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Founders should stop freaking out about maintaining a startup culture

When a company grows, the corporate culture should grow, too.

Founders should stop freaking out about maintaining a startup culture
[Photo: OpenClipart-Vectors/Pixabay]

Editor’s Note: Each week, Fast Company presents an advice column by Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay. Webb offers candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. How do you maintain a company culture when so many new people are joining the business all the time? We are hiring like mad, and our company is changing. What should we do?

— CTO of fast-growing marketplace company

Dear Founder,

This is a common situation, but it isn’t a problem. It’s important to remember that culture isn’t static. The culture you had as a five-person startup will not be the same you have when you become a Fortune 50 company.

The hard part is determining what stays and what goes. At each stage you go through, you need to identify what to take with you, what to leave behind, and what to start doing that you haven’t been doing or thinking about yet.

Taking a step back, what does culture mean, anyway? Ask a thousand people to define culture, and they may all define it a little differently. Is it about free food, openness, meritocracy, changing the world, or winning at all costs? What’s the difference between culture and values? What’s the importance of a purpose or a mission? How come you can feel the vibe—and know the culture—when you walk into the room?

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A culture develops whether you design it or not. That’s why it’s essential to:

1. Have a point of view on what culture you want to have. When you are setting your culture, don’t pick up somebody else’s culture and adopt it as your own. You have to develop a perspective on what you want this company to be—otherwise it will not work. Sure, they say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but when it comes to startup culture, following the fad of the day is a recipe for failure. Copycat cultures—whether it be a me-too foosball table or giving everyone job titles with the word “ninja” in them—will never last. The best way to build a strong culture is to start at the beginning, by paying attention to your values and thinking about what types of practices will celebrate and extend them. A strong culture is a genuine culture.

2. Live and model what you have stated the culture to be but also allow it to evolve. One thing to keep in mind is that a culture gets calcified very quickly. At the same time, the world changes, and cultures must be fluid enough to keep up. Consider, for example, how command and control, once the management style that defined a generation of companies, has largely been deemed uncool. If your culture is not attractive to the next generation of employees and you don’t change it, you will lose people.

I believe that founders should do a culture check every six months with the question: Do we still believe in this? Know that what used to work won’t always work, so be ready to change.

The elasticity that comes with authenticity is the tenet of the strongest culture—one that is solid enough to provide a strong foundation yet open enough to allow the organization to change direction and reach new heights.

Whenever this starts to feel overly complicated, go back to the basics. I believe that culture is all about how you treat people: your customers, your employees, your suppliers, anyone who interfaces with you. It’s that simple, and that should be a constant. Things change, companies grow, people join, people leave, but continue to treat everyone well and stay true to your values and your culture will develop the right way.

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As I said in the beginning, your company will have a culture. You can take overt action to assert and live the culture you want, or it will grow organically. You must be strong in determining what you should stick to and at the same time be able to welcome new people and new ideas.

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