How to Foster Culture at Early Startups? Stylu Founder Says Just ‘Be Yourself’

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Company leaders at brand new startups sometimes opt to let culture evolve on its own, and one on-demand app founder says his main directive to employees is: “Be yourself.”

A 45-year-old neighborhood favorite hair salon in Toronto has birthed a 21st-century version of professional hair and makeup service: an on-demand professional beauty service app. Stylu (pronounced “style you”) launched in September, and founder Justin Colombo comes from a family of hairstylists that owns Hairafter, the salon and spa in Toronto founded in 1971.

“In our salon, we had people saying, ‘Hey it’s Sunday, you guys are closed, can you come to our house and do a couple blowouts?’” Colombo says. “Most salons have that problem, and there are also salons that do offer home services, but usually not at an affordable price. At Stylu we’re affordable and convenient.”

After a year and a half preparing with a core team of five people, Colombo still employs those same five people who help him run almost the entire company. Stylu also employs the help of independent contractors for administration and odd jobs, and about 40 local professional hairstylists and makeup artists contract with the company to form Stylu’s mobile workforce.

Colombo says scaling and expanding as fast as possible are his current priorities, and is aiming to expand the on-demand beauty service into another city in Canada in early 2017. As for the culture – it may be too soon to tell.

“We’re new,” Colombo says. “We’re super-new. I’m going to be honest, we don’t have a scheduled routine. I give people tasks and deadlines, they do it, and we move forward to the next thing. There’s no… I don’t know. Startup culture is very unique. There’s no such thing as rules. It’s good to have structure, but we’re very open-minded. We’re just moving forward naturally according to our culture and our style.”

Colombo’s family – his dad and brother run the salon, and he still works there part-time – encouraged him develop his concept of Stylu, telling him to start small and focus on a particular niche. Customer service and satisfaction comes first at the family salon, which is just like any other salon, Colombo says.

“Very hustle and bustle,” he says. “You’re always on the punch clock, but you still want to make sure the customers enjoy their service. Obviously we’re a family-run business, so we treat our customers like family. I do take that style or personality toward my new business and my employees. It’s good to be warm and welcoming and just treat everyone the way you want to be treated.”

But switching a service option from brick-and-mortar storefront to mobile on-demand isn’t always a smooth transition, and Stylu’s entire team currently works remotely. Some are in the Toronto area, but other employees are overseas.

“There are downsides like with communication, sometimes your go-to person is unavailable to talk. That is kind of setback,” Colombo says. “But I think there are a lot of benefits to having a remote-based team. My goal is to have office here in Toronto and an in-house development team, but that’s more of a future plan. For now, we are staying remotely.”

The added expense of having a local office is not in the cards right now, but Colombo says he thinks it is a great option for startups. Stylu is his first business and he sourced his entire team online, and says he knows how lucky he is to have found a reliable group.

“I had an issue with our back end on the app, and most of our development team is overseas. With the time difference it can be difficult to reach people at a certain time. When we had these issues, I sent them a message; it was three or four in the morning for them and they were very reliable. I guess you could say that was the turning point when I realized that I can really trust and rely on them, these individuals who many of them I’ve never even met in person. That’s what I find kind of phenomenal for me. The majority of the team, I’ve never met in person, but we have that trust. It’s crazy. It’s a great experience.”

Colombo works out of his home and out of the office in his family’s salon. Stylu is hiring contract stylists and makeup artists, but no administrative, development, or any other kind of staff for now. And the culture is still forming.

“I think the best culture in any office environment is to be yourself,” Colombo says. “Be yourself, do the work that your role entitles and be yourself. When someone is themselves, they’ll produce more, they’re work harder and come up with different creative ideas. When a leader puts someone down, they’re putting down that person’s work as well. When you inspire and make them feel good about themselves, better results come as a team and as a company.”

Right now, Colombo says he’s just going to let the culture be flexible and independent. People are working independently and it fits with his leadership style, he says.

“We’re a startup, so anything can come at any time,” he says. “Every day is different. There’s no such thing as a routine.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.