Culture Should Be Your Number One Priority When Building a Startup

Culture Should Be Your Number One Priority When Building a Startup

Jeppe Borg Rasmussen
5 min read


I’m Jeppe and I’m the Chief Marketing Officer at the Hub. Today I have an experience to share with you as I believe it can provide some valuable takeaways if you are in the midst of defining your company culture. This experience changed my perspective on what is actually possible when establishing a people culture. When I was being called in for my interview with the management team at the Hub, I was asked to take this value-based test on a platform called Platypus. Tests for hard skills is common pretty much everywhere, but here I was asked to prioritize my values. Fair compensation couldn’t be first priority together with diversity. This was very intriguing and a clear tell that the organisation I was facing took culture and me as a whole person serious. When I later connected with Nico who founded Platypus (after having been involved with Unity, Trustpilot and Peakon to name a few), I discovered a goldmine when it comes to culture, values, actions, you name it. I am therefore extremely happy that Nico wanted to share his knowledge. He boiled down his expertise to the below three points as to what that little black box of startup culture really means and how you can navigate it. Enter, Nico Blier-Silvestri, CEO & Founder of Platypus:

Organization Culture

# 1: Culture is the only leverage you have as a startup

When my co-founder, Daniel Bowen and I were looking to hire our earliest employees, we were in a situation similar to most early stage startups: Little to offer and not a lot of candidates to pick from. Claiming that culture was our main concern would be misleading, to say the least. We needed to go somewhere, build our MVP, attract funding etc. Whoever we would bring on board would have to hit that very narrow sweet spot of taking a (most likely not very lucrative) bet on our startup journey, being able to perform a super human-like variety of tasks and enjoy the prospect of working from a, to put it plainly, less than luxurious basement with a stressed-out founder team. All we had to offer in return was an awesome mission - and our culture. Needless to say, the startup reality when it comes to recruitment is slim pickings.It might be good news for startups that 65% of millennials are more motivated by culture than salary when deciding on where to work. Your awesome mission and hopefully great belief in your product will luckily have some sway with the people you need to persuade to join your startup. (I’m glad it did for us). No good things come without caveats, however. Culture matters to people because cultural alignment is one of the main drivers for engagement and thriving. Finding people that will thrive in your culture means they will stay. Hiring people that don’t thrive means expenses on turnover that you simply can’t afford. Having a constant eye to whether your startup culture will in fact get you where you need to go in terms of talent, innovation, diversity of ideas, performance, etc. - is of utmost importance. If for no other reason, then because hiring the wrong people is among the top three reasons why startups fail.✅ Takeaway: hiring the wrong people amounts to a cost most early stage startups can’t handle. So, make sure to do your homework and due diligence. E.g. are your job posts not communicating your culture clearly?

#2 If you don’t pay attention to culture from day one, you will never catch up

One of the things I have seen again and again working as a recruiter in startups and scaleups is a laissez-faire approach to building a culture that will work for you. In effect, letting unconscious decisions on who you hire determine what will become the unwritten code-of-conduct at your startup. Let’s get one very common misconception out of the way: Culture is not something you get. Or add at a later date when the budget seems ready for cool benefits or swag interior. Culture is something you have. No matter how much (or little) you pay attention to it. The moment you set up your company and start hiring employees you are laying the groundwork for what will be your startup culture. Founders and employees will each bring specific values and practices to the daily life of your organization. Though this, steadily reinforce what is the more or less unspoken code of conduct at your company. Your culture as a startup is those unwritten rules: The values, behaviours, and practices that flourish and get rewarded - and inversely the values, behaviours - and people - who don’t. In short, your culture is an ecosystem that allows certain things and people to thrive. For us, this meant being very clear on the decision that our very first hire needed to be a woman. Our founding team consisted of three white, heterosexual guys close to forty. If we weren’t conscious of mixing this up right from the start, we would have established a strong consensus on what it takes to be part of the group.We couldn’t afford to build a team of people that looked or thought like us. We needed people who would help us grow. Not affirm what we already thought. No one ever needs an “echo chamber” when building early.✅ Takeaway: Your culture is there whether you pay attention to it or not. The future of your company starts with your very first hire. See the 10 ideal first hires for your startup.

