Do startups have a “culture”? Probably not by the
common definitions of culture. Take this
definition for example:
“The way of life, especially
the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a
Sure some places may stipulate a few core beliefs and have
some quirky customs. What group of
people does not exhibit some level of quirkiness. But do we think it is realistic that a
company only a few years in its existence has a “way of life”?
I read the following quote by Jeff Lawson, CEO and
co-founder of Twilio, not too long about regarding culture:
“For us, we rolled out earlier this
year what we call Our Nine Things, which are sort of like core values… and if
they’re just words on the wall, then you go about your day and you do whatever
you want anyway. There’s nothing special about that. That’s not a culture.”
He is on to something as there is nothing special about a
bunch of words on a wall. They are
simply words. My friend my HR tech days
also had a few words to say about culture:
“For years, I’ve been saying that
your company doesn’t have a culture. You are incorrectly applying the word “culture”
to a group of people who behave a certain way because their lives are dominated
by a few powerful figures in your office. That’s it. Your shitty software
company or little marketing agency doesn’t have a culture — it has a CEO and a
leadership team that has particular points of view about how work should feel.“
Laurie does not hold back any punches…ever. And she is absolutely spot on in her post. What startups have when they refer to culture
is more like a cult of the founder.
Whatever the founder says is religion, which is not a culture at
all. That is more like a dictatorship.
We treat culture as window dressing. Everyone is getting the fancy offices with
lounges that look like pubs with ever flowing vats of cold brew and craft beer. There are plenty of entertainment options to
avail oneself of. All of this may seem
expensive, but it ends up being way cheaper than paying full salaries. As Laurie puts it, startups are paying
salaries in culture instead of cash.
Companies do have cultures, but they take time. ADP has a culture. Goldman Sachs has a culture. Disney has a culture. Your YC-backed, flavor of the month startup
does not. Those previous companies had the benefit of time. They can write books about it
like “The HP Way” that people study to get an understanding of what a
strong culture means for a company.
Instead of culture, perhaps we can agree that what is more
useful at the early stages is instilling a common set of values. That is what most startup cultures amount to
anyway, to Jeff Lawson’s point from above.
The difference is when those values are ingrained into the processes of
the company and are acted upon every day.
If that happens and it gets indoctrinated into every new hire, then over
time you may in fact find that you have a culture.