Building a successful startup requires more than having a great business idea. It also means more than putting together a dedicated team, or even having a solid business plan. To thrive over the long term, a company needs to have a set of shared ideals, perspectives, and behaviors to keep everyone pulling the same direction. In other words, great companies need a great shared culture. So we’ve put together this list of 15 startup culture ideas as a guide to create a better company culture.
Culture can make or break a company. A few years ago, Bain & Company published a survey of 365 companies from around the world, asking 1,200 senior executives about the importance of a strong company culture. A stunning 91% of those execs agreed with the statement “Culture is as important as strategy for business success.” Another Bain & Co. survey found that 81% of executives believed that a company that lacks a high-performance culture is “doomed to mediocrity.” And yet, less than 10% of startups succeed in creating a performance-driving, creativity-sparking company culture.
Why is that? For most startups, creating a compelling internal culture just isn’t seen as a high priority. Even when creating that culture is a priority, it’s not always obvious how to start building one. Culture isn’t something that you can just install. It has to grow organically. Success means knowing what cultural seeds to plant, and how to nurture them as they take root.
At Fooda, we’ve worked with a huge variety of companies, from iconic institutions to scrappy bootstrappers. We’ve seen what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to establishing a great company culture. Here are 15 culture-building ideas that we think every company should try as they scale their business.
Culture In Practice
- Identify Company Values: The best job candidates usually have their pick of future workplaces. Increasingly, these top-tier candidates care as much about what a company believes in almost as much as what the company itself does. They do their homework, weighing everything from the background of the company’s investors to their recycling policies. If the company’s values don’t align with their own, they won’t even apply for the job. Declaring your company’s core values isn’t just a smart PR move, it’s rapidly becoming an essential recruiting and retention tool. Check out this great Forbes article about creating core values to learn more.
- Hire A Diverse Team: If everyone at your company shares the same background, ethnicity, and worldviews, it’s hard to build a truly dynamic culture. By hiring a diverse group of well-educated, talented, and ambitious people, you’re bringing a range of new perspectives to every aspect of the company. Being able to understand and reach out to the individual needs of people from other cultures and regions is a huge advantage, and it can also reduce the odds of making some tone-deaf PR blunder. More importantly, by bringing this mix of backgrounds together you encourage your teams to create a unique and inclusive company culture.
- Encourage Inclusivity: Nothing will cause your company’s culture to stall out faster than allowing a “high school cafeteria” mentality to take root. The more cliquish your company becomes, the more social factors will start to seep into business decisions at every level. This can lead to obvious problems, like staffers getting preferential treatment because they are friends with a manager, or high-performing employees leaving because they just don’t feel like they “fit in.” Small things, like creating reasons for members of different teams to eat lunch together, can have a huge impact on building a culture of inclusivity.
- Celebrations: In a rapidly growing company, the focus is almost always on making the next big sale, solving the next big problem, or shipping the next big product. Huge successes, achievements, and milestones — by teams or individuals — can often go completely unnoticed in the mad, time-crunched focus on the next big thing. Over time, this can create an environment where employees don’t feel recognized for their contributions. This can have an extremely corrosive effect on the company culture, and can even result in otherwise well-compensated people seeking out a new job where they might feel more appreciated. By building little celebrations into the company culture — from monthly group birthday parties to someone from the C-Suite dropping by with coffee and snacks to thank a team on hitting a tight deadline — everyone will feel more recognized.
- Service: One of the greatest frustrations of working in an increasingly tech-driven world is a lack of tangible, visible results. In a company where success is often measured by numbers going up or down on a CRM dashboard, for instance, how does a team know that anything they’ve done in the last year actually mattered? This uniquely corporate brand of ennui isn’t a problem people have when they do work that actually gets their hands a little dirty. One of the best ways to do this is by helping out at a local non-profit that makes a direct impact on the larger community. By encouraging your employees to volunteer together, donating their on-the-clock time to a project that aligns with your company’s values, you give them an opportunity to feel good about all the work they do. Don’t look at it as an expense that takes time away from growing the company, look at it as an investment in the best-teaming program ever created.
- Get Out Of The Office: The best part of attending an off-site retreat or workshop is rarely listening to a professional speaker or doing goofy team-building exercises. The thing most employees look forward to is simply having a break from their day-to-day routine. A little novelty can work wonders for morale, and the simple act of getting out of the office from time to time can be a powerful way to build a lively company culture. Why not lean onto this by moving the occasional mid-morning meeting to a nearby cafe, or holding an informal after-work event at a local bar or restaurant? Why not hire a food truck — or even an ice cream truck — to drop by the office to get everyone out from behind their desks and into the sun for a quick break? (This is something Fooda will be happy to help you set up, of course.)
- Nurture Leadership: Very few people are natural-born leaders. For most of us, leadership is a skill that has to be developed over the course of an entire career. By encouraging your executives and managers to actively develop leadership in their teams and employees, you’re helping to reinforce the idea that your entire company believes in a culture of coaching, professional development, and supportive guidance. As your company grows, you will be able to easily fill management gaps from a pool of competent leaders who are already on the payroll.
