5 Ways to Build a Strong Culture

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Instilling a strong company culture from day one can influence the success of your business. Follow the lead of successful founders, from TOMS to Buffer.

When you walk into SinglePlatform‘s office, you’ll see customer testimonials lining the walls, inspirational quotes and artwork chalked onto a pillar, and Lego blocks towering over the desks of sales staff, each piece to indicate a goal that was met.

For a sales-driven company like SinglePlatform, celebrating wins both small and large is central to its culture.

A strong company culture is crucial to creating a successful environment, but it’s not easy. To learn how to instill a strong company culture and environment in your company, follow the lead of these successful founders from startups including Buffer, SumAll, Stella & Dot, SinglePlatform,TOMS and weeSpring.

1. Document Your Values

When startup weeSpring was in TechStars, the team had what founder Allyson Downey calls a “family therapy” session with well-known investor Brad Feld.

“Everyone on your team should go sit alone and for 15 minutes and write down [your company values] on a piece of paper,” Downey remembers Feld saying, “because if you just start it as a live conversation, the extroverts win and the introverts don’t jump in and you don’t hear from everybody.”

The first value the team agreed upon was “not pink,” and as a social website for parents, this was a design principle as much as an organizational principle. Other values include “keep it simple,” “quality is better than quantity” and “honesty.”

Writing down company values is important to keep all your employees on the same page. TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie remembers a time when everyone at TOMS would say there was a “TOMS way of doing things,” but with company growth, only the original 100 out of 400 employees knows what that means. This summer he’s inviting employees to nominate each other or themselves to be on a committee that will rewrite the company’s mission, vision and values. “The group will meet every morning for two weeks from 7 to 9. It’s early, so people who do it have to be committed,” Mycoskie says.

Jessica Herrin, founder of distributed jewelry sales company Stella & Dot, says she started with a company manifesto that has not changed. Being kind, supporting each other and believing in people are all included.

2. Hire Well

Stella & Dot’s culture starts with hiring the right people. There are 10 hiring filters—including sense of urgency, curiosity and willingness to fail—that helps ensure new hires are a cultural fit. After prioritizing this cultural fit, “excellent functional skill set is last,” Herrin says.

“Shaping your culture is more than half done when you hire your team,” she says.

For Wiley Cerilli‘s sales team at SinglePlatform, he’s discovered a few shortcuts to get the right people hired.

“It’s pretty obvious to us whether someone’s going to be the right fit for our culture just by noting how often the word ‘I’ comes up in the interview, vs. how often they talk about their team and how many team members’ names come up,” Cerilli says.

And no matter how well your values are set and hiring process is designed, allow yourself a little grace to learn from mistakes.

“If you’re going fast and hiring fast, you’re never going to be 100 percent right,” Herrin says.

3. Evolve With Growth

The earlier culture is set, the better. Atkinson of SumAll says that the stage weeSpring is at, with fewer than 10 employees, is ideal. With between 20 and 50 employees, a founder still has direct control, but with up to 90 employees, you can’t directly influence every person in the organization and yet are also not quite to the point that you’ve hired great leaders to do this work for you.

“Your team should form its DNA early,” Atkinson says.

The summer culture project of TOMS came about after the company hired a chief people officer—who was previously in HR at Starbucks and was responsible for integrating acquired companies into Starbucks culture.

While Mycoskie says everyone on the original TOMS team (working in his apartment, then a bigger apartment and then a warehouse) is still with the company, it’s not often the case. “Early employees were egoless in a sense,” he says. “They were like, maybe I don’t have the senior leadership title or position anymore but I’m committed to the life of this company and what we’re trying to do.” Mycoskie himself hired a president to run the business and took the title “chief shoe giver” for himself.

At weeSpring, Downey says she tells recruits upfront that growth means hiring above the early employees.

Atkinson put job titles aside completely, and gives early employees a virtual portfolio of duties, and as people are hired, those early employee can unload duties that are further from their expertise—so they’re not burnt by the process.

“Employees don’t always grow with the company,” Cerilli says. “The jacks of all trades can often not scale with the business, which is really, really difficult.”

4. Set the Environment

If culture is half set once your team is hired, there’s still a second half to address. Cerilli considers it his responsibility to engineer the environment his team will work in, invoking a popular Brad Feld quote: “You can’t motivate people; you can only create a context in which people are motivated.”

How his company communicates is also part of SinglePlatform’s culture. A weekly email that recognizes people now includes photos; in his company’s current phase, not everyone knows everyone’s name anymore.

“Celebrating teams’ wins is such a basic thing that every CEO can do,” Cerilli says.

And what constitutes a win? Cerilli notes that founders can get caught up in things like raising their next round of funding, and overlook celebrating the short-term goals.

“You don’t want these unrealistic goals. You want to set goals that you can hit, so when you start hitting them, you can celebrate those wins. People start trusting in your way of projecting the business,” he explains.

Deciding which “wins” to celebrate has less to do with what your team accomplishes and more to do with setting employees up for success from the beginning—this, as much as the physical Lego towers on desks, is all part of the environment you’re creating.

5. Be Transparent

There’s a quote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” It’s something Cerilli says he applies to his business.

“Culture is creating an environment in which your team members are owners of the process, so they’re dedicated to the team in a different fashion,” Atkinson says.

But for many startups, employees are owners—literally. They’re given a cut of company stock, although Atkinson says not enough of them are asking how much that is. The number of shares doesn’t mean much unless you also know the total number of shares and how a future round of financing will impact it.

This is where transparency comes into play.

At SumAll, the salaries are open to everyone to see. So is ownership. Board meetings are held in front of the whole company.

“All that stuff is meant to make a more trusted environment where you don’t feel like you’re getting screwed over,” Atkinson says. “It’s really hard to screw people over when you’re an open book.”

SumAll is not alone. At Buffer, not only are salaries open, but founder Joel Gascoigne opened his formula for determining each salary. The idea is to remove that incentive for employees to always be asking for more because no one knows what others are making. Opening the sensitive information for all to see enables the disgruntlement to be open as well—and then resolved.

Put another way, “culture beats strategy every time,” Cerilli says.

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