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Culture helps startups keep friends close

Written by Josh Russell on Monday, 01 September 2014. Posted in Engagement, People

An engaging culture can make all the difference when trying to motivate and retain staff. But does it become harder to maintain a close-knit culture as an enterprise grows?

Culture helps startups keep friends close

There’s no hiding it: the start-up community has a bit of a fixation with enterprises that have a cool workplace culture. From Google’s nap pods to Mind Candy’s Beer O’Clock happy hour, there’s little arguing that great workplace cultures have a tendency to stick in mind. But, inevitably, these high-profile enterprises have much more pragmatic motivations for this than trying to pip each other for Awesome Employer of the Month; culture can be the most effective way for enterprises to attract new team members and get the best out of the ones they have.

It’s certainly true that culture has become the by-word of any business wanting to engage and retain highly talented staff. “Culture is probably one of the most important aspects of the growth of a company,” says Megan Lueders, vice president of global marketing at Lifesize, the international videoconferencing company. And this is something that has only changed with time, with an increasing number of companies taking their culture as seriously as talent management or staff appraisals. “The focus on culture has become something that is critical in the eyes of every company,” she continues.

In part, this is because enterprises that possess a culture employees are engaged by can benefit in a multitude of ways. One of the most obvious is that an engaging workplace culture can have a strong unifying effect on the staff. “Working as part of a team in a business that has a positive culture helps motivate employees and increases their productivity, both of which have a positive impact on the business,” explains Trevor Harries-Jones, CEO of Yola, the free website builder.

Additionally, a culture that employees want to shout about can significantly boost an enterprise’s recruiting power. “If employees enjoy the culture they’re working in, they become active advocates for the company and help recruit other like-minded employees,” he says.

Getting culture right from the off can have massive benefits for a start-up because it can have important ramifications for its future success. “It is especially important in the early stages of a firm’s growth to make sure that all staff members are singing off the same hymn sheet,” says Julie Windsor, managing director of Talentia Software UK, the provider of business management software. “As such, a clear culture should be communicated throughout the organisation.”

There is also a much more pressing need for start-ups to be able to immediately appreciate and communicate what they represent. “There’s a sense of urgency in the start-up environment,” Lueders says. “We have to go out there and communicate what we, our culture and our products are so quickly.” This means that the start-ups that get an edge over their competitors are the ones that have had a clear sense of culture from the off. “It forces your culture to be defined almost from the start,” she says.

However, it’s important to note entrepreneurs can’t simply pin a piece of paper marked ‘company values’ on a cork-board and hope this equates to a motivated workforce. “I can write the best mission statement but if that does not translate into something tangible it won’t come across as authentic,” says Lueders. A company’s culture must be something staff actively feel engaged in, otherwise it will simply become a box-ticking exercise that employees don’t buy into. “If it’s not authentic and it’s just mandated from the top down, it absolutely will fail,” she continues.

Fundamentally, culture has to be bought into by staff at every level if it is to be something that has a real impact on a workplace. “It has to be something that is practised throughout the company,” says Harries-Jones. “It’s very important for all employees to be on the same page and feel like they’re working together for the same outcome. And, realistically, this can only be achieved if staff feel able to take ownership of their work and environment. “They should be able to effect change and feel connected to the pulse of the company,” he explains.

However, while start-ups’ small size means it’s fairly easy to ensure culture remains consistent, as an enterprise grows it can become harder to maintain a cohesive culture. “It becomes more challenging,” says Harries-Jones. “However, it is still possible.” For example, if an executive team remains fairly hands-on and involved in the day-to-day, it prevents them from drifting too far from the front line and stops employees feeling they are just considered another cog in the machine. “It helps keep the start-up culture on the floor alive.”

It also helps if you make sure later hires are as committed to your values as your first. “New recruits must [...] be aware of these values from the outset, with the recruitment process looking to identify new members of staff that will be a good fit,” explains Windsor. Ensuring that there is a clear link between the enterprise’s aims and and employees’ daily work also helps maintain a connected culture. “Making sure that goals are cascaded down to employee objectives – so that employees know how [...] their personal contributions affect the overall business – can have a big impact on maintaining a strong culture,” she says.

But even a business that hasn’t struggled to maintain its culture as it has scaled might begin to find things a little trickier once it’s operating across national borders and multiple time zones. “You’re not in front of staff all the time and the way we articulate things at our corporate headquarters perhaps does not translate the same way to an audience in India,” Lueders explains. This means for any company attempting to maintain or actively reinvigorate their culture, finding ways to connect becomes imperative. “It would be hard for a company to go through any sort of cultural shift without having either a very aggressive travel road tour or a visual tool like video to communicate,” she says.

However, not everything always goes to plan and sometimes an enterprise does lose sight of its roots. In these circumstances, can the strength of the start-up culture be re-established? Harries-Jones believes it’s perfectly possible. “Small inter-departmental teams are a good way to encourage more cross-department communication,” he says. “And creating these types of small project groups can help to cultivate the start-up culture that may have diminished as a company gets larger.”

Regardless of how you approach it, though, there’s no denying culture is a vital consideration and will only become more so with time, something Lueders maintains is down to the rise of value-driven millennials. “With it being such a communicative generation, from a social-media perspective, the importance of exuding that cultural value externally is something that will only continue and grow,” she concludes. “As time goes on, it will become increasingly critical to a company’s success.”

 

The family way

Trevor Harries-Jones, CEO, Yola

Our culture really has grown out of the entrepreneurial and start-up roots of our company. We are a small business ourselves and we

want to help other small businesses succeed. This has impacted our culture and has meant that every member of the Yola team works hard to make our end users successful. In fact, we look at Yola as a family, which our employees and our end users are part of.

We’ve really built a culture at Yola where employees are given autonomy to work on projects they believe are important. We stay clear of micro-managing employees and instead hire people who are self-driven and passionate about the work they do and then allow them to grow. Instead of building a culture where employees feel like they are competing against their peers, we’ve created an environment where employees are supportive of each other and work together to create a better work product.

As well as this, our culture at Yola encourages employees to interact with end users as much as possible. This really helps our employees to understand the struggles of our customer, and it helps to motivate staff to find ways to make the lives of our users easier. 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

Our former editor, Russell was the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our former digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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