Why Tech Startup Culture Matters & How to Build It (Remotely)

When you hear the term “startup culture,” do images of ping pong tables, free beer on tap and beanbags come to mind? What about “tech startup culture”? Does that bring to mind images of developers frantically coding while downing energy drinks?

What about workplace culture more generally?

You’ll often hear culture being talked about as part of an organization's DNA. As an intrinsic element of any company that cannot be separated from what it does, its vision, and how it executes that vision.

In many ways, culture is how a company operates. It’s how team members interact and communicate with each other. It’s how they feel about coming to work each day. It’s not whether there’s free pizza on Fridays.

It’s no exaggeration to say that culture can make or break an organization. That makes building the right culture essential, especially in young, fast-growing companies. In other words, startups.

And with hybrid and remote work increasingly common, building and maintaining culture is not only as important, but also as challenging as ever.

So let’s explore why culture matters so much and how to go about building a culture that turbocharges your startup’s growth.

What is startup culture?

‘Startup culture’ is often associated with high-growth, early-stage businesses.

At this stage, there is often a relatively flat org chart, rapid development of company infrastructure, and a fast pace of new hires to keep up with growth. The phrase can take on both positive and negative connotations.

For example, a positive startup work culture might be one where people are encouraged to take risks and grow within their role instead of simply satisfying a rigid job description.

On the other hand, a toxic culture might be one where founders put pressure on people to persistently work long hours, which ultimately leads to burnout and a high turnover.

How startup culture differs from corporate culture

Co-founder and CEO of Relay Commerce, Ricardo Hinds, likes to talk about startup culture in contrast with corporate culture. In his words:

Startup culture in remote companies

With culture being an ingrained part of every organization, fully-remote companies cannot escape its importance or the impact it has on their organizational performance.

Whether it’s Slack messages, video calls over Zoom, or old-fashion email, there are still plenty of interactions happening between people all the time. From this, a culture will emerge even in the absence of an office.

The only difference between remote companies and those with a physical office is that building and maintaining the right culture is arguably more important and challenging when remote.

Importance of establishing the right culture right away

As with anything fundamental to your business, culture is not something you can change overnight. Especially as mindsets and ways of doing things become ingrained.

And while paying attention to culture may not seem important when it’s just you and your co-founder trying to build a product or attract your first clients, startups can grow rapidly from these early stages.

If you’re not intentionally cultivating the right company culture, you can quickly lose control over the direction it takes.

The good news with startups is you have a golden opportunity to instill a positive culture from the beginning to set your company up for the long term.

Why this matters even more in remote companies

Because culture largely emerges from the interactions between people, and we’re all still to an extent learning the art of interacting online, the stakes are increased for remote companies.

It’s not just that it’s harder to build culture in a startup that’s remote, but also identifying potential issues. Without a strategy to maintain a positive culture and address issues as they inevitably arise, toxic elements have a tendency to linger undetected for longer.

So even if you’re remote, you’ll want to set up your startup with a culture that it can grow and mature from.

What good startup culture typically looks like

So what makes for a positive startup company culture?

Startups are working environments where strengths such as agility, authenticity, passion for one’s work, and having a growth mindset are highly valued.

Beyond these fairly generic values, what a good culture looks like depends on the startup itself and what stage of growth it’s at.  

In the early stages of your startup, you might value a fail fast, learn fast mindset to test different ideas. Once you’ve identified approaches that work, you might begin valuing expertise in these areas.  

Putting together a mission statement can help to both clearly define why your startup exists and guide what values should be central to the execution of that mission.

Examples of startup culture values

So what are some values that startups may typically include? To give you an idea, here’s a list of our core values here at Relay Commerce:

1) Results matter

Startups are foremost companies with a mission. While it’s great to create an environment people are thrilled to work in, executing your mission is the ultimate goal.
This means results matter.

Having team members understand this and knowing how they contribute to your startup’s mission not only means they’ll adopt a results-focused mindset, but also

provides them with a sense of purpose and value. Instead of feeling like a cog in the machine, they’ll be encouraged to contribute to growth however they can and become part of the team.

2) Keep growing

A key part of Relay’s mission is to grow the companies we’ve been entrusted with to a new level. This commitment to growth filters down to every aspect of our culture.

At an individual level, it’s the acknowledgment that the personal and professional growth of each of our team members is critical to realizing our mission.

We challenge our team to expand their capabilities and understanding. To experiment and adapt, bring knowledge gained through learnings back to the team, and to push themselves.

3) Clear and open communication

Having team members afraid to share their thoughts, challenge the status quo, or simply having otherwise minor incidents fester into resentment is a recipe for a toxic working environment.

By being direct but respectful, receptive to constructive feedback, and dealing with conflicts as they arise head-on, we aim to build a culture of open and honest communication.

Not only do we not shy away from differing opinions and challenges to the status quo, we actively aim to create ‘meaningful collisions.’ We run ideas past those with different perspectives and encourage people to raise their voices in acknowledgment that no-one has all the answers.

In addition to creating a culture of transparency and respect, this also creates endless growth opportunities for individuals and our startup more generally.

4) Be vulnerable

Related to being open and honest, we share our faults and mistakes and trust our teammates are there to help us succeed. We don’t pretend that we’re perfect. We take care of each other and lend a helping hand when needed without judgment.

Building and fostering a positive culture in your startup

Determining which values are worthy of being a core part of a startup is one thing, but building a positive culture is much more than just putting together a list of values.

It’s about how startup founders interact with their team. So building and maintaining a positive culture is largely about cultivating the right kind of working environment for people to interact in.

Practical steps that help achieve this include:

Hiring the right team members

It’s hard to overstate the impact a startup’s hiring process can have on culture. Especially when you’re growing fast and bringing a lot of new talent onboard.

In addition to their skills and experience, each new person brings with them a particular mindset and personal values that influence a startup’s overall culture.

Looking at hiring in this way, the hiring process should consider more than just who is the most qualified candidate or who has the best resume. It should also take into account their attitude to work, how well they’ll fit in with the team, and how well they align with the startup’s values.

This is how Daniel Gamito, Portfolio CEO & Co-founder of Relay Commerce, likes to approach the hiring process:

Practicing what you preach

Do as I say and not as I do’ simply doesn’t work when it comes to workplace culture.

As leaders, founders should exemplify a startup’s values better than anyone else. This will then filter down through all levels of the startup as team members replicate the behavior and attitude being modeled.

Build relationships between team members

When working in person, team members will naturally get to know each other and form a close working relationship. Working remotely makes this more difficult.

While non-remote companies will often put in the effort to organize activities such as trivia nights, team lunches, and other celebrations in the office, organizing similar activities is essentially a non-negotiable for remote companies.

Being fully remote at Relay Commerce, some of the things we do to help build relationships between team members include having a Team Directory where people can learn interesting facts about each other.

Here’s an individual card that dives deeper with some potential conversation starters.

Being a tech startup, we make good use of various apps that encourage interaction within the team.

Donut is a Slack integration for team building that connects people to share a virtual coffee (or donut) that replicates an office water cooler. Ricotta is another great Slack app for icebreaker games and trivia.

Outside of Slack, we also use Bar None Games for hosting live virtual events.

Define your startup’s values

This is something already explored above but it bears repeating: It’s important to define your startup’s values.

Having a defined list of values that is shared throughout the company helps ensure everyone knows how they’re expected to perform and behave. It also serves as an invaluable resource for others as your startup grows. Such as when founders delegate the hiring process to others who will have to evaluate a candidate’s attitude.

Regularly re-evaluate

As startups experience a lot of change in relatively short periods of time, culture can change within startups quite quickly too.

So it’s important to get regular feedback from team members to assess where your culture is at and whether it needs to evolve as you grow.

This is particularly the case when a startup embarks on a new hiring wave or merges with another company. In the case of the latter, it’s worth considering a company’s values if you’re planning a merger or acquisition. Looking for shared company values as part of your due diligence process can help avoid cultural issues further down the track.

Conclusion

Ultimately, startup culture is about how team members interact with each other.

Yes, this is more complicated when a startup is fully remote, but even remote startups cannot escape the importance of developing and maintaining the right culture.

Clearly defining your startup’s values will serve as a guiding light as you experience all the twists and turns of growing a company from the ground up.

When it comes down to it, a positive culture is simply about treating people right and creating an environment that allows them to do their best work and have the greatest impact on your startup’s mission.

In the words of the entrepreneur Richard Branson:

“Take care of your employees, and they will take care of your business. It’s as simple as that.”

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