As Peter Thiel said to Brian Chesky: don’t f*** up your startup culture

When someone asks me where I come from, England is third on the list, after Burnley and the North. These local, regional and national layers stack like tiers of a cake to form my tridentity, stronger for its composite parts. Like many people in the North, I’ve never left the region, my sixty years have oscillated around Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Manchester for birth, education, and work. I did spend three days a week in London from 1994 to 2007 but I didn’t apply for a visa, I was always just visiting.

My accent maps these travels through its mishmash of northern vowels. My sporting allegiances (Burnley, Sale Sharks, Lancashire CCC) and cultural reference points (Greggs, Factory Records, and cups of tea ) are as much about my Britishness as they are my Northern roots. Britishness and its symbols shaped my cultural sensitivity. I have two strong associations with the Union Jack: the first positive, the second negative. One is from 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, but for me it was seeing the Sex Pistols and God Save the Queen had an entirely new meaning. The second association was from a Sunday in October several years ago in Manchester.

I was in town when the BNP bellowing their racist slogans and taking the Union Jack flag as their own, met a crowd of anti-fascists which had come out to stop them. The Greater Manchester Police had come out to keep crowds of people from kicking each other’s heads in.  What nobody had remembered is that on that same day, there was a scheduled demonstration by the various groups for the prevention of cruelty to badgers. They were nice people. One of them gave me a piece of homemade flapjack as I stood and watched the spectacle.

Picture the scene. St Peter’s Square in front of the beautiful Manchester Central Library building, blocked off by a wall of steel barriers and riot vans. On the left, bigots waving Union Flags; on the right, hundreds of Mancunians who wouldn’t just let neo-Nazis march through their city. And in the middle, people dressed as badgers. The Badger People did not have an official position on fascism, but they were very upset about an upcoming wildlife cull. They had come with placards and pamphlets.

As the two antagonistic crowds converged, the Badger People did not leave,  after all, they were the only ones who had filled in the proper paperwork to hold a protest. They had sandwiches in foil, and points to make about charismatic animals, and they were not afraid. The police didn’t have a clue what to do with them. According to folklore, it’s bad luck when a badger crosses your path, presumably because you are about to meet 10kg of muscle and teeth. They may look like they’re about to invite you back to their cottage deep in the woods for tea, crumpets, and a chat about the environment, but will gladly disembowel anyone who interrupts their routine. They are about the most bloody-minded woodland animal on Earth.

Badgers are unpredictable when disturbed, as were The Badger People. I watched them help the anti-racist activists hide among their ranks, handing out spare striped masks while others altered their chant to Cull the BNP, not the Badgers! At one point women dressed in alarmingly realistic badger costumes started chasing neo-Nazis.

This showed to me that the culture of the north has always been about passion, energy, and getting involved. In my youth, I didn’t feel particularly northern, but I’m glad I am northern. I grew up with a coalbunker at the back of the house and teenage years in pubs with chunky beer glasses with a handle. I miss that – the beer glasses with handles, not the coalbunker. As Paul Morley describes the north: warmth, decency, truth, and proper beer, with a side order of menace, whilst T S Eliot noted Lancashire wit is mordant, ferocious, and personal. There is still much about northern life that would make Orwell puff on his pipe and smile.

Culture is the way we see and do things as a society, the social norms, values and traditions, knowledge, food, language, the arts. It’s also a vital issue in  startups. Gary Vaynerchuck, a successful entrepreneur, believes in the ambition of a human based company, where a focus on culture creates a more sustainable and successful venture.

Brian Chesky, a co-founder of Airbnb, tells a story as to why culture in a startup is so important. Having closed a $150m investment with Peter Thiel (co-founder of Paypal and the first outside investor in Facebook), Chesky asked him what the single most important piece of advice he had. Thiel replied, Don’t fuck up the culture. This wasn’t what they were expecting, but they talked about it a bit more, and it became clear that it was possible to build startup culture as a strategic asset,  aligning culture with strategy to energise the team.

The phrase startup culture springs to mind free-flowing pizza, table football and bean bag chairs  that shout We’re here to work hard and play hard. But these are perks masquerading as culture. While the work environment is not the same as the startup work culture, it is important. The environment can either help the culture or hinder it. Culture is a shared way of doing something with passion, it’s the foundation of your business.  Culture creates the foundation for innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products.

