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July 1, 2020
Mat Vogels

How to create an incredible company culture from day one: A founder’s guide to culture

Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and 5 minutes to ruin it.” I think the same is true about your company culture. What Buffett observed wasn’t about time, it’s about how every small decision has the power to impact the very core of your business. Every new hire, product tweak, social post, and decision contributes to your workplace culture. You’ll build your culture over the long term, but it’s wise to start focusing on how things impact your company’s culture now. How do you want talented, skilled people to feel about working for you? How do you want your new customers to perceive your business? With what energy and attitude do you want your leaders to lead? Set every component of your culture now, and you’ll ensure these questions are answered collectively in the best interest of your business. 

Culture is about trust; trust is about permission

I am always talking and thinking about permission at Zestful. I find that people tend to be timid at work. Until invited repeatedly and welcomed to do so, most employees will never share their best ideas, most critical feedback, or the preferences that would make work better for them. Imagine the difference in your business if everyone on your team was telling the whole truth. In my experience, employees need to trust their leaders and their organization before you’ll unlock their best potential. You owe it to your culture to build that trust, and that starts by giving out permission, liberally. Show your employees that they can share without consequence, and even better, their ideas and input will be respected. Any trait you could hope to ascribe to your culture - flexible, accountable, innovative, open - depends upon an established foundation of trust. By giving your people permission to speak, share, interpret, and design their working experience, you’ll build the foundation your culture will need.

Culture challenges for startups 

Being in startup mode is a double-edged sword, culturally. On one side, you’re free to control your narrative and choose a direction for your culture. It’s new, and you aren’t fighting legacy conflicts, or biases like older competitors might be. On the other hand, resources are limited early on. Employees will often be wearing multiple hats, decisions can feel strained and high-stakes, and culture can take a backseat to product development, sales, and keeping things afloat. To combat this, it’s smart to set very high expectations around company culture and employee satisfaction from the beginning. You’ll need to recognize that while resources are limited, culture must remain a priority, and all decisions across departments, all new hires, and all content needs to align to those pillars of culture. 

Four phases of crafting culture in a startup:

  1. 1. Set your mission
    At the early stages of a startup, you typically don’t have any “core values” (probably for the best - things will change quickly early on), so it’s essential to have something that you can build commonality and excitement around. This should start with your mission - the reason for starting the company in the first place.

Whether it’s solving a new and unique problem or even just excitement around the idea itself, having a core mission that everyone can get excited about can help bring people together when at times, it can feel like everything else is falling apart.

2. Hire for fit
As your team grows and expands, your culture will spread into the hands of many. This growth is an opportunity to strengthen and deepen the culture and environment you’ve built.

Many founders I talk to face the same challenge, though: should you risk sacrificing your cultural fit to hire top talent, regardless of compatibility or personality? My advice to them, and my personal approach to hiring, is to put culture first. Likely, someone who is compatible with your organization will have every talent you need and more, but skill and performance are trainable. Character, while malleable, is not trainable. Don’t hire for talent and hope someone’s attitude will improve. The reverse is more plausible and more preferable. That being said, you shouldn’t just hire someone because you like their personality. They should also have the skills or ability to acquire these skills quickly.

To take advantage and preserve (or improve) your culture as you grow. I like to hire for who someone is as a person and train for skill. Focus your interviews on attitude, preferences, behaviors, and beliefs about work. Don’t exclude people who are different or who prefer different styles of work. Instead, make sure every hire understands your mission and aligns with the cultural tenets you hold to be true. As a bonus, this alignment will be an instant bond for every employee on your team, which will help as they build collaborative relationships early on.

3. Develop along the way
Company culture is a living, breathing part of your company, and it develops as you do. At Zestful, we use the saying “more, always” to mean that we’re always in flux, we’re always adding and innovating. That extends to our products, the way we serve our customers, and especially to our culture.

