Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

How to Set a Growth Culture in Your Startup Early

One of the big advantages of being an entrepreneur and starting your company from scratch is that you get to set the culture, which is much easier than changing the culture of an existing business. The challenge is how to do it, and how to do it right. Why not learn what you can from companies like Apple, who are leading the way with great growth and a great culture?

Jim Stengel, in “Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit” chronicles a ten-year study of the world’s fifty best businesses, including Apple, and concludes that those who centered their businesses on a culture of improving people’s lives had a growth rate triple that of competitors in their categories.

Here are ten culture building principles, adapted for startups from this study, that I believe have the same potential for tripling the growth and survival potential of your entrepreneurial efforts:

  1. Communicate your dream and operationalize it. Mission statements tend to be narrow, business oriented statements such as “Be the leader in customer satisfaction.” Your dream and your company culture needs to be outward focused with a higher good, extending beyond the company’s financial interests.
  2. Be clear about what you stand for, inside and outside your company. Your personal priorities, values, and principles set the culture. The best way to be clear about them is to regularly engage team members, customers, and suppliers. People follow what you do, not what you say.
  3. Design your organization for what it needs to win. This includes the specific work your startup must do, the capabilities you need to build for a competitive advantage, and the career path for team members to bring this to life. “Traditional” marketing, sales, and product management organizations often lead to mediocrity.
  4. Get your team right and do it quickly. For startups, this means knowing where you need help and where you need helpers, and hiring carefully. For help, hire people who are smarter than you in the domain they know, while helpers give you arms and legs, but need you to dictate the tasks and make all the decisions. Quickly handle hiring mistakes.
  5. Champion innovation of all kinds. You must visibly champion a portfolio approach to innovation, emanating from dreams, not desperation. The portfolio should be much more than just product improvements, and should include better business models, customer service improvements, as well as continuous process improvements.
  6. Set your standards very high. You tell people every day what meets your standards when you agree or disagree with recommendations from your team. If you believe in your team, you set high standards and stick to them. A good team will step up to the challenge, and your customers will notice and respond to the culture of excellence.
  7. Train all the time. This is simply a mind-set shift. Every interaction every day is a training event, and you can capitalize on it or not. Training is coaching, rather than criticizing, to improve the outcome next time. Training all the time is a hallmark of great leaders and great companies.
  8. Do a few symbolic things to create excitement about what is important. Focus on one or two symbolic events a year, major actions that will be meaningful to your team and other stakeholders, and make them fun as well as directional. Pick your heroes carefully, both customers and team members.
  9. Think like a winner, act like a winner. Customers can sense how motivated a business’s people are just from seeing the product and how it’s presented to them. Customers want to buy into a winner, so make sure your people never apologize for price or quality, and never back away from an opportunity to delight a customer.
  10. Live your desired legacy. If you don’t know your ultimate goal, you will never get there. If you team doesn’t know the ultimate goal of your business, they can’t get it there either. Be like Steve Jobs, who lived a legacy and left a legacy at Apple, of radical or even magical products and experiences. He did it in one of the world’s largest companies.

The right business culture doesn’t require a cult atmosphere, but it does require a disdain for concepts like conventional wisdom and status quo. It does have to be built around ideals, employee permission to be creative, and something other than just making profit. How many of these principles do you practice in your startup?

Written by Martin Zwilling

user Martin Zwilling Founder and CEO,
Startup Professionals

Martin is a veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, and angel investor. He is the Founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners.

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