- Build Consensus: Executives and managers often make perfectly rational business, policy, and organizational decisions that can, quite accidentally, have disastrous impacts on the company’s culture. In some cases, this is an unavoidable part of doing business. In many low-stakes situations, however, it’s worth using consensus as an essential decision-making method. By asking the employees to contribute ideas, debate alternatives, and then collectively agree on the best course of action, it’s possible to come up with truly innovative solutions that align with the company’s overall values. It’s also possible to get something close to total buy-in for controversial new initiatives or policies. Obviously, this isn’t a solution that works for every situation or problem, but in the right context it can be a useful method for building a shared sense of trust and ownership in your company’s culture.
- Foster Creativity: Everyone at your company is creative. It might not always seem like that’s the case, but there’s only so much opportunity to express that creativity in a workday filled with making cold calls, debugging code, or filling in spreadsheets. But that creativity is always present, just waiting for an opportunity to come into play. If not encouraged, this creativity can actually be a drag on productivity — who hasn’t gotten lost in a daydream while doing a repetitive task? — but in the right context this collective creativity is an incredible asset for the entire company. When your company runs into a seemingly intractable problem, for instance, why not open it up to a brainstorming session for people from different departments? A dead end from your programming team might be no-brainer for the sales staff, simply because they see the problem from a completely different point of view. By nurturing creativity across the company, you’re making it possible for great ideas to rise to the top, no matter where they came from.
Education & Collaboration
- Lunch and Learns: If you’re looking to promote culture of professional development at your business, Lunch and Learns are a great place to start. Your teams get a welcome break in their daily routine, and have the opportunity to pick up valuable insights about advancing their skills and careers. It’s also an excellent way to encourage internal networking and information sharing. Best of all, the benefits come at little-to-no cost to your organization. Of course, we might be a little biased, as we’re hoping you’ll want Fooda to cater these lunches. Here’s our pitch: It’s easy to find a great catered lunch for less than $10 per person. That’s worthwhile investment in your company culture, isn’t it?
- Hackathon: One of our personal favorite startup culture ideas… What’s the point of having highly skilled and creative tech teams if you don’t let them show off every once in a while? Hackathons are a great way to quickly test out new products and features, and can even provide an ideal setting for developing a minimum-viable product (MVP) version of something your teams have been desperate to try out. They can also be a ton of fun for the entire company. Here’s a blog post about a Hack Week we had at Fooda in 2017. Also, Hack Weeks don’t have to be just for your tech team. Check out this blog from Just Works that held a Hack Week for their entire company.
- Town Halls: The more successful your company becomes, the more distance there generally is between top-level execs and typical employees. In times of stress, like a downturn in business, that distance can also create a level of distrust. That’s a bad thing if you’re trying to build a cohesive company culture. The best way to avoid this problem is by actively engaging in transparency when it comes to the company’s big decisions. By holding regular town halls, and allowing everyone at the company to voice their concerns, ask questions, and have face-to-face conversations, these essential lines of communication can stay open.
Keep It Fun
- Eat As A Team: We think about the importance of shared meals a lot here at Fooda. We could write volumes on the cultural and social values of the company lunch break. In fact, we have. This time, however, we’ll let someone else do the talking: “Sitting down with coworkers over a great lunch plays a big role in how we connect with each other. We can find similarities, talk about stuff that’s happening outside of work, and even become friends. That’s tricky to do if everybody is going out to different places.” — Anne Grzyb, Office Manager, BenchPrep
- Get A Keg: In the right context, having an after-work beer with your coworkers can work wonders for morale. It encourages team building, allows people to show parts of their personality they may keep under wraps from 9-to-5, and it can even help smooth over the ruffled feathers that came come from a stressful workday. Creating a corporate culture where people feel relaxed is a beautiful thing, and a keg of beer is a low-cost benefit that few employees will complain about. That said, it’s important to be inclusive for those employees who — for religious, cultural, or personal reasons — don’t drink. A soda-filled cooler and a variety of fun snacks can go a long way towards bringing drinkers and non-drinkers together.
- Brackets: A little friendly competition can do wonders for your company’s culture. People from all walks of life love sports tournaments, and all of them have their own personal theories about who will emerge as the winner. At the same time, even the best brackets are just educated guesses, making it possible for non-sports fans to participate — or even win! They also provide the perfect opportunity for casual conversations between people who may have little else in common, sharing their theories about why any given matchup will go their way. The most popular office bracket happens in March during the NCAA basketball tournament, but you’re not limited to March Madness. Brackets can be created for everything from the World Cup to The Bachelorette. Add a grand prize for the winner, and you have a competitive-yet-fun workplace experience everyone can join in on.
Hopefully this list of startup culture ideas has shown you that building a vibrant, engaging, and dynamic company culture is easier than you may realize. It’s also one of the most cost-effective methods for boosting productivity, attracting new talent, and retaining your best employees. If you want to dig a little deeper into Fooda’s insights into employee engagement, check out our Employee Engagement Wins webinar.