With the Silicon Valley bubble yet to pop, companies are continuing to ask themselves how to cultivate that “perfect startup culture” that workers in the Bay Area and around the world seem to love. CEOs and managers analyze renowned office cultures at companies like Google and Facebook, wondering how to emulate their success, what makes a “perfect” culture, and how they can hire a new round of team members that will love working in their offices, too.
Instead of relying on speculation, we went right to the source and asked founders their secret sauce for creating a great work environment. They gave us advice on establishing culture, hiring to match your values, and what to look for when expanding your team. If you’re an entrepreneur or thinking about starting your own business, read their advice to learn how to inspire your employees and grow your company in a positive way. When you’re done, hit the comments to let us know what you think!
1. Think about your culture early — it needs to start with the founder
Culture is a vital part of an early stage company, but it is often neglected, especially with more pressing concerns like raising capital, growing a customer base, and developing your product at the top of your mind. The thing is, culture is the main difference between a cohesive company and a group of disengaged employees, so setting and cultivating a strong company culture is a must.
—Michael Talve, Founder/Managing Director @
Culture is something that is derived from the founders. The early employees will look to the founders as a measure of what expected behavior is like. Founders who aren’t enthusiastic and passionate about their business are going to have a hard (if not impossible) time keeping others excited. Similarly, it’s on the founder’s shoulders to promote an environment where people are measured on the quality of their work as opposed to the sheer amount of time spent in the office.
—Colin M. Darretta, Founder/CEO @
2. Set company values and revisit them frequently
Culture is something that you should manage intentionally. Culture is not a ping-pong table, beer, and a dog-friendly office. Culture is a competitive advantage and it will be the thing that helps your employees deliver great work. Start by taking the time to identify your values as a company. Then write them down, post them on the wall, and revisit them on a quarterly basis.
— Chris Ostoich, Founder @
Establish your core values as an individual and as a business, and make sure you hire people that share those same values. Far too often, companies create core values and then never revisit them — this is a mistake. Your employees need to live and breathe your core values. They need to not only know what these values are, but understand the reasons behind why you place such a strong emphasis on them.
—Michael Krasman, Co-founder/CEO @
I don’t personally believe in creating culture in any manner other than hiring amazing managers that are also genuinely good people. They, in turn, will be amazing recruiters and attract amazing people to work for them. Whatever those folks are… they’ll create the culture. A culture of greatness and respect is what I find to be the key goal. The rest figures itself out.
—Jason Lempkin, Co-founder @ &
3. Incorporate values that matters to you
My philosophy on startup culture can be summed up in one sentence; ‘business for good is simply good for business.’ I’m a big proponent of incorporating a spirit of giving into a business.
—Blair Nastasi, Founder/CEO @
4. Encourage (and facilitate) personal and leadership growth for each employee
We encourage our employees to embrace challenges and take ownership over projects. Giving employees the freedom to take initiative helps generate new ideas and continuously improve our processes to deliver the best research and service to our customers.
—Rob Bellenfant, Founder/CEO @
We believe work gets accomplished through relationships. Our net promoter score, 68% of our associates gave a top box score to the question, “How likely is it that you would recommend Talent Plus as a place to work to a friend or colleague?” They like the work they do, they are good at what they do, and they like who they work with — all measures of a strong, healthy culture.
—Kimberly Rath, Co-founder/Chairman @
5. Purposely create a team with personalities that get along (not match)
In the beginning most teams are quite small, so one individual can have a large effect on morale and culture for the entire company. What we look for are people that have similar temperaments. Temperament is different than personality. We have several differing personalities, but the temperaments are similar. That means we can all agree to disagree on many issues, yet still walk away without a lot of emotion and negativity. Everyone is still cohesive and rowing in the same direction, which I believe is critical for any size of company.
—Jonathan Tang, Founder/CEO @
Culture gets mislabeled as “perks.” In its most potent form, culture should refer to the aligning values of the organization. Do you and your team members all believe in the same things? What is your team’s mantra? The specifics of your team’s values are not as important as the fact of having ingrained values that align each member of that team. This adds purpose to the mission, and passion is a product of purpose.
—Bryan Clayton, CEO @
You need adaptive, flexible people. You need curious people. People often forget culture starts with one person taking one step and others following. You need people who will take those first steps and others who rally behind first movers. Ideally everyone needs to do both: lead & follow. Every great startup needs an army of fans and fanatics.
—Nick Kellet, Co-founder @
1. Hire through personal recommendations and trial periods
All of my employees are independent, self-motivated and can be successful with minimal direction. The easiest way I’ve found to hire for this type of culture is through recommendations and trial periods. Everyone that gets hired at ShortStack first goes through a trial period where they are given a few projects so we can see how they work and how they’ll fit in with the culture.
—Jim Belosic, CEO @
When I hire people, I create ‘projects’ for them to participate in as a contractor (try before you buy) or take them out for a test situation and see how they do. You learn a lot when you push people out of their comfort zones and they react. I’ve saved myself a ton of grief that way.
