While setting up an organization, Organizational Culture should be considered an integral part of the basics. It’s as important as what you want to make and sell.
This afternoon, I spent a couple of hours in the company of a young entrepreneur; let’s call him “J”, who recently launched his startup in Bangalore. They are in the process of getting the core team in place and creating the product they wish to share with the world.
J is now in a space which is completely different from what he’s ever done before. He isn’t an expert on the product (they’re signing on a product head soon), he doesn’t know what form it will eventually take or what it will take to create it. But he is passionate about the space and is driven by a purpose that pushes him to learn fast. He’s got a good idea of the competition and he’s already won the support of a formidable investor and an advisor.
A few days ago, J reached out saying he really wanted to pick my brains on a question that had been on his mind about his startup. As far as his product is concerned, I am probably the least qualified person to tell him anything – I’m not even a potential consumer of it. But the question that got me hooked and willing to connect with him was: How can I put the organization’s culture in place from Day 1?
Before I proceed any further, let’s take stock of the following points:
He’s got exactly 2 people in the company right now. And that includes him. They don’t even have their own office. Their product is not ready. And he’s talking culture.
I don’t think we should be looking at culture someday when we’ve grown bigger and have more people working with us. I think we should be looking at it now so that we can have it in place from Day 1. We should be using it to assess people when it’s time to hire and grow our team. I think we should begin by defining what really matters to us and use that to create a company that makes a difference.
“The culture of a startup flows from the way of life the founders establish. When the founders are a living embodiment of the Purpose, what they choose to do and how they choose to do it puts the visible culture of an organization in place.”
I work in an enormous conglomerate and I hobnob with business and HR leaders both within and outside, who are constantly working on culture and how to make it “DNA” for hundreds of thousands of employees. We spend a lot of time and money in defining culture and then creating methods to embed it in our organizations as they grow – organically and inorganically. There are consulting firms that publish reams of information and case studies on culture – many of them focused on massive culture transformations. Strong organization culture work is usually done with an organization of a decent size in terms of revenue, headcount etc. Because you can’t really invest in something as abstract and touchy-feely as a culture if you don’t have the “basics” in place – i.e. what you’re selling, how you’re selling it etc. etc. – and until you have enough money to do some fancy culture-building work.
Right? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
To quote J (approximately) some more on this topic –
“I don’t think we should be looking at culture someday when we’ve grown bigger and have more people working with us. I think we should be looking at it now so that we can have it in place from Day 1. We should be using it to assess people when it’s time to hire and grow our team. I think we should begin by defining what really matters to us and use that to create a company that makes a difference.”
And it made perfect sense! DNA is the starting point of life – not something you graft onto an organism later and expect total transformation. So if culture is the DNA of your company, it should at least be one of the earliest elements you establish, right? Organization Culture is an integral part of the basics when you are setting up an organization. It’s as important as what you want to make and sell.
When I look at the stories of many companies that I admire today (and predictably, Google ranks high on my list), I notice that there are some critical ingredients in their culture which were well established by the founders quite early in their development and then consciously transmitted to others as the organization grew. Characteristics like hierarchy-free dialogue, challenging the status-quo, caring about well-being in the workplace, encouraging divergent thinking, celebrating failure etc. aren’t features you can rapidly cultivate in an organization. Not if they weren’t already there in some fundamental form. They get embedded there right at the start of the organization.
So, as lunch proceeded and we tucked into our burritos, the following points about Organization Culture for startups made themselves apparent in our conversation. I offer them here for the leaders of any startup to consider when they establish themselves.
Start With “Why” Your Organization Came Into Existence
Is your organization’s purpose clear? Do you all have the same answer to this question? And do you connect with it both intellectually AND emotionally? Does it spark passion in you when you think about it? If not, then you need to feel this in your bones and you need to experience it more than understand it. You need to know that this is it. This is what you need to do and why.
Once You’ve Got Purpose Now Talk About “Who” Can Make It Happen
If you have connected to the Purpose, now it’s time to ask yourself if you are the right person to make it happen. A tough question to ask yourself when you’re the founder! Becoming a parent at the moment of childbirth doesn’t make anyone the best parent. The days to come may require the parents to change themselves in many ways – everything from their daily routine to their resilience and resolve is going to be tested. And not everyone passes the test well. Supporting the baby to become a full-fledged human being requires many transformations in the parent; many more than were required before the foetus came into being.
“Characteristics like hierarchy-free dialogue, challenging the status-quo, caring about well-being in the workplace, encouraging divergent thinking, celebrating failure etc. aren’t features you can rapidly cultivate in an organization. Not if they weren’t already there in some fundamental form. They get embedded there right at the start of the organization.”
Similarly, to take a startup from inception to complete expression will require many capabilities and qualities. And the founders have to ask themselves what exactly it will take to make this happen. What will it mean in terms of the way they behave with each other? How will it require them to think? What fundamentals should guide important decisions? What will be the limits they will be prepared to push? Where will they draw their boundaries?
Once you as a founder have understood what it will take, align yourself to become what it will take as you’re in a better position to create a culture and transmit culture.
If You Are “Who” The Organization Needs, Now You Can Create Culture
The culture of a startup flows from the way of life the founders established. When the founders are a living embodiment of the Purpose, what they choose to do and how they choose to do it puts the visible culture of an organization in place. Everything the organization has – from the fundamentals of its existence to the facilities in its workplace and the features of its product is part of its culture. It will be picked up by everyone and everything that comes into contact with the organization – every last entity in the organization’s ecosystem will be affected by the culture from its end-users/customers to its vendors and even the environment. And this means that the creation of culture should be a conscious process that radiates outwards from the founders into every ingredient of the organization.
The conscious process of setting up Organization Culture should begin when the company begins. Not when it’s somehow achieved scale and numbers and its people have the luxury of bandwidth to look at culture. That’s not going to be half as easy as starting early. If you’re a startup founder, start thinking about culture. J’s got a head start.