5 Ways to Make Your Startup Culture Stand Out

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Culture is different at every company, and tech startups, accustomed, by definition, to innovation in products, exhibit some of the most fascinating corporate atmospheres. Many of them impute direct benefits in the growth and success of their businesses to attention given to culture.

After three years reporting on “Street Culture,” Street Fight looks back on five ways that company leaders are making their company culture stand out—and some of the best pieces of advice for doing the same at your business.

1. Don’t try to define the culture with perks.

It’s not about that foosball table. Promoting healthy business growth and success for individuals is not driven by perceived perks, like catered lunches and keg Fridays. The force comes from whether employees achieve their goals, and the company’s support of the paths its employees take.

“We intentionally didn’t put a foosball table and a pool table and invite all those distraction exercises,” says Ari Kaufman, former CEO of location marketing company Placeable (since acquired by Ignite Technologies). “Number one, you don’t want people playing ping pong. You want them working.”

The goal of putting in perks like game rooms is to prevent employees from feeling overburdened or overworked, he says. “There are other ways to do that.”

Instead, the best idea is to focus on three things: employee support, the work environment, and mission and value alignment between the employee and the company, says David Shanklin of culture data company CultureIQ.

“Perks can be a siren song, kind of throwing money at a problem. But if you talk with people about what they really love about their workplaces, in the best companies it’s always about who they work with, being with people they really enjoy being around, and getting to collaborate on cool stuff,” Shanklin says.

2. Hire the right people.

Getting hiring practices right is an art, but hiring the right people is a staple of cultural principles. Justin Angsuwat of Thumbtack says, “If you hire the right people whom you trust to do the right thing, you’ll spend less time figuring out who has what access to what information. And if we trust you, that’s part of the foundation of creating a safe space at work.”

“Hiring is at the center of the universe,” says Mark Cummins, co-founder of digital search startup Pointy. “If you hire the right people, they’re going to do good stuff. If you don’t have a good team, sometimes you can’t do good stuff.”

That’s what happened at Pointy. Cummins and his co-founder discovered that they, both engineers, didn’t know how to find a good salesperson.

“Frankly, we didn’t know what we were doing. How do you find a good salesperson?” he says. “We’d been assessing the wrong thing. In the interview, people were talking about their sales experience or giving a PowerPoint presentation. That wasn’t translating into being good at speaking to retailers. We were just looking at the wrong stuff.”

Luckily, the first salesperson Pointy hired happened to be “street smart” and had the character it took to develop a good rapport with customers. Eventually, a growing, talented sales force allowed the company to attract more talent in that arena.

“Now we have more sales talent in the company, and they can help us find more like them,” Cummins says. “Good people recognize other good people.”

3. Use data-driven tools to collect actionable information about people and culture.

Many companies use surveys to collect information about employee satisfaction, but some have found that there are more efficient ways to gain insights about company culture. Call intelligence software company Invoca uses employee engagement software Peakon.

“I would have implemented that sooner if I had known,” says Dave Coburn, SVP at Invoca. The data-driven method has made it easier to identify patterns in feedback from employees. This helps the company prioritize issues that multiple people have flagged.

4. Make transparency between leadership and lower-level employees a priority.

Transparency might be the most overused term in the discussions being had about company culture. Everyone promotes it, and everyone says they have it—but there’s a good reason it’s a cliché.

At culture-measuring software company Threads, co-founder and president Sean Abbas says that basic formulas for measuring the success of employees are inherently flawed. Averaging different ratings together doesn’t provide enough information.

“This is not the check of a box,” Abbas says. “This is sit down and talk about expectations, and be truthful about them.”

Tony Xu, DoorDash CEO and co-founder, says he has seen employees respond especially well to two things, and while one is hard to define, the other is transparency. Giving every employee the full context available helps them make decisions in their day-to-day, he says.

5. Make it your own.

Some companies work hard to structure parts of their business with the intent to have it positively impact the culture. But for others, it doesn’t work like that.

For Stu Wall, CEO of marketing automation company Signpost, the culture is at least partly about having fun—because that’s what he wants out of a job.

“I think I didn’t want to go work for a stuffy corporate company when I got out of grad school,” he says. 

Signpost attempts to cultivate a culture in which people have fun and like going to work. He acknowledges that as the company has grown, it has become more difficult to ensure full visibility across all departments. The key is putting structures in place that allow for steady, health growth while not corporatizing to the point of sacrificing what makes the company’s verve-centric environment distinctive.

April Nowicki is a staff writer at Street Fight.