Company culture can make or break an organization, and a common misconception is that it’s expensive to foster. Building culture should be viewed as a practice, not an expenditure.
As a startup founder, I’m no stranger to doing things the “scrappy” way and through a combination of the best parts of my previous corporate cultures with trial and error. I was first exposed to the benefits of a happy corporate culture during my time at PeopleSoft (which has been deservedly honored as one of the best places to work in America numerous times). Prior to this I had worked at two other large corporations and I simply assumed happy culture didn’t exist.
Founders are the ones who set the stage, as culture usually mirrors their beliefs. Because of that, it’s important to set the values and tone right at the beginning. Here are some of the tips and tricks that have worked for me along the way:
1. Be a compassionate leader and hands-on with everything.
As the founder, I’m also the one person in the company who has done everyone’s job. When you understand the challenges of each job, it’s easier to set reasonable, yet demanding, expectations and goals for everyone. When issues happen, you are able to walk in their shoes and try to solve the problem together. When things happen, and I’m not just talking about work, but life events too, be understanding, caring and flexible because that’s the first step to building a great culture.
2. Bring new hires on as contractors first.
Almost everyone at Love With Food is hired as a contractor for three months before being brought on board full time. Three months is a good time frame to test a new hire’s job performance and also a good period to see if the new hire fits the company culture. Sometimes a person just doesn’t fit culturally and you have to make a tough decision to remove him or her. It only takes one wrong fit to unravel what was previously a great environment.
3. Traveling as a team? Share a room.
Traveling to conferences can be expensive, especially when three to five team members attend together. To save money, we usually have three to four people share a room, and the upside is team building because it enables them to bond outside of work.
When I was invited to speak at the Hawaiian Food and Wine Festival in 2012, I decided to bring the team with me. Everyone worked really hard to get the company up and running, and the team deserved a break. At that time, we were a team of six. The six of us shared a tiny two-bedroom condo for four days. We cooked and hiked together. It was a memorable experience for all of us.
4. Establish traditions.
Every April Fool’s Day, it’s Love With Food’s tradition to launch something ridiculous, such as LoveWithWeed.com. It’s great for publicity, but the main reason why it’s a tradition is because it’s great for team building. This is the one event during which everyone in the company will stop doing “real” work and go crazy with their ideas for four days.
Trust me, it’s worth halting real work for a bit because the hilarious ideas, laughter and humor is a great startup stress reliever!
The real sentiment here is tradition. Maybe it’s giving back at the holidays with everyone working in a soup kitchen or collecting gifts for underprivileged kids. Maybe it's an annual camping trip. Whatever it is, separate yourselves from the day-to-day minutiae and bond over other activities.
5. Do something together.
Plan to do something together every six to eight weeks. At Love With Food, we love to eat. One of our favorite things is a potluck. We’ll agree on a common ingredient or theme and everyone will whip up their favorite dish regardless of culinary skills. The outcome is usually more amusing than appetizing. We also love cards, beer and pizza night. Cards Against Humanity is our go-to game. If your team members are into sports, plan a trip to support your local sports franchise. Not only does this help bonding it gives your team something to look forward to.
6. Encourage laughter.
Whether we are in the office or working from home, everyone is always on HipChat. There’s no rules about what can be said in the chat room, as long as it’s legal and not obscene. Our conversations are definitely about work, but there’s no shortage of GIF wars either. Humor is such an important part of our culture -- any culture really -- so finding ways to encourage and promote laughter goes a long way toward a happy team.
There are many ways to start planting the seeds for building a great culture in a startup that won’t break the budget. I would love to hear how you are building your culture at your startup.