Five Company Culture Tips from Today’s Fastest Growing Startup Founders that You Can Put to Work

Liz Presson • 21 November 2014

For Stanford University’s “How to Start a Startup” course, Sam Altman sat down with three founders who have shown the world some of the best thinking around company culture and team building. Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest, and John and Patrick Collison, the founders of Stripe shared standout advice for students and young entrepreneurs who hope to become the leaders of tomorrow’s hottest startups. I couldn’t help but think about how much of this all of this advice applies for today’s more traditional, established businesses too. Organizations of all shapes, sizes and ages should be thinking about their culture. The five (or six, if you count my own) points below offer a great foundation.

1. Speak in “why we do what we do” and “someday” talk.

Ben Silbermann mentions this many times, and you’ve heard people like Simon Sinek say it too. Knowing not just what, but why you do what you do, and choosing to communicate that, is one of the most important aspects of motivating your team and growing your business.

This concept is easy to understand in theory, but it often gets lost in practice. And I understand why, it feels soft. But, we see the numbers behind this every time we analyze internal perception. In a recent audits, 4/5 organizations’ employees open-endedly reported that the company’s biggest challenge was the lack of a clear mission. A “why” drives focus and productivity. You have to give people a compass to direct their work. One of my favorite examples was Google’s “We organize the world’s information” mission a few years back.

Ben also brings up “someday” talk as a way to level-up employees’ mindsets around day-to-day tasks. “…it’s really easy to drop someone into a problem and they would think the whole world was this little problem in front of them. We would always say, someday we want to do for Google what they did for search.” Paint the bigger picture.

2. Choose what your company celebrates.

Ben also noted that Pinterest is specific in what they choose to celebrate as a company. “Then the converse of this is what you choose to punish, but in general I think running a company based on what we celebrate is more exciting than what we punish.”

What’s a big win for your company? Is it a great financial quarter? Making a new great hire? Working late? Decide and be specific. Celebrate to set the tone and the focus.

3. Put an emphasis on internal transparency. 

John Collison, co-founder of Stripe, says that part of Stripe’s company culture success is due to their emphasis on internal transparency. That internal transparency effects all other aspects of a great company culture.

“All the things people talk about, like hiring really great people or giving them a huge amount of leverage. Transparency for us plays into that. We think that if you are aligned on a high-level about what Stripe is doing, if everyone really believes in the mission, that if everyone has really good access to information, and everyone has a good picture of the current state of Stripe, then that gets you a huge amount on the way there in terms of working productively together. So as we have grown, we started off two people, we’re now a hundred seventy people, we’ve put a lot of thought into the tooling that goes around, transparency. Because with a hundred and seventy people, there’s so much information being produced that you can’t just consume it all as a fire hose.”

As John points out, this is where technology can play a vital role. Like Stripe, the best companies create systems around how online tools— email, chat, video, etc.—are used for specific communications that contribute to a culture of transparency. Like other communities of people who have a stake in your company (think customers and social media), if you’re not engaged in the dialogue that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

4. Hire people who want to build something bigger than themselves.

When it comes to culture, a lot of the discussion can focus on hiring. But one of the most important points is to hire people who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. As a company, you have two missions here: the first is to find these people. The second, as mentioned above, is to communicate the why of what your company does and how it makes (or is going to make) an impact on the world.

Today, startups are sexy and are known to draw in ambitious young people. But, they often don’t have many perks to offer. “We really want someone who wants to build something great. And they aren’t arrogant about it, they want to take a risk and build something bigger than themselves, John explains. “And that, in the beginning, is very easy to select for. If you were in our position, we were in this horrible office, nobody got paid. There was no external reason to stay except wanting to build something to join. In fact there was every reason not to. And that’s something, looking back, that I really value. Because you always knew people were joining for the purest of reasons and in fact forgoing other job opportunities, market salary, a clean office, good equipment just for the chance to work here. To this day, I think a lot of those traits are seeded and embedded in the folks that we look at now.”

If you’re a larger organization with all the bells-and-whistles, you can still attract the people who want to build something bigger than themselves, it just takes more of an emphasis in the hiring process.

5. A focus on the founder, CEO and the c-suite, is overrated.

One of my favorite takeaways from this conversation is that a laser focus on highlighting the founder, CEO or c-suite is overrated. As a company that creates programs that get employees involved in media, content and social opportunities, we see proof that opportunities yield more for the business when they’re not only dedicated to highlighting the people at the top. When an employee sees their name in “print” for the first time, you can track the way they share that piece with pride— all while advocating for their place of work along the way. Most companies don’t realize it, but that’s inbound marketing. Sure, c-suite thought leadership is important, but employees are the eyes, ears and mouthes of the business. They’re the ones that need to be the businesses’ advocates— everyone already knows that the CEO loves the company.

Patrick Collison, co-founder and CEO of Stripe put this best: “…in life and media people focus too much on founders. Here we are and we are reinforcing the structural narrative of what Stripe is about John and Patrick and Pinterest is about Ben. When the vast majority of what our companies do, 99% are done by people that are not us, right? It’s obvious when you say it but it’s very much not the macro narrative. These are abstracts and you associate them with certain people.”

6. Create feedback loops and listen more than you talk.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with a point that’s near and dear to my heart. You take the time to communicate to the company. You hold the company-wide meetings, you work with your leadership team to develop the deck. You probably spend a lot of time thinking of ways to say things so they resonate with your employees. But are you listening? Do you listen to your employees as much as you talk?

If not, you should. Your company communication structure should have feedback loops that enable you to collect information just as much as you distribute it. How employees experience your brand directly impacts how people externally—customers, prospects, media and others—experience your brand.

Stay tuned, next up: culture and brand are two sides of the same coin.

At Pursuit, we help organizations understand internal brand perception, engage and mobilize a new era of employees with content and digital media programs and implement the right tech tools and tactics for internal and external feedback loops. Interested?

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