Startups, define culture first

Zach DeWitt
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I love asking repeat founders what they plan to do differently this time around, based on hard lessons learned from prior startups. One of the most intriguing and insightful answers I've heard came from a founder I deeply respect.

Their advice? Deliberately define your culture before you start hiring.

Let's talk about why that's important and explore some strategies for clarifying your startup culture.

Culture: The glue that holds your startup together

Defining your startup's culture before you start hiring is crucial for several reasons. A well-defined culture sets the foundation for a cohesive team that shares common values and goals. When everyone is on the same page, it's much easier to work together towards a shared vision.

If employees have different expectations and priorities, it can create friction and slow down progress.  

Establishing a clear company culture also:

  • Improves employee productivity and engagement.
  • Helps you attract top talent.
  • Reduces turnover.
  • Creates a positive reputation for your brand.

A strong culture is more than just a set of words on a wall — it's the foundation you’re building your startup on. Let’s take a look at how this works in real life.

Two real-world culture case studies

I’ve got two stories to share of how (and when) founders defined culture in their startups, and how it impacted their teams.

In one founder’s first startup, they hired quickly to fill gaps — but by the time two years had gone by, the company culture was a hodgepodge of different values. Some employees were team players, others weren't. Some were customer-obsessed, others weren't. It became very difficult to row in the same direction when the team wasn't aligned.

In their current venture, this repeat founder is doing a lot of work to define the culture in the early days before starting to hire. Then, they evaluate candidates based on cultural fit as part of the interview and hiring process. Being deliberate about the culture from the get-go is helping them build a team that works long-term.

Another repeat founder I spoke with emphasized the importance of establishing a "continuous learning" company culture that is obsessed with getting to the truth as fast as possible. This type of environment encourages experimentation, embraces failure as a learning opportunity and values rapid iteration and adaptation.

Continuous learning is the foundation of his team — and identifying that value makes hiring and scaling easier for them.

4 tips for defining your company culture

If you're an entrepreneur looking to define your startup's culture, here are some practical tips to get you started:

  1. Start by identifying your core values and the principles that will guide your company's decisions and actions.
  1. Involve your co-founders and early employees in the process to ensure everyone is aligned and invested in the culture.
  1. Consider your company's mission and vision, and how your culture can support them.
  1. Be authentic and true to yourself — your culture should reflect your own values and beliefs.

Build a rockstar team by focusing on culture first

The wisdom of repeat founders is clear: Deliberately defining your startup's culture before hiring is a critical step in building an effective team. So, take the time to identify the core concepts of your culture. Your future self (and future employees) will thank you.  

If you want to learn more insider strategies and get additional insights from top founders and startups, be sure to sign up for my Substack newsletter. You'll get access to exclusive content that will help you navigate the startup journey with confidence and clarity.

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