There is often a stereotype surrounding start-up companies, particularly in the IT and tech field. TV shows like the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley satirise tech start-ups as consisting of 20-something coding prodigies living off cereal, energy drinks, loosely defined working hours and nocturnal sleeping patterns – all while innovating, pivoting and trying to secure VC funding for their new tech breakthrough.
All of these stereotypes, however grounded in truth they may or may not be, fall under the umbrella of a business’s company culture. Whether you’re a tech start-up working in an incubator or a fully-fledged corporate giant, company culture is a vital part of the success mix and making sure you retain your company culture while scaling up is crucial.
What is company culture?
Company culture is defined as the attitudes and characteristics of an organization and those who work within it. It’s the way people engage and interact with others and the values each person shares. It can also encompass the environment, company goals and expectations.
Company culture is often intangible, particularly in start-ups. At this time, the culture of the company may merely reflect the individuals that it consists of rather than a consciously defined or purposefully cultivated set of rules. Whatever reason it may be, a strong company culture can have a profoundly positive effect on business progress. With a set of employees (across all levels) who buy into and participate in the cultural values of a company, business growth can happen much more quickly, with positive effects also seen in employee retention and job satisfaction rates.
Identifying company culture can be done in several ways – from asking employees themselves, to visiting sites like Glassdoor, reading the company core values or ‘About Us’ section of the website or asking careful questions in the interview process.
Maintaining company culture can be a tricky business. While on one hand, an excellent culture can have an accelerating effect on growth in the early days of a start-up, that can bring about its own set of potential issues in terms of keeping that same culture through a scale-up. With more employees being hired in line with company expansion, company culture is at risk of changing if a number of hires are bought into a business at this point that don’t align with the culture.
Ultimately, experienced founders and CEOs who allow for company culture to thrive will experience much smoother scale-up experiences than those who don’t define it early on. Here are a few ways that you can maintain company culture while scaling up your business:
How to maintain company culture while scaling up
Make the right hires
The hiring process is the most crucial part of maintaining company culture. The dilemma a lot of businesses face is: should the priority be academic qualifications or the best cultural fit? It’s not always easy to balance those two elements, but when employees are aligned with your goals, mission statement and behaviours, it stands a chance that they want to work there for more than just the salary – and will consequently be more productive, driven and likely to work out as hires.
Ask candidates questions about their aspirations within the company and in their careers. The answers they give will be a big clue in terms of determining whether they will be a suitable fit for your company culture.
Andy Wadsworth, Associate Director for Morson Talent’s Technology Division, stresses the importance of prioritising the person over the qualifications:
Bear in mind that skills or qualifications developed during a working lifetime can be expanded and honed through coaching and training. Cultural and personal values are based on an individual’s psychology, developed in some cases half a lifetime ago, they are far less likely to adapt to your requirements. Companies who strive for the perfect skills match, because it’s easier to quantify, often have issues with hiring and retention due to culture. Focus on the person not the skills.
Making the right hires also encompasses gender inclusivity.
Particularly in the start-up stage, getting feedback from employees is crucial. The feedback leaders or founders receive at this important stage can often inform how the company culture changes or pivots.
Always ask your employees what your company goals are, and reiterate what you’re trying to achieve as an organisation. Find out what employees like about the current working arrangement and what they’d like to change. This can either be done directly during team meetings or indirectly through anonymous surveys.
If you find your employees are hesitant to provide public feedback, this might be a reflection of a problem with your company culture. Businesses that allow their employees to provide honest feedback that will be listened to and considered are able to be more agile in terms of competitor advantage and cultivate a more productive and happier working environment.
Don’t force it. There are few things more likely to hinder organisational success than a culture that doesn’t reflect the personalities of those within it being forced upon them. There is no easy way to define a culture, especially early on, so let it grow organically and be yourself. Those things become your culture, not a defined set of rules.
Start-ups are almost always lean organisations where every founder member has an emotional stake in the company’s success. They live and breathe the business and the values they have reflected on to it. This must remain true even as the business expands. Don’t be afraid to be different, personal and unlike any other business. If your values shine and they are honest and true, you’ll attract the right people every time.
Rebekah Lee, Group Head of Marketing at Morson, talks about the importance of company brand and identity:
“How are we going to retain that special culture we have?’ – it’s a difficult question, which not every company who scales responds to effectively. As you scale, your people and product may adapt and change but your vision, what you stand for and what you value is core to your business, always.
One steadfast way to ensure your culture grows with you is to connect it with your brand. Define your vision, value, aspirations, and purpose and communicate it simply. Ensure your current team understands and believes in your vision so they live, breathe, and become advocates of it.
Make culture externally perceptible through employee testimonials, behind-the-scenes social video and weave it into every touchpoint of the recruitment process. Internally, place the employee experience first, communicate on a personal and company level and prioritise feedback.
Remember, we all change and evolve as we grow, and your company’s culture is no different. Defining who you are and making it tangible and authentic so you invite people into your company who share in your values and vision will empower your cultural ecosystem, no matter how quickly or widely you scale.”