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How to build a people-first culture as the company grows

You might not know all your employees as you start to hire more and more people–but you can still maintain a tight-knit culture.

How to build a people-first culture as the company grows
[Photo: Campaign Creators/Unsplash]

When starting out, it’s common for founders to handpick every team member and get to know them on a personal level. But there comes a point when it’s no longer possible to do this as hiring needs multiply and employee headcount grows. Eventually, every successful entrepreneur reaches a point where he or she looks around and wonders, “Who are all these people? How do I keep empowering them?”

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I’ve asked myself those questions as my company, Okta, has grown to over 1,500 people. I once knew every employee’s name, spouse, hobbies, pets and what made them tick, but at our current size, building that personal connection with everyone isn’t possible.

That’s why it’s crucial for founders to find new ways to get to know their expanding workforce and show employees they care. In this week’s episode of Zero to IPO, Epic magazine’s Joshua Davis and I spoke with five entrepreneurs about how they did this. Here is the advice they shared:

1) Be yourself

Most leaders think that they need to make drastic changes to HR when they start onboarding people left and right. However, Sequoia Capital’s Carl Eschenbach, formerly president of VMware, argued that when transitioning from startup to enterprise, entrepreneurs should safeguard their people-first mind-set.

Although VMware was evolving, Eschenbach didn’t want to change who he was as a leader. He had always been a gregarious, friendly guy, so as the number of employees at VMware grew, Eschenbach didn’t let the headcount intimidate him. He continued greeting people in the hallways, joining interviews, and asking his colleagues how they were doing every day. Even when he started seeing more unfamiliar faces around the office, he didn’t let that change how he engaged with the team.

2) Hold onto your startup’s traditions

When Canva was in its early days, cofounder and CEO Melanie Perkins ate lunch with her colleagues every day. She cherished the opportunity to connect with everyone on her team. Team members would bring in leftovers or make sandwiches for everyone and learn about each other’s lives.

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As the company has expanded, Perkins has worked hard to keep up the close-knit startup environment. Even though Canva is now too big for one person to make everyone lunch, Perkins found a way to make meals a part of the company’s culture. She blocks off an hour for lunch on everyone’s calendar every day. Canva has big communal tables in the dining area so employees can eat together and converse, and Perkins makes an effort to sit with someone new every day. Rather than give up on her favorite traditions altogether, she adapted it as the company scaled.

3) Promote values, not perks

There’s a misconception in Silicon Valley that workplace culture is all about the snacks. While competition for talent is fierce, it’s a mistake to think the right combination of La Croix sparkling water, chocolate-covered almonds, and foosball tables attract top recruits.

After starting her own company, Amy Pressman, Medallia cofounder and current board member, realized that there’s a lot more to talent acquisition than perks. The most important draw for recruits, Pressman learned, were the startup’s values, mission, and vision. Medallia valued creating an environment that fostered learning and growth–and in interviews, Pressman made sure to promote this and share stories about customers and employees who had successfully become active learners. As a result, Medallia started getting a reputation for having a strong culture and was able to hire people who embraced its continual learning mind-set.

4) Set clear expectations

In the startup days, many entrepreneurs value quantity over quality. If you want to double your production, you might think that the answer is to increase your workforce significantly. However, according to Patty McCord (Netflix’s former chief talent officer and creator of the famous Netflix culture deck), what will drive you forward is hiring the right people and being transparent about your expectations from day one.

Every new company faces a never-ending list of challenges, so McCord recommends hiring people who are uniquely qualified to solve them. If you want to hire someone with the passion, but not necessarily the experience to address an issue, you need to set clear expectations from the beginning. McCord recommends giving new “passionate hires” a hard deadline to solve a given problem. If they can’t find a solution, you need to bring in other resources. This may sound cut-throat, but as your company grows, getting to know your employees’ strengths and weaknesses and establishing ongoing discussions about their progress sets them up for success.

5) Show every employee you care

Everyone likes to feel valued by senior leadership. When Fred Luddy, the founder of ServiceNow, was working as a programmer at the Amdahl Corporation, the founder Dr. Gene Amdahl took time out of his busy schedule one day to show Luddy his appreciation. He walked into the room where Luddy was working and told him, “I’m so thankful you’re here. You’re the only one who can do this job.”

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This moment stuck with Luddy for the rest of his career. As ServiceNow grew, Luddy made sure to express his appreciation to individual employees whenever he could. He realized if you show your employees how much you appreciate their work, they are more likely to give back one thousand percent.

Back when I was at Salesforce in the early 2000s, I experienced something very similar. I was in the office late one night when Marc Benioff came over to my desk. We chatted for several minutes. Even though he was a very busy guy, he was genuinely curious about what I was working on. It was something I remember to this day and have carried over to Okta as the company has grown from just a few people to over a thousand.

After years building and growing Okta, I’ve learned that as a leader, you need to stay true to yourself and find your own, genuine ways to carry your startup’s close-knit culture through every stage. After all, your company culture can drive (or hinder) your startup’s success.


Frederic Kerrest is the COO and cofounder of Okta. You can listen to the full episode, “Who are all these people?” wherever you get your podcasts. Tune into Zero to IPO every Tuesday and check back here each week to read more about the insights on each episode.

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