—Elizabeth Frisch, Founder/CXO @
2. Ask interviewees creative questions
When you ask candidates work-related questions, you get rehearsed, made-for-interview answers. The way to hire for cultural fit is to get people talking about non-work related things and to listen carefully to their responses.
—Ben Landers, Founder/CEO @
I make sure to conduct face-to-face interviews with all of the candidates. Instead of focusing on their last job and why they would be a good fit for my company, I ask more practical questions to see how they react on the spot. I’m really able to learn a lot about a person by taking this route and thus far, it has allowed for me to hire solid candidates.
—Jason Parks, Owner @
When it comes to screening candidates for various positions there are few questions that I like to ask that are sort of unorthodox. One of my favorites to see if there is a culture fit is: “If you have to make a decision in which one decision will benefit the customer and the other will benefit the company, which one would you pick?” It is a great question since both answers can be right based on the company they are applying for.
—Mack Dudayev, Co-founder/CEO @
3. Place emphasis on personality, not just experience
We definitely put more emphasis on a candidate’s personality traits over their experience level. Specifically, we pay close attention to their emotional IQ and ability to jive with our team. Even if the individual is less experienced than we’d prefer, we know if they possess certain qualities and can mesh well with our team we can set them on the path to success.
—Clayton Dean, Co-Founder/Managing Director @
Relationships skills, great attitude, no egos, and a willingness to learn and be anything is way more important than hiring a person with the ‘perfect’ skills for a position. Most skills can be trained. The ability to work in a team, check your ego at the door, constantly learn new things, and be flexible in a very dynamic work environment are more important and much harder to teach people or make up for if they are lacking.
—Elizabeth Frisch, Founder/CXO,
Our culture is a very collaborative one. We believe in open communication and regular brainstorming sessions. Good ideas can come from just about anyone. When hiring, we like to bring in people from different backgrounds and experience in different areas.
— Brad Zomick, Co-founder @
4. Seek people who are genuinely interested in your industry
I like to see candidates who are highly curious with a “get it done” attitude and a commitment to continuously building and improving on their core skill set. I like to see a passion for the cause, people who care about what your company and product do, and the problems you solve.
—Andew Filev, Founder/CEO @
When hiring, we look for people who demonstrate a genuine interest in the industry and a willingness to self-improve. Much of what we do can be learned, so having a dedicated team who’s passionate about what they’re doing is very important.
—Arsham Mirshah & Chris Mechanic, Co-founders @
We have a very entrepreneurial culture. We look for people who are self-starters, idea generators, and all-around positive people. Because we work with entrepreneurs and small business owners, we look for people who are excited about entrepreneurship.
—Deborah Sweeney, CEO @
5. Seek people that appreciate your company‘s structure
As a family company, we have a small, collegial atmosphere and look to work with folks who appreciate that. We don’t have the support systems and infrastructure a large company has, but we also don’t have the bureaucracy. We look for people comfortable working independently and in a less structured environment.
—Will von Bernuth, Co-founder @
6. Seek people that already match your existing culture & values
We have a relaxed startup culture, where we try to treat the company like family. We share our strategies and ideas with one another every day during our morning huddle. We do our best to ensure anyone we hire fits in with our culture and would get along well with other team members.
—Nabeel Mushtag, Co-founder/COO @
As a startup based on collaboration, communication, and giving, our culture is one of openness, support, and thoughtfulness. Hiring decisions are made as a team and only if we feel a candidate has demonstrated thoughtfulness towards their co–workers in the past.
—Jessica Jessup, Co-founder @
In a startup — especially a remote one like Groove — I can’t, and don’t want, to spend my day looking over my team’s shoulders. That’s why I look for “mini-CEOs” when I hire; people who have that entrepreneurial fire and don’t need an extra push to manage themselves and do hard work when nobody is looking. Anything less and we won’t win.
—Alex Turnbull, Founder/CEO @
We have a ‘client not customer’ culture where we focus on their outcome, not our income. We hire for this by asking a lot of questions about how candidates handled client problems and build lasting relationships.
—Louis Altman, Founder/CEO @
Our culture is very open, and this really allows our playmakers to make plays. Everyone knows what our vision is for the quarter and year. For hiring people in an open culture, we want people that are trustworthy and able to come up with great ideas. We often use the airport test during interviews: Is this person someone you would want to be stuck with on a two hour layover at the airport?
—Sean Higgins, Co-founder @
Everything we do is governed by two rules: 1) Get shit done, and 2) Don’t screw it up for everyone else. Both rules are complimentary and equally important: one drives you forward, the other keeps you in check. But both rules require a tremendous amount of individual maturity and trust in your peers. Accordingly, our hiring process seeks out people who are focused on building a giant business without getting caught up in the hype and BS that others obsess over to their doom.
—David Barrett, Founder/CEO @
What’s your best culture-related advice for entrepreneurs?
Now that you’ve read others’ advice, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too. Let us know in the comments what you think is the most important contributor to developing and maintaining a company culture that people love.
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