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How to establish culture in startups [A Working Template]

When starting a new venture and trying to find the right people for the team there is a lot of caution exercised due to dreaded fear of hiring the wrong guy and paying for it with a lot of trouble later. While talking to potential candidates, we try to see if they have certain characteristics, over and above the skills and experience required. We want to know how they behave, treat others, communicate, respond to situations, etc. Do they have honesty, integrity, authenticity? What are the basic fundas of their life? How do they go about doing stuff in their day to day lives ? Xobni team
In essence we are looking for a ‘cultural fit‘ because deep down inside we all implicitly know and believe that cultural fit is very important for a long term sustainable relationship. Since cultural-fit is so important and it requires serious thought-process to list out all requirements, we should write them down instead of carrying them all in our head. I shall provide you with a template for this purpose, towards the end of this post.

Having ascertained the need and importance for a cultural fit, the next question is: when and how should this cultural fit be achieved? Should it be achieved by hiring first and then slowly adjusting habits of people as they work together or should it be a filter in the process of hiring (team building) itself? It’s hard to change a person’s nature which he has developed over several years and suddenly ask him to follow a new way to lead his life. Moreover, we cannot hire a random set of people and then expect the right culture to evolve slowly on its own, like magic. That’s why I strongly believe that setting culture right, early-on in a company’s life, is very important. The way to do that is to make cultural-fit a filter in the hiring (specially for the core team) process itself.

As I was trying to find what others have said about culture I found a blog post by Chris Moody, President and COO at Gnip, who nails the terminology and states that startup culture is made up of two components, viz. Values and Vibe. I found those two words to be the best for the purpose and with his permission I will use them hereafter in the document.

Vibe

This is how the company appears to the world. Vibe reflects the personality, aura, tone, emotional appeal of the company. Vibe is highly influenced by external factors like competitors, industry trends, etc and it changes with time as the company grows and its products/services mature. Like love reflects on a person’s face, success reflects on a startups Vibe, it starts glowing with a positive charge. I will not talk much about vibe here and open it for comments. I would like to stress on values in this post.

Values

Values forms the DNA of the company and can be roughly defined as the holy grail of ethics, working principles, operating guidelines, beliefs, foundations that each and everyone in the company should abide-by, adhere-to, align-with, comply-with. It reflects how the company will behave with its employees, partners, customers, investors. It is the set of principles that help the company make tough decisions when the time arrives and head on the right track. Indirect questions based on values can be used in hiring conversations, to test how far the candidate aligns with the company values. The best part is, ‘Values’ are not dependent-on or influenced by external factors like industry trends, competitors, etc. It is decided by the leadership with conscience.

People say, and rightly so, that a startup team should be comprised of people with complementary skills and diverse backgrounds. Remember, cultural fit is not contradictory to ‘diverse backgrounds’. People with diverse backgrounds can share the same values. e.g.: A fresh grad out of college and an experienced manager might both believe that honesty, integrity and authenticity are virtues to reckon with.

As Chris points out, ‘values’ if published in the open, can result in possible by-products also. Published values can automatically attract aligning candidates as well as become a self-imposed check on the company. e.g.: the “don’t be evil” value of Google makes it accountable and make a lot of people continuously scrutinize it to keep it from straying away. (I know this example has become a bit of a oxymoron lately)

I think we can classify values as generic (which applies to almost all companies) and specific (which applies to a particular industry or company). Don’t be afraid to add some specific unconventional values to your culture, after all your uniqueness makes you what you are. An example of specific and unconventional value is: “Goodbye to bloat. Simple, focused software that does just what you need and nothing you don’t.” – 37signals.com

Putting the values in a document form goes a long way in establishing the culture of a company.

  • It saves you from forgetting important things as you don’t need to keep everything in your head all the time, you can just refer.
  • It can be used to devise indirect questions for the interview filter.
  • Use it while making tough decisions.
  • It can be hung on the walls of your office to remind the team, what they stand for, often.

Here I present a basic (mostly generic and non-exhaustive list) template of values which you can customize to suit your company’s culture, send a copy to your team, use in hiring and hang on the walls. It’s an open Google Document (link/also embedded) and you are free to comment on it and provide your changes. I will be moderating the comments and selectively adding the most popular comments to the document, along with credits to you names. Let’s together create the most comprehensive startup culture document.

[Guest article contributed by Jai Vikram Singh Verma. You can touch base with him on his blog.]

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