This is easier said than done. Here’s how we make it happen: 

  • We’re on the same team.
    It’s important to me that everyone at Zestful has access to everyone else. We don’t compartmentalize our teams or silo our company to the point of competition or strain between teams over resources and prioritization. I recommend having a clear purpose as an organization, sharing and reiterating that purpose often, and embedding it into your work as a team. If everyone is in it for the same outcome, it’s easier to mitigate conflict and find common ground.
  • We have proof of trust.
    Trust isn’t passive. I’m always looking for proof of trust. Trust looks like employees giving feedback to managers without fear. Trust looks like leaders who are open and admit their mistakes, and “I don’t knows.” What does trust look like in your company? Make sure you can see it in action, and when trust is missing, prioritize finding out why.
  • We’re opinionated.
    Because we trust each other, and because we’re always striving as a team to make better products for our customers, we tell it like it is. If any person in the room has a differing idea, doesn’t agree, or feels like there’s a better way, they’ve got the podium. When we disagree, we listen, debate, run tests, and come to a consensus. If your employees are afraid to be themselves and share their ideas, you’re getting half of what you’re paying for, and they’re not getting what they deserve.
  • People come first.
    The most impactful way to prioritize culture is to prioritize human beings. Never put your business, your revenue, your products, or your reputation above the human beings that make your company and its success possible. If every decision is made with real human faces in mind, you’ll naturally prioritize culture and employee satisfaction over everything else. The result: your employees will prioritize their work and your success, too.

4. Monitor and modify
Don’t assume your culture is healthy until things erupt. Your employees will be the last to proactively tell you what’s going wrong in the workplace. We prioritize 1-on-1 check-ins across every level and department of the organization. I encourage team leaders to schedule bi-weekly 1-on-1 with each direct report for 30 minutes to an hour. It should be understood that these discussions are open to any and all topics; related or unrelated to work. It gives people the opportunity to speak freely about whatever is on their minds and a sounding board to realize and actualize solutions. Everyone on your team needs to feel heard and valued, often and authentically.

Hire diverse, lead united 

It’s important to recognize the difference between alignment and total homogeneity. As you hire new people for your team, it’s important not to hire people whose appearance, background, beliefs, and behaviors are an exact match to the team you’ve got. You want to hire for diversity of every kind and allow that diversity of thought and perspective to bolster your culture. Instead of hiring everyone to be the same, hire those who can enthusiastically get on board with what your company hopes to achieve, what their position is set to contribute, and how your team likes to work together. 

At Zestful, we like to say, “You do you.” We hire every employee because of who they are, and the unique traits and perspectives they bring to the fold. We think feedback is healthier. Conflict is healthier. Disagreements are healthier. We just make sure everyone feels heard and respected, especially when perspectives differ. I like hiring people who have a deep sense of who they are. My company and team will benefit from hires like that, and we hope to be an exciting environment for people who can give and receive feedback well.

CEOs must be Chief Energy Officers

I’m often asked, “Where does workplace culture start? Who owns the culture in a company?” It’s important that teams know the culture is in the hands of every employee -- that they own the culture. However, I hold the CEO of every company accountable for that company’s culture, and that includes myself, with Zestful. 

The CEO needs to moderate the culture
As CEO, you gauge whether your team is living and working by the company’s shared values, that morale is high, and people are enthused and equipped to do the work.

The CEO is the Chief Energy Officer
The company’s CEO sets the tone for the other executives and leaders in the company, who set the tone for their teams. It’s a trickle-down effect, in terms of who influences and molds the culture. Ultimately, it takes a collective to uphold it.

The CEO steers the ship
While every business decision has the power to impact your company’s culture, some decisions have more significant and more public consequences. The CEO, and other executives in the company, have the authority to move large divisions of business in meaningful directions. The results of those decisions will majorly influence the morale, culture, and attitudes within the company. Beginning with the ultimate deciding voice and spanning into management at every level, there’s a depth of responsibility to the culture in the company, and by extension, the success of the business. 

Culture is a business function  

At Zestful, we prioritize culture, not only because it makes people happier at work, but because it directly impacts the success of our business. We’re all aligned in our mission to make it easy for companies of all sizes to reward their team with the products and services they care about most. That means that when there are disagreements, we land on the choice that protects that mission. When we hire new employees, we find incredibly talented people who dig what we do.

Our products and services get better and better because we said we would try. When we serve our customers, we focus on making things easy, like we said we would. Our culture weaves in and out of everything we do, and that’s the advice I would give to other companies as they start and grow: stick together. Come back to your mission, build trust, and craft your culture intentionally from day one.

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