Startups, before you do anything else, think about your company culture

- July 25, 2014 3 MIN READ

For quite some time, the idea of company culture was an illusive fantasy I just couldn’t quite understand.

I knew well enough to know it wasn’t yoga at lunch, or ping-pong at morning tea. But I never really knew what it actually was and why it mattered, until I read a blog post by Ben Horowitz dubbed Programming Your Company Culture.

My key takeaway from Ben’s article was this; when designing or attempting to design your company culture you need to drive behaviour that leads to and aligns with your company’s objectives.

So from this key takeaway, if I were to define company culture I would say, “company culture is the deliberate behavioural differentiation you value, and have nurtured, that enables you as an organisation to achieve your unique objectives.”

For me, this was a really big idea. Not only did it mean that I now had some understanding of what company culture was, but it also meant that I might be able to take that insight and turn it into something useful in the context of the work I do.

If only I’d have known this a couple of years ago.


Well, for numerous reasons, my first startup failed. But it wasn’t the vision. It wasn’t the technology or product, or event the market. It was the people.

As CEO it was absolutely my responsibility to define and drive the behaviour we valued that would ultimately lead us to achieving our objectives.

I didn’t do that well enough. And as a result, we had to close up shop on something that had showed a lot of promise.

Putting things in perspective, I’ve learned a lot and I now truly value the idea and reality of company culture, as well as its potential effect on organisational capability.

Going back to Ben’s post, he defined three reasons why company culture actually matters:

  1. It matters to the extent that it can help you achieve your goals
  2. As your company grows, culture can help you preserve your key values, make your company a better place to work and help it perform better in the future
  3. Perhaps most importantly, after you and your people go through the inhuman amount of work that it will take to build a successful company, it will be an epic tragedy if your company culture is such that even you don’t want to work there.

Before going on, I want to point out that culture doesn’t ‘make your company.’ It’s merely one component, but if truly understood, will make a genuine difference in your capability to deliver a product that is at least 10 times better than previous incumbents.

I’ve done a lot of thinking around Ben’s three points above, his entire post for that matter, and have actually made a deliberate effort to devise and craft the type of differentiated behaviour our new company needs to value in order for it to achieve its objectives.

Ben refers to this deliberate effort as designing a way of working that will:

  • Distinguish you from competitors
  • Ensure that critical operating values persist such as delighting customers or making beautiful products
  • Help you identify employees that fit with your mission

By no means is this achieved overnight, and from experience I’ve found that a lot of the behavioural patterns we value come directly from the founding team. And, we’re doing our best to nurture the valued behaviours so that they can be scaled in line with the company.

Now I’m not saying that your startup will fail as a result of poor culture. That just isn’t the case. But I am saying taking some time to understand the ‘idea’ of culture and its potential affect on your team’s capabilities is important.

We are all pretty good at defining our external vision or our external success. But what will our company look and feel like internally to give us the best opportunity to achieve that success?

This is sometimes a harder question to answer, and something that’s often missed. At least it was by me the first time around.

As I mentioned above, I now define company culture as “the deliberate behavioural differentiation you value, and have nurtured, that enables you as an organisation to achieve your unique objectives.”

With this understanding, shaping the internal structure, capability and flow of our new venture is something that’s realistically achievable.

This insight into company culture has been really important for me. I hope it is for you too.