How to create a people-driven culture in your startup from day one

- May 13, 2022 3 MIN READ
Photo: AdobeStock
In a startup’s earliest days, founders wear many hats.

Establishing company culture might seem a luxury or you may think it will come naturally, but the sooner this is a focus, the better.

The later you leave cultivating a culture, defining and integrating your values into your company operations and creating equitable experiences and processes, the more challenging it is to course correct. If cultivated from the outset, and maintained, the culture will evolve in line with those values. 

From this lens, it’s clear that prioritising people, regardless of a startup’s size or stage, is all-important. From hiring experience through to onboarding and eventually exiting a company, leading with a people-driven approach will contribute to a strong and coherent culture and, ultimately, the company’s long-term success. 


Hire for success

Finding the right people can be a challenge at the best of times. Coupled with an exceptionally competitive market, salary expectations skyrocketing and the projection of additional benefits, flexibility and development, it is not an easy landscape to navigate. But, that makes it sound all doom and gloom.

Good news, it’s not! Startups that get hiring, culture and employer brand right have an abundance of unique selling points over big corporates, which many think they want to work for. But communicating these and giving hiring the time and focus it deserves is critical. 

Here is where People and Culture comes in; to fully focus on hiring and building and nurturing startups.

People and Culture will treat talent funnels with as much value as customer funnels and then with employees onboard they will treat employees and their needs like the most expensive asset that they are while protecting the business.

We are seeing People and Culture roles hired increasingly early and simultaneously, we are seeing increased talent keen to join startups rather than traditional HR roles at large corporates. This was evident in Folklore’s inaugural People Chapter – a community-driven course to nurture and develop the next generation of people experts – which was flooded with extremely capable professionals eager to take on the challenge of building and nurturing startup teams. 

With that said, hiring comes down to a startup’s ability to create and communicate a strong employer brand to share their ambition, mission, vision and values. The question then becomes, how can you hire and scale without losing the essence of your company along the way? 


Create a holistic employee experience 

To nurture culture while growing headcount, the values and culture you aspire to have must be embedded, promoted and practised in every part of the employee experience with managers and leaders leading from the front. Everyone owns the culture of an organisation but, how do people own it if they don’t know what sort of culture and values they should be aspiring to? 

This means going beyond the policies and incentives on the table. One critical component of which is the onboarding experience. Onboarding is not only setting someone up in their role, it is an ongoing journey that will look different in every company. This should be a structured and equitable framework for any hires and their manager to align on goals, performance, feedback and how they understand and embody the company values. Multiple touchpoints across the probation period ensure a new hire feels included, heard and that their journey and development are valued. But feeling valued doesn’t stop with onboarding and development. 


Share the legos 

Employees want to feel valued, have an impact and feel meaning in their work throughout their employee journey. Startups are in a unique place to engage and retain staff with this in mind. There are two main types of ownership available to startup employees: the type that shows up on a cap table and the type that stems from the opportunity to have an impact; lead projects, products, processes and teams. 

As Molly Graham states, one of the hardest things leaders have to learn and experience, is to hand over their Legos – that is, their ownership of projects, plans and strategies to help individuals, teams and organisations grow and for individuals now experience the impact those Legos can have on building something great. 

My first Director once told me, the best managers are those that make their roles redundant. As such, founders will be freed to concentrate on activities like capital raises. Enabling people to own and run with ideas brings purpose and meaning to their work, thereby improving overall happiness and engagement at work. 

People are a startup’s most expensive asset and their biggest risk. They can make or break an organisation’s culture. On the flip side, they can advance a startup’s growth trajectory and, ultimately, success when they feel connected to a business and their work. 

A startup’s founders and earliest hires sow the seeds of its culture; what ends up growing depends on how deeply rooted the startup’s vision and values are within the team. When it comes to planting and nurturing culture, the moral of the story is: start early. 

  • Laura Warden is Head of People & Culture at Folklore Ventures