Building the Right Culture for Start-Ups and Young

At a very broad level, think of culture as comprising of a mission and core values

Young entrepreneurs have big dreams, of creating another Apple, Google or Amazon. And rightly so. In each of these success stories, the founders have been passionate about some idea that they believed could change the world in some worthwhile way. But if you dig deeper, besides passion, they also nurtured a unique culture which allowed them to scale up and then grow into dominance.

What is culture?

Culture is a set of behaviors that are valued and followed in an organization. It is reflected in how people think and act in different situations. For example, how people prioritize, take decisions, treat customers or collaborate is an outcome of culture the organization has. In many ways, it defines an organization’s distinctiveness.At a higher level, culture guides key choices that the leadership makes. Its worth noting that even if the leadership makes no conscious efforts to shape culture, it anyway exists in a default mode, and may or may not help the organization.

What does “culture” comprise of?

At a very broad level, think of culture as comprising of a mission and core values. Mission lays out a direction and answers a very fundamental question: why does the business exist? Why are we doing what we are doing? In case of Google, for instance, it was and continues to be “organizing world’s information”. Thus, mission is aspirational and provides the necessary energy to move ahead, in spite of day to day challenges.

Core values on the other hand, are deep seated assumptions of the founder or beliefs that if so and so path is followed, the organization would be successful. Almost everything that matters is driven by this core assumption or core value. For example, in case of Apple, founder Steve Jobs’ maniacal focus on simplicity and creating products that were nothing but the best were the core values--the pillars on which he built Apple’s unique culture. And at every turn, he demonstrated what Apple valued most by famously saying “no” to several reasonably good ideas or opportunities that did not exemplify his cherished values.

Is there one right culture that we can emulate?

No. Each organization is unique and thus it’s culture is unique too. Each founder’s perspective is different. However, we can learn few common principles or values from the successful organizations:

Focus on customers

Also referred to as customer centricity, it simply means keeping customers at the center of all the key decisions. It implies valuing customer’s view point ahead of internal compulsions or motivations or sometimes convenience. Jeff Bezos, founder & CEO, Amazon, calls it “customer obsession” which according to him includes even thinking and innovating on behalf of the customers. This is the only way to earn trust of customers.

Value Talent

Without right kind of talent, an organization is unlikely to accomplish its goals. Each organization’s culture attracts certain kind of talent and if an organization can provide right work environment, it thrives. For instance, if freedom is an important value, many talented people get attracted who also enjoy taking responsibility. Fairness is another important value that promotes talented people to perform at a high level.

Encourage experimentation and risk-taking

Start ups usually need to make several big decisions in their early days, such as, products, markets, technology, people etc. However, as they grow, their risk appetite starts decreasing. The challenge, therefore, is to maintain a healthy balance between risk taking and orderly work environment.

On the other hand, experimentation and risk-taking go hand in hand, which means trying several potentially attractive options, and skillfully pursuing a select few while discarding others. A culture that promotes experimentation also tolerates mistakes. These are essential ingredients for developing an innovative culture.

Promote transparency

Transparency means sharing organizational information rather freely. This is quite different from earlier day wisdom of guarding all the key information. Transparency builds trust, speeds up decision-making, and promotes meritocracy. People are not afraid to discuss different view-points freely and encourages constructive approach to decision-making.

Never compromise on ethics

Young entrepreneurs often face challenging situations when definition of what is ethical and what is not is not always very clear. Rest of the employees watch this whole process and learn. One golden rule is never to compromise on key ethical issues. It builds a solid foundation and obviates the need for excessive control. This value also builds external stakeholder trust.

So if you are a young entrepreneur, investing in nurturing a culture that aligns with your deeply held values can be an investment that would pay off multifold in the future. The culture you build could be your most durable competitive advantage.