a familiar problem that once dominant companies face. Earlier this year, Samsung announced a major push to reinvent its culture in the startup mold. That isn’t easy to pull off, though, and unfortunately, our initial changes at Cricut fell flat.

Rather than embracing an entrepreneurial attitude and more collaboration, we wound up simply redesigning the workspace. Adding a Ping-Pong table to the break room and an open floor plan didn’t give our employees a new sense of ownership or help our teams pivot more quickly.

What ultimately did work took longer to sort out: Our efforts to flatten management hierarchies, incubate ideas, and spend more time listening to employees rather than directing them. But while that was harder, it had a deeper and longer-lasting impact on the company’s culture.

Stop Looking For A Rulebook To Throw Out

You can’t just bottle startup culture and apply it to another company. Unlike established businesses, startups don’t follow an existing business model–they’re trying to invent a new one. Startups are busy running experiments, testing what happens, and then pivoting in a new direction based on the outcome. Most importantly–as I’ve since learned while running my own startup, TiZE–there’s no standard operating procedure, because everything is happening in foreign territory.

So while you can’t mimic an existing startup, you can take steps to embrace the energy and ethos of one. Think about startup culture, beyond its physical trappings: It’s about passion, personality, agility, authenticity, and collaboration. You can’t force these elements onto your employees simply by adding beanbag chairs or easing up on dress code.

Instead, the goal is to create an “anything is possible” mentality in a place that hasn’t been conducive to that before. Here are a few ways to get there, no matter the size of the company or the stage it’s in.


1. Flatten Hierarchies

Startups are small, which means they aren’t beholden to the rigid management structures of larger corporations. You don’t have to throw out the org chart completely, but you should re-engineer an environment where ideas can flow freely.

So sure, if you add a Ping-Pong table to the office, people from all departments will gather around it. But there are other ways to foster community. At large businesses, social business tools and company intranets can be useful. The key is to create an environment where everyone feels like they have a seat at the table.

2. Make People Feel Their Contributions

At a startup, you can actually see the work you do that helps to move the company forward. It’s an incredible, addictive rush to watch an idea you’ve been working on turn into a real-life product or service. At larger companies, individual contributions to the business can feel microscopic. There’s no urgency to innovate (or, sometimes, even participate), since the company will clearly continue on just fine without you. Let your employees feel a sense of ownership over their work. If you cut back on hierarchy, you’ll create new opportunities for people to follow their projects for longer and see their impact.

3. Rethink The Department

Small, cross-functional teams tend to accomplish more than large departments. Get your teams talking to each other more often and more quickly. Start by carving up that monster project into smaller, manageable mini-projects. Then assign a team of three to four people from multiple departments to each mini-project.

For example, for a software development project, our team might include a project leader, a coder, a UI/UX designer, and a sales or marketing team member. Smaller projects mean shorter deadlines, faster turnaround, and more agile development that can respond quickly to shifting client needs or market dynamics.

4. Integrate Customer Feedback As You Go

Startups release projects incrementally, making changes as they progress, based on beta testing and feedback from clients or customers. Adopt the same approach for your business. Rather than unveiling a brand new product and then scrambling to respond to what customers have to say, use pilot projects to build new products and services incrementally. Not only is this generally better for business, it can have a huge and beneficial impact on your culture, too.


5. Listen More (And More Carefully)

The biggest enemy to startup culture is getting stuck in your current way of doing business. Refusing to make a change–or to even consider the possibility that change might be good–kills creativity and originality. Stay agile, stay open, and stop talking so you can hear what your employees have to say.

One reason why successful startups succeed is because they’re willing to throw caution to the wind and experiment rapidly. For most established companies, that’s simply not a practical way to operate. But you can still meaningfully shake up your company culture to be more open to the entrepreneurial spirit.

Whatever path you take, throw out the beanbag chairs. Those things aren’t even comfortable.

Rana Gujral is the cofounder and CEO of a leading enterprise SaaS startup TiZE. He is also a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs.