“Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that is completely within the control of the entrepreneur. Develop a strong corporate culture first and foremost,” advises David Cummings, CEO & Founder of Atlanta Ventures and an accomplished entrepreneur who has founded 10 companies including Pardot, Salesforce and Terminus.
Start-ups are wonderful, vibrant, exciting and unique spaces. Peopled by extremely bright, motivated and passionate souls, they buzz with energy, enthusiasm and near-revolutionary zeal. But often in the rough-and-tumble of the “work-hard, play-hard” ethos and the race to reach the marketplace first, an important organizational building block gets missed out: Culture.
As Peter Drucker famously said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Culture is nothing but a set of values, beliefs and ideas that people working together share and subscribe to. But culture is critical, because over time it crystalises into formal and informal policies, guidelines and customs that determine and influence how team-members work together, how effectively they achieve the organizational goals and ultimately how the company and
brand is perceived – both internally and externally.
Technology and funding are fine but start-ups are ultimately all about gifted people and their unique ideas. Be it crafting a creative problem-solving space, encouraging open and collaborative communication, driving innovation or acquiring and retaining talent – none of the aspects most start-ups grapple with can be resolved without getting the inter-personal cultural dynamics right. It is best to address this from Day One, rather than hold off till the
organization gets larger – which at a start-up can be sooner than most realise.
As a start-up CEO, I recommend these five core values for getting the culture right:
As I often say to my team members – Idolize the customer, not competition. The customer sits at the heart of every business (start-up or otherwise). Without him or her there would be no company. So, one needs to listen carefully to customers, understand their requirements and try to address them as best as possible.
This is a continuous, iterative process and care must be taken to inculcate a culture of internal customer orientation and sensitivity amongst all employees, creating a virtuous loop of customer-feedback and relentless improvement.
Unlike established corporates, start-up culture is often a reflection of the passion and personalities of its founders and the core team. Which means that it is not unusual to find start-ups where two or three people have an outsized-role in shaping the work environment.
My experience is that if handled judiciously, this presents a unique opportunity to create an open and transparent culture which incorporates direct constructive feedback, one-on-one interactions over endlessly-forwarded emails, with all employees pulling together towards the start-up vision, rather than getting enmeshed in defensive turf wars.
Think Big, but Move Fast
Great ideas typically have short shelf-lives. The start-up culture arose to get around the time-consuming and cumbersome stages traditional companies go through between spotting a market opportunity and getting their response on the ground.
Speed therefore is paramount at every start-up, irrespective of its pedigree or the marketplace it operates in. There needs be an orientation of speed-to-market and minimum viable product thinking, along with a decision-making process where one speaks directly to the doer. Equally important is an environment of fail-fast where mistakes (which are bound to happen in a start-up) are acknowledged and one quickly moves on.
The perks at global start-ups, especially those based in the US, are legendary from unlimited pizza deliveries, beer on tap to luxuriant foot massages. All the stops are rolled out to woo and pamper employees. As flashy as these may be, a start-up needs to take care to avoid wasteful spends. Employees must be encouraged right from the start to behave like entrepreneurs negotiating hard in all their business dealings and behaving as they would, if
the company money were their own. Being frugal also promotes innovative thinking and out-of-the-box solutions which Indian entrepreneurs are very adept at.
We are living in an era of productisation. Along with coming up with an innovative idea that disrupts the status-quo, it is equally important to make it marketable for sale to customers. Start-up employees should be encouraged to think and behave like product managers, using first principles to transform a new product or service into a well-packaged and marketable solution.
Great products are always work-in-progress, so the organisational culture should be an open and creative one which promotes serendipity in product design and development. We need to nurture an environment of constant refinement and enhancements based on customer feedback, with incremental improvements everyday leading to big solves.