Startups can be pretty special working environments. While they can be high pressure and, at times, chaotic, they also prioritise innovation, creativity, and a more relaxed attitude to processes. For anyone who’s spent time in the restrictive environment of a traditional corporate, that can seem incredibly attractive.
As startups grow however, they can become bogged down in the same kind of processes that made them so different to corporates in the first place.
Small wonder then that increasingly large numbers of companies are trying to figure out how to maintain their founding culture. Evernote chairman Phil Libin, for instance, has spoken often about wanting to build the note-taking company as a “100 year startup”. It’s a worthy ideal, but what exactly can a company do to ensure that it retains its founding culture?
While it’s a complex issue, there are a few factors that some of the world’s more innovative companies have identified as important.
Keep the talent
One of the most important ingredients in establishing a company’s culture is the people who were there at the start. These people tend to be entrepreneurial themselves and are onboard with the purpose of the company.
Given that they tend to be entrepreneurial themselves, it’s not always easy to keep them onboard. If, however, you give them the freedom to be innovative and pursue side projects, they’re a lot more likely to stay.
Another important factor in keeping highly talented people at a company is ensuring that every subsequent hire is of the same quality as the initial ones.
One company that’s put a lot of thought into this is Netflix. In its widely-praised company culture document, the video streaming service argues that, as the company grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the same density of talent that sparked that growth in the first place.
That difficulty can result in a spike in chaos, which the company tries to arrest by increasing procedure. While such an increase in procedure can result in short-term gains for the company, it makes it vulnerable to sudden shifts in technology.
It aims to avoid these scenarios by continuing to hire high-performance people. This, it says, allows you to run informally and continue trusting in self-discipline.
Keep the company history visible
Even if you always hire top talent however, there’s no guarantee that new employees will automatically grasp what your company’s all about or that the founding team won’t slowly forget. That’s why it’s useful to have visible reminders of where the company started. Chinese computing giant Lenovo has a museum dedicated to its history, for instance.
You don’t necessarily need to have something that elaborate though. Zoona, a Cape Town-based mobile remittance startup, has important chapters of its company history written on the doors of its boardrooms and executive offices. Each new recruit is taken around the office and given the story behind the door, helping them understand what it took to get the company where it is.
If you want to see how a company’s history can influence culture for generations, go up to any employee at US-based food giant General Mills and ask them about the company’s cultural values. According to Harvard Business Review, they’ll most likely tell you about an 1878 explosion that destroyed its largest flour mill.
In the aftermath, the company founder developed a safer method of milling flour. Rather than keeping the method, which also produced a better grade of flour, to himself, he gave it away to his competitors. Nearly 140 years later, people remember the story because it says something positive about the company’s values.
Keep an open-door policy
It would be incredibly easy for startup founders to get caught up in their own egos, especially if the company is on a high-growth trajectory. With that come some serious dangers. They might, for instance, see themselves as too busy to talk to low-level employees, forgetting that precisely such an attitude may have inspired them to found the startup in the first place.
That said, keeping an open-door policy doesn’t necessarily mean entertaining everyone who wants to see you at any time of the work day. It does, however, mean staying receptive to new ideas, no matter where they come from.
One company that does this well is Google. It hosts weekly “all-hands” meetings, where Googlers ask questions directly to founders Larry Paige and Sergey Brin, and other execs about any number of company issues.
Keep monitoring culture
Even if you think your company is doing fine from a cultural perspective, there may be slightly worrying elements creeping in that you don’t know about.
With that in mind, it’s not a bad idea to conduct regular audits to gauge people’s feelings on how the company’s doing when it comes to culture.
While it might be disparaging to learn that there’s a problem, it’s the only way you can begin to fix it.
Take the lead
In most companies there are a few people who take the lead when it comes to culture, the founder(s) usually being among the most important of these.
As serial entrepreneur Craig Wing, pointed out in an interview with us earlier this year, “You can’t say that you’re happy with everyone else working flexi-time, if you’re in the office at 6AM every morning and are the last to leave.”
The company might survive, sure, but if you think about the truly great companies — Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard — all of them had leaders who lived and breathed the culture they instilled.
More than that, they saw themselves as guardians of that culture, getting rid of anyone who they perceived to be a danger to it.
Get all those things right, and the founding culture will stay in place long after the founders are no longer around.