Successful businesses have learned to look beyond skills to whether prospective employees mesh with their company culture from the start.
As the founder and CEO of KeepSafe, a San Francisco startup with a cloud-based app for storing personal digital files, Zouhair Belkoura is well aware of how difficult it can be for a fledgling venture to attract and retain talent. Which is why he instituted a “test drive” policy for new hires, leaving the door open for them to simply walk away from their new position within a few days, no hard feelings.
Most new hires decide to stick around, but not all. “We just lost two really solid candidates this way,” he says.
That’s fine by Belkoura, who explains that he would rather focus not on what the company loses from defections but what it stands to gain from methodically building a company culture around people who feel they fit and who genuinely want to be there. Better to let a person walk away sooner to minimize the damage from a bad hire.
While Belkoura says company culture “is something we think about a lot,” all too often startup founders hurtle forward with a single-minded focus on getting to market.
“The typical startup mentality is to get their great idea out there,” says Marissa Levin, who three years ago launched Successful Culture, an executive coaching and consulting firm near Washington, D.C., that helps leaders develop healthy organizational cultures. “They work 24/7 to monetize their idea. They’re not thinking, ‘Maybe I should put certain foundational pieces in place’ around the culture of their company. And that’s a mistake, because they end up having to reverse-engineer their culture. A culture is going to form inside an organization no matter what. The question is, Are you going to drive it, or is it going to drive itself?”
A social contract
A veteran of half a dozen startups, Dan Merritts has experienced firsthand how tunnel vision can hamper a young company. “You get so maniacally focused on your product and growth. Then a year or two in, you finally look up and say, ‘Gosh, this isn’t the culture I had in mind.’”
With his latest startup, New York City-based newrow, which provides an online video-classroom platform for higher-education and corporate-training settings, he tried a different tactic. “We established a clear social contract for our staff and our organization, a sort of startup playbook that explains our cultural vision. By doing the work of defining our vision for a company culture, we have a guiding light for how to build out our organization. And that, I think, will help us to grow and adapt, and to achieve better results as a company quicker.”
Founders like Merritts have been around startups enough to conclude that there is a direct link between culture and bottom-line results. In their view, defining and creating a values-based culture right out of the gate can translate into a sustainable, high-performance, high-satisfaction workplace, instant brand differentiation and thus a better chance at profitability.
A strong, healthy internal culture serves as the raw material from which a startup may build the external brand identity.
“We fundamentally believe that our brand is our people,” Merritts says, “and that is what sets our company apart from some of our larger competitors. As long as we maintain that belief structure and people continue to buy into it, and as a leadership team we constantly reinforce it, we will see superior results.”
When launching newrow in October 2014, Merritts and his executives consciously sought to emphasize values such as trust in the team, personal ownership of decisions and simple problem-solving. “This has everyone rowing in the same direction,” Merritts says.
The founders of ride-sharing service Lyft put a similar emphasis on cultural engineering in laying the groundwork for launch in 2012, according to Ron Storn, a vice president in human resources. In the early stages, they identified four core values on which to build an organizational culture and brand: be yourself, create fearlessly, uplift others and make it happen.