The Start Up Guide to Building a Great Company Culture

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” Peter Drucker

What is Culture?

Many of us have held entry level positions in the past. Can you recall your level of engagement with work at the time? Do you recall commiserating with other employees at lunch break? Complaining about management? Parodying the hollow corporate initiatives that were foisted upon you?

In a start-up with a close-knit early team, everyone is all-in. By necessity you must believe in the mission to take a risky job with a significant pay cut and no guarantee of success. Generally, the entire early team has equity in the company. Engagement is not an issue at this stage in your development.
However, as a business grows, people become more detached from the mission. Processes become more rigid, employees with less autonomy are hired, people don’t have skin in the game. If you are lucky enough to experience major growth, you may find employees wind up detached and cynical as well

Much is said about the importance of having a strong company culture, but how do you build one with intention from the ground up – and maintain it through periods of growth?

First you must decide on your core values, which form the DNA of your company. These must be fundamental and specific to your group. Processes, markets and even products may change over time – but “putting the customer first”, for example, will not. 

Then you must work to live these values everyday. They will be consulted when ever faced with a decision, and the leaders of the company must be their strongest proponents. They must set the example. 

Below are several strategies used to maintain a strong culture by some of the elite companies in the world. These can serve as goals and guideposts for a growing startup in the hiring stage. 

Hire like your life depends on it (because it does)

Case study:


If a culture is the shared beliefs, values and ethics of a group of people, then certainly the most important step towards creating a great culture is to select a great group of people. You must take great care selecting your early hires as they will be the ones hiring the next generation of employees. This trickle down effect can work greatly in your favour, or terribly against it.

An extreme example of rigorous early hiring is Airbnb – led by the culture obsessed CEO Brian Chesky. Here is how he approached their very first non-founder hire:

Chesky combed through thousands of applications. He spoke with hundreds of applicants. After four grueling months, they finally found their guy.
Why did Chesky spend so much time hiring a single engineer?
“I think bringing in your first engineer is like bringing in a DNA chip to the company,” Chesky said in a speech given at Stanford in 2014. “If we [were going to be] successful, there were going to be a thousand people just like him or her in that company. It still wasn’t a matter of getting somebody to build the next three features we need to ship for users. There was something much more long-term and much more enduring which was, ‘Do I want to work with one hundred thousand more people like this?’”

The temptation to hire fast and cheap is alluring as you scale, but companies that last know that early hires have a trickle down effect – and thus are the most important decision you can make for long term impact of your company.

Airbnb core values: 

  1. Champion the mission
  2. Be a host
  3. Embrace the adventure
  4. Be a cereal entrepreneur (be sure to read about Airbnb’s early funding strategy, making politically themed cereal boxes)


A tremendous talk on culture from Brian Chesky here, make sure to check out 30:00 for an example of when values guided Airbnb through a time of crisis:

Keep that same Energy

Case Study: 

Working at a startup is a marathon, not a sprint. The early team is highly susceptible to mental health issues and burnout due to risk, isolation and work level. Thus it is important to make sure you put measures in place to make sure your team is taking good care of their health to be able to operate at a high level for the long term. 

Salesforce lives this idea with an initiative they have called Camp Pono, a wellness philosophy based on the Hawaiian tradition of living in balance. The core tenets are: Nourish, Revive, Move and Thrive – which led them to implement a robust employee wellness package:

  • $100 a month for wellness – all employees are encouraged to spend this money on things like a gym membership, meditation app, massage or cooking class.
  • Sleepio – After a slew of recent research on the detrimental effects of a lack of sleep, Salesforce sponsored an app that applies Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to improve employee’s sleep rituals and patterns. 
  • Mindfulness Zones – Every Salesforce office is equipped with a room where employees are encouraged to meditate to help reduce stress and reactiveness and make decisions from a relaxed state of clarity..
  • Wellbeing HQ – an area installed onsite in many Salesforce offices, where fitness and cooking classes are hosted, meetings with a dietician, massage and personal training services are all at an employee’s disposal.

Salesforce core values:

  1. Trust
  2. Customer Success
  3. Innovation
  4. Giving Back
  5. Equality
  6. Wellness
  7. Transparency
  8. Fun

Investing in your employee’s health has traditionally been considered a daunting expense (we can’t have people meditating all day!). But armed with a strong set of core values that you have carefully hired for, you can expect a strong ROI on this investment. 


Design for your desired outcome

Case Study:

A pioneer of innovative company culture, Google maintains a data driven process towards making employees as happy and productive as possible. Not only in organizational design, this extends to the physical design of their office. 

At Google there is a designated team called “People Analytics” which exists to observe employee social/ cooperative patterns at the office and drive better outcomes. Their work has lead to some very interesting insights and opportunities to improve efficiency:

Lunch Lines: You know by now that Google offers free meals and snacks to all of its employees. So what’s the optimal lunch line? At what point is it too long where people waste time and too short where people don’t get to meet anyone new? What’s the prime happy medium? According to Google it’s about three to four minutes. Any longer and they may waste time, any shorter and they don’t get to meet new people.

Lunch Tables: If you want employees to meet each other, make the tables long. This will expose them to more people who they can get to know.

Dinner Booths vs. Conference Rooms: Laszlo [Bock] and his team have found that dinner booths work better than conference rooms for facilitating creativity. David Radcliffe, the man in charge of creating the perfect work environment, says that:

“Casual collisions are what we try and create in the work environment. You can’t schedule innovation, you can’t schedule idea generation and so when we think our facilities around the world we’re really looking for little opportunities for engineers or for creative people to come together.”

For Google, these “casual collisions” make for innovation opportunities. For another company, remote work may be more productive. Optimal design is subjective to each company, but careful thought about the outcomes you want to create and subsequent data collection will allow you to find what is right for you. 

Google core values: 

  1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
  2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
  3. Fast is better than slow.
  4. Democracy on the web works.
  5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
  6. You can make money without doing evil.
  7. There’s always more information out there.
  8. The need for information crosses all borders.
  9. You can be serious without a suit.
  10. Great just isn’t good enough.


When thinking about the core values of your own company, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is our vision for the future of our business? How clear and convincing is it?
  • What makes us who we are? 
  • Who do we buy from and why?
  • What about our business could be different in 5 years? 10 years?
  • What values do we want to remain the same, forever?

When you have a strong conviction about who you are and where you are going, you can proudly work to live your values – for the long term.

This is the kind of culture that will build a successful team for any company.

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