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Defining Culture

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Culture: a word we’ve all heard before, but isn’t so easy to define. At its core, culture is how you do business, but we’ll get into that later. Investors see lots of entrepreneurs building startups, focusing on technology and marketing. But too often, they forget to establish a culture! And while most won’t tell you that you have to have an established culture, it may be the downfall of your business farther down the road.

Your culture is so important because it’s the foundation for your company. Culture becomes a guidepost for making decisions when your startup becomes too large for the founder to be involved in every decision. Culture is what empowers your employees, and draws in the best of the best to work at your startup. Culture may not be easy to define, but it’s too powerful to ignore.

What is Culture?

Your culture is, as we said earlier, how you do business, not just what you do. Culture is made up of a set of values and passions that you can live day-to-day. It’s how you interact with your employees, suppliers, and customers. For you techies out there, it’s the operating system you run all your apps on. It’s the platform with which you empower your people.

Culture is truly what enables your company to function. Those values and passions you set forward are what aligns your employees with your vision and mission, and allows them to make decisions day-to-day when there are no other rules to dictate what to do.

Unfortunately, you can’t just write down a list of values and check ‘culture’ off your to-do list! You can definitely start by listing a series of values that seem important to you, but then you need to narrow it down. Ask yourself some questions to really think about your values:

  • What does that value actually look like in the space of your company?
  • Can you live that value every day?
  • How do you encourage other people to work with that value?

For example, let’s say you’ve decided on ‘honesty’ as a value. Honesty is great, but what does it mean? For some, it may mean that you talk about failure regularly, and how it can make you grow. For others, it may mean that the CEO accepts criticism from their employees gracefully. In some companies, it may be that the founders share their difficulties with their employees. It doesn’t have to even be any of these things, but you really need to think about how you can embody that value day-to-day.

Get really explicit about what those values are, and how you’re going to share them with the people around you. To start off, think about how you will celebrate success, and how you will deal with failure. Just answering those two questions will help you narrow down what you want your values to be. It’s also important to think about what you are not when it comes to brainstorming those values. How can what you are not be part of your culture?

Like we said earlier, most people won’t tell you that you’re doing anything wrong if you don’t have a culture. Whatever good deeds you do will still be good deeds, and whatever good practices you have will still be good practices. But, you won’t develop those best practices day-to-day. You can’t institutionalize practices that you haven’t defined. And worse, if you have bad habits, they’re going to perpetuate. So think about our Startup Secret here: culture will define you, even if you don’t define it.

Culture Will Define You

Culture is a naturally occurring thing, even if you don’t take the time to set out what you want your culture to be. It’s important to define your culture early on, and live it day-to-day, because your culture should be the one thing that truly remains consistent throughout the life of your company. For all the listening and learning you do, and all the pivoting and iterating, your culture should remain consistent as the foundation of your business.

It may not seem like it, but culture helps solidify your company and increase performance. Your employees and customers will feel more loyalty toward you if you’re consistent in your cultural values, because they’ll know what to expect from you. The more consistent your culture, the stronger your whole company will be!

Defining Culture - 1

Culture and Leadership

The culture of your company is inherently tied to the leadership of your company. As a member of the founding team, the entire culture of your startup will come from you. Yes, you! It turns out, a lot of people can be responsible for things, but only one person can truly be accountable for it. When it comes to culture in your company, you, as founder or CEO, are the only person that can be held accountable.

Culture comes from the top (1)

For this reason, your culture really needs to come from you. Think about what cultural values you can actually live and embody every single day. Your values have to be authentic to you, not ideals that you don’t think you can actually reach. This will help you empower your employees, so that you don’t have to be involved in every decision made in your company! Take time as a founding team to really work on your values and establish your culture early. You’ll be thankful later!

Defining Culture - 2

Physical Culture

Just like with Jeff Bezos and his door-desk, culture can often manifest in physical ways. Often, the way that you manage your spaces can be a great way to reinforce cultural ideals. Check out some of these examples for ideas on how you can physically incorporate your culture:

  • Office Layout: Is part of your culture honesty and openness? Then it probably isn’t the best idea to have everyone in a closed-door office or cubicle. Try open floor plans or movable workspaces to encourage conversation and interaction with each other.
  • Displaying Employee Work: Are your cultural values centered around innovation? If so, you should be openly praising the innovative work of your employees! Try making posters about truly innovative work to hang around the office and encourage employees to get their work on the walls.
  • Games in the Workplace: Does your company value relaxation time to encourage productivity? You might consider putting a pool table or some board games in a break room for your employees to play when they’re not working. Games and relaxation can encourage creativity and productivity.
  • Healthy Living: If your company places value on healthy living, think about having a kitchen stocked with healthy snacks and drinks for your employees. Encourage your team to think about how they can be healthier every day by being surrounded by quality foods in the workplace.

Culture and the Hiring Process

Culture factors in heavily to your hiring process. While lots of hiring managers and founders focus heavily on hiring for smarts, you should really be focusing on hiring for cultural fit!

Employees that are invested in your culture and believe in the same values that you do will be more productive and more loyal to your company in the long run. Check out our lesson on the Golden Triangle of hiring for more on how to check if people fit with your background.

Part of the great thing about culture fit with hiring is that it automatically weeds out the candidates that don’t fit with your culture. If there isn’t at least one person that says your culture isn’t for them, your culture isn’t well-defined! There should be candidates that self-select out of your position because the culture isn’t right for them.

Culture, Vision and Mission

Our original lesson on this topic connected these three topics for a good reason: because culture, mission and vision are inherently tied to each other, and to the founders. Vision and mission statements help describe where your company is going, and what you want it to be. Culture is how you execute on those statements!

Imagine for a moment that everyone in your company has a thread. Without any direction, each person could take that thread and go in any direction they wanted -- and you’d end up with a tangled mess! But if you’re clear about your mission, vision, and culture, you can get each one of your employees winding those threads together so that, as a whole, you can turn it into a rope that everyone can pull on. This is the power of your culture: retaining and unifying all your stakeholders so you can move in a common direction.

Culture and Brand

It’s difficult for many people to differentiate between culture and brand. While culture is how you do business internally - how you treat your employees, stakeholders, and partners - brand is considered to be how you do business externally - how you communicate with and treat your customers. Building brand is just as important as building culture, and they’re often closely intertwined.

The thing is, you have to have a culture defined first: from there, everyone in your company embodies your culture, and each person ends up being an extension of the brand you’re trying to build. For example, if you don’t emphasize customer service as part of your culture, it’ll be hard to externalize customer service as part of your brand. Your employees won’t place emphasis on taking care of those customers, and as a result, your brand will evolve into one that doesn’t take its customers seriously.

Check out the article on Brand and Culture below for more on how the two concepts are closely related!


Culture is one of those soft subjects, a word that’s hard to define but easy to identify. As you build your company, it’s paramount to build your culture alongside it. The clearer your cultural values are, the easier it’s going to be to communicate with your stakeholders and retain your customers and employees. It may be a soft subject, but it’s too important to forget!

Learn more about culture through the resources below, and be sure to check out our forums on culture if you have any questions or great ideas!

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