4 Strategies for Building Culture in a Startup

By Chris Simmons
YPO Certified Forum Facilitator
Director of Strategy and Culture for 9 Spokes International

My career has taken me from corporate life to entrepreneurship and, finally, to a high-growth tech startup in New Zealand. What do these all have in common?

At the heart of each business is the culture that glues its people together, and it is in the area of culture that I have focused much of my journey.

Peter Drucker is credited with saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As Director of Strategy and Culture for 9 Spokes International, I feel as though I am in a unique position to understand this quote and share our experience.

In the last year, 9 Spokes (an elegant dashboard providing SME’s with business insights) has won three significant channel partnerships with large corporate partners in the United Kingdom and Australia; launched its own direct platform in the UK; built a relationship with IBM; worked with SaaS companies such as Sage, Intuit, Vend and Unleashed; opened an office in London; debuted its IPO on the Australian Stock Exchange; and grown the team from 16 to 88 people.

The strategy for the business has been clear from day one and the business is on-track, but it has not been all smooth sailing. This is where Drucker’s quote comes to bear: the strategy is right but execution can only happen through the efforts of the team. In a fast-paced growth environment, deliberate steps need to be taken to ensure that the culture is purposely developed.

Here are four things that I have learned about building culture in a startup:

1. Communicate Your Vision – Over And Over

During rapid growth it is easy to lose track of why you have set out on the journey. The founders are clear and the ‘early adopters’ have a good feel for it, but then momentum takes over. Some examples of things we have done include:

  • Creating a visual tool to tell our strategic journey (a picture rather than a document) . Every new staff member spends time with me, as director of strategy, sharing the story.
  • Implementing monthly Founders Breakfasts: New hires have breakfast with the founders of the business, which gives a hands-on introduction to the business purpose and makes the founders very approachable.
  • Early onboarding: Our onboarding process now involves a series of online learning tools and communications from the CEO and team leads before the person joins the company. This ensures that they feel comfortable from day one.

2. Be Clear On Your ‘Bearings’

Vision, values and mission are common in a business. At 9 Spokes, we speak about our “internal bearings” (a play on words; creating you own vocabulary gives people a common bond). We roll on our ‘bearings’ and our ‘bearings’ give us direction. “Inspire All. Thrive Globally. Do it Right.”

But your values are only the start. It is critical how the team brings them to life through the behavior you all use every day in your work.

At 9 Spokes, our Internal Bearing Awards are the opportunity to recognize team members for living the bearings. The nominations by peers for living by our values become an example or story for others as inspiration.

3. Introduce People Tools That Support But Don’t Over-Burden

There is an entire industry of people management practitioners and theories. But in a startup there has to be a focus on the end deliverable without putting the burden of policy and red-tape around the business.

Use the tools that get you up and running. Basic systems of pay and people management will get you underway. A simple survey that we call “9Spokes @ 9” (because it goes out at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning) has provided us with a gauge on staff views, what is working and what we need to change.

With rapid growth we initially focused on recruitment. We made the mistake of not supplying team leads with a consistent set of induction tools and, after feedback from new staff members, we quickly developed our onboarding and induction process which now gets great reviews.

Then came feedback loops and, eventually, we will build in learning tools. We have purposely drip-fed this into the business and continually look to improve with experience.

4. People Don’t Know What They Don’t Know.

The Johari window teaches us that we are blind to things that other people see as obvious. When you are in the moment and pushing towards your deliverables it is easy to miss things. How is the team functioning? Are you communicating enough? Who is building the team?

In the first year you will make mistakes – fail fast, improve faster – but to do this sometimes requires external help to see what the team has become blind to.

At 9 Spokes, we have engaged with an external leadership firm to conduct a review of our leadership team. Using an external firm allows us to see what we can improve and ensure that we are getting the most out of the combined strengths of our leadership team.

Asking for feedback and not just assuming that you know what is going on will make your business stronger. At 9 Spokes we  head into the next challenging year of global growth knowing that we have good foundations to build upon.

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