#3: Mission statements are important - but they’re not your culture

The key to building the right culture for your startup is being intentional. Intentional about who you are as founders, who you are as an organization, and who you want to be. Even as you grow. Mission statements can be useful for this but they’re not a replica of or a recipe for your culture.A mission statement is where you as a founder can put the core values of your organization into words. But as with so many other documents, they run the risk of only being worth the paper they are written on. Nothing more. This is what a good mission statement is - and the pitfalls that they all too often fall into: A good mission statement is a reflection of where leadership will actually lead the organization. It is the north star of values you commit to follow. That you actually follow in your daily behaviour, business decisions. Even when setting your team and crafting your culture. A useless - or even counterproductive - mission statement is empty positive value statements. They remain just words on the wall (or website). These mission statements are dishonest employer branding (or maybe just lazy). They will eventually hurt you in the long run. Because people signed up for a promise you’re not fulfilling. A good mission statement stays true to what made your company great in the first place - but evolves when the organization does. Mission statements are static. The people currently working in the organization are the ones putting words to it. While your actual culture will change as new people join. This is unavoidable. Your business needs to grow. The people who were strongly motivated by the modus operandi of your startup culture, with flat hierarchies, diffuse roles, and a lot of impact, are likely not the right people for growing your scaleup. This might even be the case for founders. This is just as it should be. The role of leadership is to make intentional and honest decisions that reflect both the core values of the company and the people who actually make up the organization.✅ Takeaway: As a leader you have the responsibility to ignite and excite your team. Your mission statement should complement your culture and be the north star of the values you are committed to. Learn how to build your startup team with no money.

Conclusions: How to pay attention and keep up

  • Grow an intentional culture mindset When culture - not money, glory, or even security - is your only leverage, you cannot afford to let bad habits take root. The energy, mission and steep learning curve is what you have to offer. Pay attention to who you are, what you as founders bring to the organization, and what each employee will bring in turn. Because this is the energy that will inspire and motivate others to join. And this is your actual culture: What you value and how you act. Not whatever goes on at Friday bars or having a ping-pong table.
  • Stick to honest employer branding When culture is the only leverage you have, your focus should be on honest employer branding. Overselling isn’t worth the risk of disappointing hard-fought-for talent. And neither is overspending on things that might not matter to the people who work for you. Check-in with what are the actual values and practices of people and act based on this. Don’t assume that they value the same as you. And definitely don’t assume that they will value the same as whatever great culture is in Googles or Revolut’s playbook. Gather specific data and act on this. It’s as simple as that.
  • Reduce unconscious bias One of the single most important things when hiring for culture is letting go of the idea of hiring for a culture fit. You don’t want people that will merely fit. You want people that will be just the right add to your team. Recruiters will tell you that hiring for a culture fit is nothing short of a resort to hiring for assumptions about who you - on whatever (un)conscious level - will be most comfortable with. Getting out of your comfort (bias) zone is crucial for you to build an intentional and inclusive culture. For us, at Platypus this has meant always inviting different people and perspectives into the hiring and decision-making process.
  • Accept - and manage - the fact that your culture will change as you grow. The people you needed in order to launch the rocket, will be motivated by other things than the ones that will help you scale. Anticipate this and keep track of how your culture changes with every new hire. Then you can evaluate whether you are moving in a direction consistently with what made you great in the first place.

There is no perfect recipe, it is the hardest thing to build and maintain a culture. You will fuck up. But if you are genuine and honest about what you are trying to achieve on the company culture front, you are already on the right path. Good Luck!

Startup Culture