Keith Cowing

Keith Cowing

Product guy. Entrepreneur.
Career advisor. Read bio

Startup Cultures Start with People, not Policies

February 22, 2011

Building a strong culture is a key priority for entrepreneurs. Nothing is more important when it comes to recruiting and building a team. Your team determines your success and the way your team interacts will be largely affected by the culture you build at the beginning.

But sitting down and writing a culture doc or inventing fun policies is not what truly sets the tone, it’s the people who come to your office every day. I have worked in corporate cultures that are radically different (a semiconductor company in Silicon Valley, an investment bank in New York, a government contractor, and a software startup). I can tell you first hand about the unique quirks of each. What really matters is finding the culture that strongly supports your business and works for you personally (i.e. you like coming to work in the morning). Proactively creating and maintaining a culture is incredibly important and it starts and ends with people. Here are a few thoughts.

The first group sets the tone.
Even with large companies that have been around for decades, I still think that the first dozen employees largely set the tone for the entire corporate culture. Once a train is on the tracks it is very hard to stop its momentum (either good or bad), so you have to think about culture right from the beginning.

No bad apples.
When you bring on new team members, their experience and skills are clearly important (and a pre-requisite). I would argue that cultural fit is even more important. It only takes one bad apple to throw off the vibe of an entire team. You will have enough hurdles to cross when you are an entrepreneur. So do not make your life more difficult by hiring (or keeping) people who ruin the positive momentum everybody else works hard to build.

Diversity is good.
Finding people that fit your culture is key, but make sure you also look for a variety of skill sets and personalities. If everybody is an aggressive Type A business person that wants to make the decisions, that might not work so well. Find the yin and yang (or Jobs and Wozniak) for your business. Have detail-oriented people and creative people, aggressive people and patient people. Put together an ensemble. Inserting a few natural checks and balances into your team will make a huge difference down the road.

Be true to yourself.
Most businesses will end up representing their founders in certain ways (think about Apple, Google, or Blackstone). If you give your company a personality that strongly models what you really believe in, good things will happen. There is a reason why Warren Buffett works out of Omaha and sets a tone at Berkshire Hathaway that is ridiculously different than the investment banks on Wall Street. That is the culture, personality, and type of decision-making that works for him. He ignored Wall Street, set his own culture, and became one of the most successful investors of all time. If he had pretended that he was a hard-nosed Wall Street trader and worked in a typical hedge fund environment, he would have been miserable and never reached the same level of success. Be true to yourself.

Make it fun.
Running a startup is like fighting a war. Every day you go to battle. Those battles can be healthy, fun (especially in retrospect), and make you stronger. But you have to be in the trenches with people you enjoy working with. If you enjoy the journey, the entire process will be rewarding. To enjoy the journey, bring on team members who make it fun.

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