Life in a startup moves fast. Culture may not seem important when the venture is just you and your co-founder, but startups can easily grow from two to twenty employees in a blink of an eye and if you aren’t intentional about setting your culture, you’ll quickly lose control of it. This can lead to bad hires, high customer and staff turnover, and toxic work environments. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous, and we will be able to take our next man on the moon leap.

A great startup culture will lead to higher motivation, greater productivity and more innovation. But a great startup culture has also a series of indirect effects, including easier recruiting, better retention, and enhanced reputation. Your culture can be a catalyst for growth or it will cause you to rot from the inside out.

 So, how can you build the founder led culture in your startup? Here are ten building blocks based on my experience. 

1. Communicate the purpose of your startup This does not mean make money or make brilliant products, rather a long-term, meaningful purpose. You’re building a tech startup to help people find personal coaching support. Ask yourself So what? This will force you to think about why you are doing this. What is the purpose behind it all? What value are you bringing into the lives of your customers? As you build the bones of your startup, your purpose should be at the centre of your culture and of everything you do.

2. Determine a set of core values Set your core values, talk about them every chance you get, and stick to them. Sit down and talk with your team. Get their input as this will give them a sense of connection and ownership, and lead to a stronger workplace culture.

3. Hire with core values in mind Every new member of your team should fit those core values. When interviewing potential new employees, be open, honest, and specific about what the company’s core values are. The way they talk about them will give you a good indication as to whether they share them, or even whether they understand them.

4. Be open when communicating Being open, transparent, and honest is vital when communicating in your startup. This builds a culture of trust between team members, and a sense of togetherness that everyone feels. Do not shut anyone out, they need to feel that they are here to work on something bigger than their day-to-day jobs. Make them feel like a part of the journey – because they are!

5. Promote extensive collaboration and teamwork Culture is being open to accept differences and actively seek different points of views, encouraging debate. The conflict in collaboration is good and encouraged, providing  it focuses on resolving issues on a timely basis and doesn’t get personal. The focus is on cross-functional teams as they seek effective collaboration. Seeking opinions and active involvement of everyone in decision making is fundamental, then holding each other accountable for sticking to those agreements.

6. Cherish feedback Your startup culture is like the air you breathe. It is vital to sustaining and growing your team, and developing a sense of pride in the endeavour. An empathic workplace is its culture, so collect feedback at every opportunity. Employees can provide information on day-to-day goings-on that is impossible for a founder to do. Having a deeper insight into the running of your business from all stakeholders is incredibly valuable.

7. Maintain a positive working environmentBeanbags and karaoke don’t make a startup culture, but providing the right space is important. It’s like providing nourishing compost so plants can grow. Folks brainstorm and socialise while drinking coffee in a dedicated creative space, however don’t throw a foosball table into a quiet space just because you saw it on Silicon Valley TV. Providing the right kind of space will nurture the culture. Those that feel relaxed together, will also feel comfortable enough to think creatively together.

8. Appreciate the individuality and achievements of your team One of the keys to developing and maintaining your startup culture is encouraging your team members to display their individuality. Startups thrive on creative minds and diversity of thought.  Also, give them credit when it is due, when they’ve achieved something special or offered an idea that turns out to be great. Create a culture where success is celebrated individually and collectively.

9. Encourage founder access Take the time to learn about your team and build relationships with everyone. Check-in and keep your eyes open for when someone might be going through a difficult time. Making connections with your team members is the only way to know when there is something distracting them from performing at their best.

10. Maintain your culture as you grow Moving from startup phase to scaling comes with many challenges, including ensuring that the culture you have nurtured from the beginning endures. As a startup grows, it can be easy to lose that spark of originality and how we used to do things that made it successful in the first place. New team members join, and old faces leave, and you must work hard to create a single team identity, not original team v the newbies.

This can easily cause shifting sands and jeopardise the culture. The startup culture balance can easily be thrown. Make sure you prepare for this and have an annual review of your culture. Include your employees fully and take suggestions from them as to what needs to be changed, added or removed.

Startup culture represents the living community you’re building and thrives on participation. Startup culture is the bedrock against which everyone one leans their back into for support – and also build –  during the chaos of venturing. If you are to preserve your culture, you must continue to create it as much as your brand, product and team. As Peter Thiel said: don’t fuck it up – and keep an eye out for those Badger People.

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