Start-Up Culture – Founders Bane?

12 Oct , 2017  

What’s your imagination of a start up?

Couple of orange green bean bags as work stations, smiling faces posing with Coffee Mugs on Social Media, Overenthusiastic Founders in Jeans, High Five High decibel all around, Well-lit open office spaces, A touchy story as to why the founders started the venture.


Few friends working out of their apartment with their old laptops, asking friends and families to fund them, waiting for their customers to give meetings or praying for their first/next paying customer or frustrated convincing their aspirant employees that they are the next big thing.

I know it could be neither of them and there are many other narratives that can be added, also there could be such unique situations that I will be never be able to articulate all. We describe the start-ups in many ways, for now we are used to colouring them only with their valuation success. If we are kinder we might say it’s a great idea, if our biases match we end up saying great Founders. More than any of these factors our impression of any startup is based on their context than what they are up to. Culture is a key description when we talk about startups, we describe startups culture as Cool, open, disruptive, inspirational, grinding, hustling etc. depending on how we see them!

So, who is responsible for culture in any start up and how does it get created? Most often its described that Founders set the foundation for the culture, absolutely agree, but every employee adds up to it thereafter, What the founders do’ the first 2-3 joiners will follow, the first few employees’ behaviors are followed by the next entrants. Its Brick by brick in that sense. Let’s say by the time the busy Founders have got their business model right and they have 50 odd employees the culture possibly could have already got set-in without anybody’s notice. Unless somebody is paying attention the organisation culture would get its identity as a combination of its first few employees behavior, in startups we do tend to attract our ex-colleagues first; so, cloning the culture of our past common employers unknowingly is a unwanted possibility.

Another dimension is that of diversity, imagine a startup of 10 people which has employees from about 10 employers, they are likely to bring the baggages of these 10 companies, Yes, they would have joined it for the Founder’s pitch and vision, but their default behavior would be coming from their past employers, so would it be important for Founders to state how things are supposed to be from day one? The last time I worked in a startup we had few employees who had joined from large companies, the first few employees took the liberty of arriving to work at the time of their choice, working from anywhere, fixed office timings, no late evening calls, ‘can I see the holiday’ list first kind of behaviors. The Founders had the view that empowerment was the priority and some of the given norms to work shouldn’t be overstated, the next set of joinees who watched the first set of employees felt it was a laid back organisation and missed the startup hustle plus excitement they had joined for.

One of the key challenges for Founders would be to go beyond the theme of “leading by example”. Some queries here

  • Sometimes expecting others to emulate Founders behavior may not be enough?
  • Should you be discussing the right set of behaviors for an aspirational culture with every new employee? The answer is obvious!
  • Should you be articulating or calling out for expected behaviors very early in the organisation evolution?
  • Considering that every Founder looks for some common trait when they hire their teams, if they aren’t able to find the same traits after people join should they take calls on those people early?

Founder’s priorities in the initial days would always be chasing the right revenue model, getting to breakeven, access to funding and things related to survival, so they may postpone some of the behavioral traits which could be building up at the backdrop.

I remember once having a discussion with our team on the organisational culture we would be proud off, we had some intellectual inspiring discussions and appeared that we all had noble intentions around it, but when we asked how many of us took time to meet the latest colleagues in payroll and Finance there was a spectacular silence, Our workshop on culture had notes/slides about how relationships and respect for each other mattered, but we couldn’t bring it to our behaviors on a daily basis, We had to highlight this as a reminder, But I guess the Founders have to keep looking for these gaps and address it frequently when the team is small.

It’s obvious that Founders have no choice but set the foundation on Culture, but they need to bring in few right flag bearers who will live by the vision set by Founders.

When you hire people from large organisations where culture is owned through PPTs, large posters and maybe through CEOs or HR Departments it would be difficult to make them adapt to startup ecosystem overnight where every behavior creates ‘culture’ brick by brick.

Right now I am busy fine tuning some of them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *