How to build a strong startup culture in the midst of transformation and disruption

- October 17, 2018 5 MIN READ

What is culture? While it can mean many things to different people, one thing we can all agree on is its importance. We talk a lot about culture in the startup world, but it also plays a crucial part in the success of families, networks, societies – and even species.

With 7 years’ success being recognised by the Best Places to Work awards, Ansarada has created a culture which works for us, but when culture doesn’t work, it can cause a company to crumble before it’s even off the ground. To put it bluntly, culture is fundamental to survival.

If a business wants to flourish it needs to ensure that as it grows, so too does its culture. It needs to be developed and shaped based on shared goals and mutual trust with everyone that works there. Employees are a company’s greatest asset, but if they don’t believe in one vision, how can they be expected to work together harmoniously and drive it forward?

Culture builds that mutual trust, it is what binds teams together and helps bring them along a shared journey, which is particularly critical through moments of change and stress. After all, a business strategy can’t be realised if the culture is working against it. So how do you build a consistent, strong culture while rapidly growing and transforming a business?

Avoid disaster, build strong foundations

It all begins with understanding who you are, and if there is cofounders, who you all are. What’s your hardwiring, personality and values? Who you are determines your why and influences your defaults on how to do things. The founders DNA gets embedded from day one and is the precursor to culture.

Capturing and defining this becomes more critical as you grow because it spans everything from the type of people you hire to how you interact with clients, the look and feel of your working environment, and everything in-between.

Start off strong by creating a culture which works for the whole team, rather than specific parts of it. Make sure your culture is absolutely aligned to who you are and what you deeply believe in, and are enthused by. Anything less is inauthentic and unsustainable. Having one set of rules for the bosses and another for the wider business won’t work. All leaders not only need to know the way, they must also go that way and blaze the trail for employees.

A growing business needs deep and stable foundations, underpinned by shared expectations, values and goals. You wouldn’t build a house on sand and expect it to stay up in a storm. Apply the same thinking to your business. If you’ve diagnosed it needs fixing, fix the roof when it’s sunny not when it’s raining.

Know where you’re headed

It seems like a no-brainer, but teams tend to work better when they know the direction they’re headed. This is why goals and a shared vision are so important to good company culture.

While most of us are capable of working effectively under our own steam, humans are sociable creatures, and we actually work much better when we cooperate with those around us. Think of the combined strength of people pulling together, as opposed to in separate directions.

Defining your mission and values early on keeps the culture on track and means the team collectively moves in the same direction, no matter where it is in the business lifecycle. For Ansarada, that shared mission has always been to make life easier for businesses and their deals. We’ve come a long way since we started Ansarada, but at our core, we’ve always been a platform dedicated to improving business confidence, particularly in their ability to make the right decisions.

We’ve always seen potential in people and how business could be vs how it is. We are all aligned on making that potential a reality.

Change from the top-down

Strong foundations and a shared vision are excellent starting points, but what happens to culture as you grow?

The most important thing to mention is that culture should never be seen as fixed, or static. The culture of any business can and should evolve as the company around it changes. People in your business change and life happens too.

Your company should never change its principles but the culture for 20 people in year 2 is different than what the culture should be in year 5 with 120. However, it’s important for this to happen the right way.

The role which leadership plays in culture is an important one. It often falls to leadership to help define that culture in the first place, but that doesn’t mean it should hold a monopoly on culture, especially as the company develops.

Getting input from across the team can make the difference between success and failure. By all means, companies can and should experiment with cultural initiatives, but be wary, as they could fall flat if introduced without your team’s support. This is particularly true when dealing with early founding members of the team, who might begin to feel sidelined and marginalised as the company grows in size.

These members of the team aren’t just some of the most experienced, but they often carry significant influence over their colleagues. Negativity spreads fast, so initiatives should be thoroughly tested before being rolled out. For a business in the middle of a transformation journey, feedback should be your best friend. This is a tight balance because leaders and founders still need to provide direction and influence, whilst ensuring their connected to the fundamentals of today’s reality for the business vs stuck in yesterday’s.

Radical transparency from leadership is key to making people feel part of the journey and shaping of the culture. Successful leaders will make sure they take the time to listen to others’ opinions, but still know how to get everyone to rally round and focus in one direction. This transparency helps build trust between the team and its leaders, and ensures employees feel like a part of the transformation journey. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

If culture and strategy have a fight, culture always wins.

Culture and strategy rarely eat breakfast but they do have fights. When they do, culture always wins. If you consider yourself strategic, you should focus on culture as it is the biggest determining factor in the execution of strategy. It’s an integral part of running any business, not to be underestimated or overlooked. At its core, it’s really about raising and realising the potential of people.

A culture built around elevating people stands a better chance of remaining consistent, no matter how the business strategy, size, or structure changes. As you scale, don’t be distracted — just make sure you listen to your employees or better still experience what they do, and help to ensure they trust the direction of the business, and their position within it.

Building a consistent, strong culture while rapidly growing and transforming, means businesses must think long-term about their culture in a startup — it’s about more than an office outfit or an endless supply of perks. Culture is evidenced in how decisions are made, who gets hired or fired, and how rewards, recognitions and promotions happen. Actions not words are really what define culture and standards.

A shared, transparent mission will guide the business and its people, no matter how things grow, scale, or change, and the decisions and actions made on the way establish and reinforce what culture actually is, versus what the posers say it is. Walk the talk, culture is everyone’s responsibility.

Sam Riley is cofounder and CEO of Ansarada