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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

16 low-cost ways to recognize and reward your startup team

Even if you’re self-funded, you can still find meaningful and cost-effective ways to recognize and reward your team’s hard work.

16 low-cost ways to recognize and reward your startup team
Members of Fast Company Executive Board share their expert insights. [Image: Courtesy of the individual members.]
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Every leader wants to recognize their team members for their excellent work. But for a startup—especially one that’s bootstrapped—financial rewards may not be possible (for now). Still, when your startup team is putting in long hours and hard work to help you get your dream off the ground, you want to ensure they know that you see their efforts and just how much you appreciate them.

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Fortunately, showing your team your thanks doesn’t have to be expensive—you just have to be creative and thoughtful. Below, 16 Fast Company Executive Board members offer their advice for entrepreneurs who want to recognize outstanding work from their team even when the budget’s tight.

1. SHARE CUSTOMER REVIEWS.

We cost-effectively celebrate excellent work by sharing our favorite customer reviews at the beginning of every team meeting. As a mission-driven company, all of our team members have joined because they believe in our mission. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our hard work than to hear how our product has positively impacted a customer’s life. – Nathalie Walton, Expectful

2. SEND PERSONALIZED GIFTS.

While you may not have abundant financial resources, you have the advantage of a small team. Get to know them at deeper, personal levels. Send a gift that you know will matter to the individual, like a book of the month subscription for an avid reader or a bottle of scotch for a new dad who enjoys whiskey. And there’s an added bonus: These gestures connect a personal passion with a positive memory of the company. – Brian Price, cloudtamer.io

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3. ESTABLISH DEDICATED PRAISE CHANNELS.

Since we are a virtual team, we have a Slack channel dedicated to “Props.” All team members are encouraged to give props to others in that channel, sharing why someone is being recognized. It’s not only a great way for leaders to praise staff members, but it’s also a great way for individuals to support their peers. It’s everyone’s favorite channel! – Kristy Sammis, CLEVER

4. INCREASE BENEFITS.

Aside from making a special mention of their work, you can reward stellar employees in other ways. You could give them more time off, the flexibility to work from anywhere, free access to business suite tools, and other perks. Offering training and educational opportunities are other great ways to show appreciation without creating a financial strain. – Syed Balkhi, WPBeginner

5. PUBLISH SHOUT-OUTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA.

I think one of the best ways to recognize team members is to sing their praises on social channels. One of my favorite platforms to do this on is LinkedIn, which has a long shelf-life for posts relative to other social media channels. As long as you and your employees are comfortable, it’s a great space to validate and show gratitude for a team member amongst their professional network. – Cody Barbo, Trust & Will

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6. SHARE THE NEWS WITH STAKEHOLDERS.

Make the recognition public so that other members of the team are aware, as well as partners and investors. Be clear on why they are being recognized—include not just the outcome, but what it is about them, personally, that’s special. And give them a way to share the recognition they’ve earned with their families, who are part of “the public” and are especially important stakeholders in your team’s over-the-top efforts. – Amy Radin, Pragmatic Innovation Partners LLC

7. HOST TEAM ACTIVITIES.

Provide memorable experiences to recognize great achievements and to foster a stronger team bond. I have done everything from firewalking and zip-lining to cooking classes, dragon boat racing, and museum visits—just to name a few. We have also built bikes for underprivileged kids, and we all got to see the kids pick up their bikes by working with a local charity. Get creative, and never stop celebrating! – Andreea Vanacker, SPARKX5

8. GIVE SMALL TOKENS OF APPRECIATION.

It’s important to showcase the team member and share their successes with the team. These types of shout-outs can be fulfilling in and of themselves. In addition, while it may not be easy to provide a large financial reward, a thoughtful token of appreciation, like a gift card to their favorite restaurant, can go a really long way. Lastly, don’t forget to reward them for these efforts in the future. – Fehzan Ali, Adscend Media LLC

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9. KEEP THEM IN THE LOOP.

Say “thank you” every day. Let the early members in on the good, the bad, and the ugly. They’re not here for the paycheck—they’re here to be part of something bigger than themselves, so it’s up to me to make sure they have full visibility into where we’re going and why they are mission-critical to our success. We also do a lot of small things—even a pack of gum or a Pokémon card can say a lot. – Meagan Bowman, STOPWATCH

10. ESTABLISH A REWARDS SYSTEM.

Small gifts can have a tremendous impact. Setting up an internal rewards system in which colleagues can send flowers or deliver lunch to one another to thank them and recognize their contributions goes a long way toward strengthening the company culture. But outside of gifts, the best reward is often making sure they are recognized for their contributions by presenting to the board or externally! – Jessica Federer

11. GIVE HANDWRITTEN NOTES.

Perhaps your budget is tight—so much so that you can’t afford small gifts or gift cards. In that case, you’d be surprised how effective it is to simply write handwritten notes. Thank you cards cost less than $1 each, but the handwritten aspect makes employees feel valued. My teams have really appreciated these over the years, and they do stand out in these days when handwritten notes are so rare. – Kevin Namaky, Gurulocity Brand Management Institute

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12. LEAD WITH GRATITUDE.

It’s so important to constantly be on the lookout for the performance you want to cultivate in your team. It’s easy to give your attention to things that go wrong, but encouraging what’s working well is equally important. One thing I learned from our bootstrapped startup days is that finding great employees is not easy. If you have them, appreciate them. – Reuben Yonatan, GetVoIP

13. EMPOWER THEM.

I’m a big fan of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. I believe that most employees are more motivated by mastery and autonomy than outside incentives. In my experience, the best rewards for creative innovators are autonomy, empowerment, and, ultimately, achievement. – Ryan Anderson, Filevine

14. ADVANCE THEM TO THE NEXT LEVEL.

Giving people the option to move into bigger and more important roles by learning new skills can be a great way to let people take on the roles and responsibilities they want beyond what they’re doing now. If they’re killing it at their current level, let them take on a small amount of work from the next one so that when it is available, they’re confident and ready to perform at the next level. – Noah Mitsuhashi, Portfolio Insider

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15. ASK FOR THEIR INPUT.

Monetary incentives are not the only way to recognize the team. Another way is by asking for their insights and input and mentoring them to become leaders themselves. It doesn’t cost a fortune to treat your team with the great values they deserve. – Lane Kawaoka, SimplePassiveCashflow.com

16. GIVE UNDIVIDED TIME AND ATTENTION.

No matter your budget, you will always be investing time and attention. Relish the accomplishments of others and foster an environment of shout-outs. Whether they come from the top or from peers, this cultivates an environment where your people can flourish. Authentic appreciation of impact is not only free but also produces a level of loyalty and motivation that money cannot buy. – Liza Streiff, Knopman Marks Financial Training