Startup Culture

A great startup culture is super important, and extremely useful to get everyone motivated. It's not uncommon to hear that a specific startup's culture to be a key factor for success. Zappos, Amazon, Google, Apple, Uber, each have started and grew on the heels of powerful, sometimes bruising, cultures [1][2]. In all of them there are strong figures, outspoken people, struggles, some fights. When you love something, you fight for it!

But the general flavor and mix, the Culture, is hard to balance. Your designated values already cover main avenues. Some other personal principles pave the rest of the way. Mine are:

  • be there. A big component of successful businesses is actually just showing up. I think this applies even more to the startup culture than anything else. Being there everyday for your team, pulling the hardest, sweating the most, is good for you and good for them. It also means that if you can be there, you shouldn't call. If you can call, you shouldn't email. If you can email, don't wait for your counterpart to email you! Proactivity is a big part of being there
  • breathe startup. If you're in charge of social networks, you should be active in them. If you are in charge of ops, people should feel your energy. Make it a personal priority to show how much you love your area of work. It adds credibility and makes you an advocate for growth
  • be a family. While I don't bring work home and I don't bring my home life into my startup, I consider all my colleagues to be like friends and family. (Reversely, whenever asked, I also treat friends ideas with the same curiosity, structure and rigor as I'd do to any idea at work). I am genuinely interested in colleagues hobbies, where they travel to, what they are passionate about. All this adds incredible color to the workplace. Some people are gym addicts, other are part-time DJs, some are fashionistas or barbecue lovers. No one has to share but it's a hell of a better place if they do, and those things may come in handy, even if it's only at the next summer party
  • quantity matters as much of quality. There will be good days where things go smoothly, and there will be days where opinions will diverge, sometimes in rough conversations. Make sure the nice days are near 99%. A fast environment is many times at odds with doing things in a calm way, and inevitably all hell breaks loose. But people should feel that the absolute majority of their time at your company is great
  • lead by example. If you don't want a behavior to spread, don't do it. Often when I started showing up late for meetings, other team members did the same. The same happens with starting hours, leaving hours, having an active life outside work, checking social networks during the work day, etc. It's hard, and a good example must start in you
  • be personal. In both praise and critiques, I usually address people one to one, and make sure it stays that way. You can make a good example of other people, but be careful to not use only certain people, from certain areas, or praise a limited set of qualities. More importantly, make sure critiques are done directly one to one. I once had a Skype call where I did a very harsh critique of a colleague without realizing he was sitting near other people, which was potentially embarrassing and made him look bad near his colleagues, which shouldn't happen
  • be brutally honest. If someone failed, point that out with a clear example, and as soon as it happens. Having a formal performance review is nice to assess value, commitment and set expectations for a period of time, but it doesn't replace doing it "there and then". If you feel something was a major screwup, tell it like that. If you choose the best people, they'll be able to stomach criticism. Call out bad ideas, and bullshit too. Get technical on your criticisms  
  • feelings matter. Even if it isn't your intention, your words can cause other people to think you are against them, or that you don't care. Clarify if it's that's the case. In any case, "politically correct" is mostly a toxic term. But you can be defensive: always re-read your emails before sending, scan for potentially misunderstandings: how may the recipient read this?
  • apologize. You don't lose authority by apologizing, you earn respect. If something hurt someone, even if a mismatch of perceptions caused by your tone, apologizing is the nicest way forward. Maybe you didn't mean it that way, maybe the form or the substance weren't adequate. Maybe the person just can't stomach it. In any case, regardless of the pure business decision of how to move forward, just apologize. It's clean and cozy, but it has to be heartfelt
  • moving along. Sometimes you need to fire people. Or you need someone to change their performance significantly. Sometimes you get really pissed at something. Or you screwed up. Talk about it, learn from it, and move along. There's nothing like a novela to bring your startup to a halt. Be actionable and quick. The team must learn to move along
  • no gossip. "Barracks" conversation is damaging, and rumors can spread easily. If there's something which comes to your attention, before you do something you must know if it's true. Unless you've seen this behavior yourself, or have some pretty good account of it, you shouldn't react to much. "He said she said" is not a nice way to start a conversation. The counterpart of this argument is that people should be open to talking with you at all times, about anything. This prevents gossip from happening in the first place
  • Limit cursing. Cursing is somewhat inevitable in hard environments. Calling something shit is perhaps rough and unclassy, but it's part of the lexico of IT for example. As long as it's not used to describe people, it's a behavior to avoid but which is at this moment woven into the conversations in startups


[1] The demand of Jeff Bezos

[2] Some stories on Bill Gates