Creating culture doesn’t just seem easier at a startup — it is easier.
When you’re a four-person team, you’re family. Collaboration comes naturally, and with everyone in every meeting, miscommunication is all but impossible. Scheduling a happy hour? It’s as simple as sending a text.
Then, you grow. You’re grateful to have help, of course, but that familial feeling fades a bit. No longer can everyone fit around the same restaurant table. Spontaneous outings happen less and less often. Communication starts to seem more like a chore than texting friends.
To a degree, cultural shift is natural as your team expands. No 50-person company will be as close as a five-person one. Still, with careful cultivation, your startup culture can be preserved.
In 2008, my company started out with a few employees serving even fewer clients. We knew our first clients gravitated to us because of our mission and our people, and we’d been hearing from them that our passion and enthusiasm showed in our work.
Office cultures like ours, particularly back then, are created by engaged employees with a shared set of beliefs. Highly engaged employees are more productive, more likely to stick around, and more willing to go the distance for clients.
From the start, we noticed something else, as well. Our culture did more than engage employees and attract target clients. It helped to get the right people — from ambitious young talent to industry veterans — knocking on our door.
Yet as the years rolled on, we saw our culture start to change. We’d opened new offices, hired dozens of new team members, and serviced larger accounts. Our positive, upbeat culture survived through it all, but, ultimately, we knew we had to work to save it.
Today, our company employs more than 300 full-time employees in multiple major cities. Seldom are we all in the same room anymore, but we’re no less of a family than we were at the start.
How’d we do it? By staying true to three basic tenets:
Culture isn’t evergreen; it must be actively maintained. Strong leaders encourage employees, from their first day of work to their last, to take ownership of the company’s culture. In fact, 70 percent of the variance between a poor culture and a great one comes down to the knowledge, skills, and talents of the leader.
When team members see themselves as cultural stewards, they’ll start everything from bagel Fridays to company-changing initiatives. Our employees, for example, split into teams each quarter to tackle company challenges. Over the years, projects have ranged from charting company growth to developing employee education programs and assisting nonprofit organizations. Entry-level employees eagerly rub elbows with veterans to shape our organization’s future.
Eventually, every successful startup will outgrow its home office. That’s often when it hits home that culture isn’t plug-and-play. What will you do when it’s time to open another location? How will you split team members? Will the culture come with them?
Before that time comes, develop a plan for engaging employees. Nearly three in four U.S. employees are disengaged at work, and if your company doesn’t have an engagement plan, it could be harboring its fair share of them.
Start by planning interoffice connection opportunities. At our company, we kick off each year with an off-site retreat to galvanize the group and set the tone for the coming months. On a weekly basis, we host cross-office videoconferences. We introduce new faces, talk about how business is going, and share upcoming events. We also don’t forget to have fun together. Whether it’s a St. Patrick’s Day celebration or a round of mini-golf, people want to know one another outside of the daily grind, which adds an important dimension to our culture.
When it comes to culture, bigger is better. Creating culture, of course, involves inspiring employees to help the company succeed. But when you connect it to a bigger cause, you give employees a reason for being beyond a paycheck.
That’s why, from the beginning, we’ve supported Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation in its mission to eradicate pediatric cancer. Our team is there for nearly every ALSF event, from the Chance for Life poker tournament to the Alex’s Million Mile initiative. Uniting around a common cause has catalyzed further community involvement, including an employee-organized day of giving and side projects like room makeovers at a local children’s hospital.
For us, giving back extends to company policy. We offer generous vacation time and an annual incentive trip to a tropical location as a reward for reaching our revenue goal. No perk, though, is more revered than our Radical Sabbatical. Reserved for employees who have been with the company for five years, this trip is a ticket to anywhere in the world — as far as Fiji, to date — with just one requirement: Do good for others.
Cherish your company culture. In the end, it’s what makes your startup special. It’s why your best employees stay, new people want to join, and clients choose you. Preserve your culture. If you do, it’ll preserve your company.
Also worth a read: Conversio On How To Build a Great Company Culture
Jeff Snyder is the founder and chief inspiration officer at Inspira Marketing Group, an experiential marketing agency headquartered in Norwalk, Connecticut, with offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. With more than 20 years of experience, Snyder leads his agency's growth by focusing on building genuine relationships through client development and audience engagement.