The 5 steps to building a culture of success in a startup

by Ana Lopez

Opinions of contributing entrepreneurs are their own.

Every article you read, every podcast you listen to, or every founder you talk to will tell you that “startups are hard.”

I totally agree, but what does “difficult” mean? Difficult because you work long hours? Difficult because you have little money? Difficult because you have so many competing priorities? Difficult because it’s lonely looking successful with customers, partners and staff while struggling to keep it all together?

The answer is a resounding YES to all of the above. Startups are hard. But they are also just right for people who want to learn and grow continuously. And they are the right thing for people who are passionate about creating a unique company culture that reflects their values. Being aware of company culture can be a deciding factor for any startup.

I spent over 20 years with a successful career at a Fortune 100 technology company. I worked in small subsidiaries in remote parts of the world and at headquarters. I had stable, sometimes very large budgets and teams in both settings. I knew the company values, understood and lived the company culture, and knew exactly how to manage the systems, processes and policies to support my field of work and career. I smoothly switched between functions at headquarters and in the field. Regardless of where the office was located on a map, there was a consistent corporate feel and ‘type’ of employee. This applied to fewer than 20 employees and offices of thousands. Wherever I was, there was structure and the security of a familiar logo on the door and systems and processes to connect to the larger corporate, sales, marketing, finance and HR systems.

Related: 5 must-haves for entrepreneurs and their startups to be successful

When I started my first role as a startup leader, I was certain that all my time working remotely in field offices had prepared me to lead a small organization. I understood how to motivate and manage a team, talk to clients, create a great PowerPoint presentation and back it up with a slick Excel financial forecast. I had not counted on the role of corporate culture in a successful company. I took that for granted because my career was steeped in an already established corporate culture.

Like most startup founders, my priorities were laser-focused on how to make money, how to achieve the holy grail of product-market fit, where the first tranche of funding came from, and how much runway we had. I put my head down and rode hard to succeed. I have failed. I spent all the money in ways that didn’t make sense in hindsight. I never found the right market fit and didn’t dig deep enough into the customer’s pain point. And I never really thought about the type of company culture I wanted to build. I stepped into a position with a team in place and never really questioned what kind of company that group of people was and how much of an impact it would have on the product we brought to market.

Related: Go hard, or go home: A game plan for startups looking to survive an economic downturn

Not being one to give up easily, I took the lessons I learned about spending and saving money, understanding a need before developing a product, and even how to pitch and raise more money, and started another business. This time I decided to put the company’s mission and culture first. My co-founder and I come from very different business backgrounds, but share a sense that culture is one of, if not the most important, success factors. This approach has paid off and we have recruited and formed a team that is strongly committed to our business mission: to create economic gender equality.

Here are the top 5 steps to building a culture of success:

1. Communicate!

Prioritize communication. Do it regularly and reinforce the core mission, values ​​and direction of the company. Share the status of business deals, your financial position and short-term goals and long-term aspirations. Look for input and feedback on company status and how the team feels about the direction, product and place in the market.

Related: 6 communication tips to strengthen your company’s culture

2. Make tough choices

A small startup team can become like a family. You depend on each other and often have a close, non-professional relationship. This makes it difficult if things go wrong with one of the family members. But as a leader, you must keep your eye on the mission and remember why you are in business. Making a tough decision to let someone go, while painful in the short term, is better for the team and will reinforce the culture of building for the long term. It can also lead to amazing, unexpected opportunities.

3. Reward the work

I’m not a big fan of compensating teams with free drinks or an office foosball game. The best way to reward your team is to pay them a salary or equity or both. Continuing to invest in building the business to increase their interest in the business speaks louder and is more beneficial than superficial, short-term entertainment benefits. And don’t forget to celebrate the victories, even the small ones.

Related: How to reward employees in uncertain times

4. Tell the real story

When things go wrong, and they often do with a startup, own it. Talk about it and learn how to correct mistakes with your team and not repeat them. Optimism is a hallmark of startup founders and teams, but not acknowledging when things go wrong is likely to hurt your business, or at least bring a superficial element to your corporate culture – and create distrust.

5. Enjoy the work you do

You and your team work hard to grow a business. You can never forget the drive and passion that attracted you and the team to get started in the first place. No matter how successful or large the organization becomes, if you don’t have a culture where your team feels involved and enjoys their contribution to the mission, you don’t have a sustainable business.

So yes, startups are hard. But if you’re conscious about creating a healthy corporate culture that reflects your company’s mission and values, startups can be just that little bit easier — and a lot more fun.

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