GUEST COLUMN: Company culture increasingly important for start-ups

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following guest column was submitted by Julianna Davies, a freelance writer from the Seattle area, who says that she never thought she would find herself writing at the intersection of business, technology and education but now she can’t imagine her life anywhere else…except for maybe graduate school, an adventure she is preparing to embark on.)

In recent years the tech sector has seen a marked increase in the importance of company culture as a means of ensuring the longevity and respectability of a company. For example, industry giants like Google, Apple and Amazon have experienced both tremendous growth in the past few decades while also gaining global admiration as companies that employees are proud to work for.  These are companies where employees feel valued and respected and has resulted in consistently growing profit margins and market share.

Taking cues from many of these success stories, recent start-up companies are proving that building an effective company culture involves very different challenges than those faced by traditional corporations.

Because start-ups are firms built from close to nothing, entrepreneurs building their respective start-up cultures must balance between formulating a detailed business plan while allowing a culture to form naturally as the business evolves.

“Your business plan and product are far easier to evolve than your people,” says Frank Addante, founder and CEO of the Rubicon Project, a leading trading platform for online ads. “I firmly believe that the difference between a good company and a great one is the strength, passion and loyalty of its people”.

Unlike leadership at a longstanding corporation, the founders of a start-up can define their own company values, principles that guide how a team behaves both internally and the image they convey to the public as well as prospective employees.

One of the most important things a manager can do to build a strong culture is to communicate with employees. Karen Rubin, product manager of marketing software company HubSpot, recommends encouraging employee feedback by identifying the influential employees, taking them out to dinner and picking their brains or holding town hall meetings with the entire team. Rubin explains that holding structured conversations among the HubSpot sales team and management allowed them to find solutions that were more likely to please the greatest number of people. “By understanding deeply what the problems were, they were able to work together to find solutions”, says Rubin. “This doesn’t mean that your company has to be run as a democracy, but the best compromises regularly come out of heated debates and discussions.”

Using internal surveys can also give a good sense about what employees value most about their experience with the company. Tools like Net Promoter Score allow business leaders to measure employee satisfaction with consistency and accuracy. For start-ups perhaps the most important step in building a strong company culture is hiring the right people. Interviewing employees not only for skill level and accolades, but for attitude and proper fit in a particular company culture. Having the same outlook on work/life balance can go a long way towards building a team that collaborates in a productive and effective way and is important to consider before depending so heavily on an employee.

Additionally, hiring employees that share a company’s outlook is important in retaining them. High turnover during a company’s nascent stages can be extremely detrimental while trying to hammer out processes and foster connections with other firms.

Building company culture does not have to be complicated or overly taxing, but it is a necessity. Often this simply means listening to employee concerns and ensuring they are appreciated and acknowledged for the work they are accomplishing. In building a successful start-up, business leaders must remember that in the end, both the main accolades from success or criticism from failure will rest on their shoulders. A culture of employees that are appreciated and engaged can have positive effects for management, clients, and in the end, the company’s future.

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