The Ingredients of great startup culture


Startups are high growth companies and the onus is on every single employee to deliver value. There is tremendous amount of pressure to grow at any cost, as the survival of the company is on the line. But at the end of the day, we all have to agree that employees are not super humans! so setting the expectations right from the start and creating a template for the company is critical. The right company culture can improve productivity, improve job satisfaction, minimize attrition and in turn help the company grow. These days, a great company culture is something that every company wants to ingrain and employees are also giving similar amount of stress as they would give to traditional benefits. In this post we’ll cover the most important elements for building a great company culture and also look at the examples set by some of the startups.

Establishing Values

Finalize the start up values as early as possible – this is critical to create hiring practices and build a guiding force that drives your path as your start up grows. The core vision of the company will help in keeping the culture consistent and also help the whole team remain true to the “cause” behind the company’s existence.

– Amazon’s Door Desks

Amazon is well known for its culture of frugality. Jeff is a strong believer in the impact of frugality on innovation and to that end, he got a set of desks made out of door to convey this message to the employees. This is something anyone who came to company’s headquarters saw. It depicted amazon’s ethos about cost-cutting, spending and intent.

Amazon doordesk

– Buffer’s Transparency

Among the 10 values set by Buffer there is one that says – “Default to transparency”. By transparency, they don’t mean run-of-the-mill transparency, but a transparency that reaches a stage with which a traditional company won’t be comfortable. The formula to calculate their salary has been made public along with the salary of each employee.

Assessing Culture Fit while Hiring

It is highly critical to embed the culture fit assessment in the hiring process. Establishing the company culture, and making sure that the candidate would fit into that culture should be the very first step. This bolsters the culture, gives boost employee happiness, and finally leads to customer delight.

One thing that we must understand here is that start ups are for people who are generalists. Invariably you would end up doing something which is not your forte and working with cross-functional team is a must. So it’s also a good idea to let the members from different teams meet the prospective candidate and ​reach a consensus.

– Zappos

When someone gets into Zappos’ hiring process, first they undergo cultural fit interview, which holds 50% weightage in final decision. New employees are offered $2,000 to quit after the first week of training in case the recruit has a change of mind. Zappos has listed ten core values and each team member has them instilled in them. The salary hike comes when employees show increment in capability and succeed in skill test, completely abolishing office politics. Part of the budget goes to team building and culture establishment. Significant benefits and a work environment that is fun and committed to delight customers clearly resonates with Zappos’ strategy to build a strong company culture. The right culture automatically leads to great customer service and a great brand.

Creating Traditions

Traditions are great for building teams and also a way generate publicity. You can get creative and experiment with something funny, humorous or  provide platform to foster new ideas. This is a nice way to stop the real work for sometime, relieve stress and bond with team members over various activities.

– Dropbox Hack Week

Dropbox conducts a hack week in which people completely stop their work at hand and focus on interesting hacks to show off at the end of the week. It helps people to be creative without any constraint and in the end they might develop something that might be the next popular feature or product. It’s basically a hackathon spanning over a week.

Dropbox hack week

– Starter Kit at Commerce Sciences

Commerece Sciences has got something called as a “Starter kit”, which is prepared by the the last person who has joined the company for the new recruit’s joining day goodies. Each “kit” is unique and customized as per new guy. This is a great way to create a lasting memory in any employee.

– Vacation tax at Quora

As per Quora’s “vacation tax”, employees bring in exotic food items when they come back from vacation. This increases friendship among the team members and people get to try something new. Though it is quite simple, the impact on the team bonding is huge!

Doing Things Together

Make sure that your team members are doing something together every two months (at least). This can be anything – ranging from team lunch, camping trips, movie nights to community service. Apart from creating a strongly knit team, it provides your team with something to look forward to.

As Jonathan Safran Foer rightly puts it:

Eating out and team building

Holacracy and Flat Organisation

Every individual in a startup is accountable for the growth of the company. That would come with a sense of ownership, responsibility and proactiveness. Flat hierarchy means loose and informal organisational structure with moderate level of hierarchy.  And Holacracy essentially focuses on creating a strong and clear organisational structure without any kind of hierarchy. At the end of the day, these management principles keep the top management approachable, help employees take control of the job and motivate them to do amazing work.



Medium is a strong proponent of Holacracy and they have sharp focus on getting the final output without any people management. The structure of the company is created based on what they want to achieve. There are different circles present in the company depending on a specific purpose and  the resultant purpose out of these inner circles drives the company’s purpose. There is a circle called Reading and Discovery (or RAD), which has roles devoted to improvement of the reading experience and it is encompassed by the Product Development circle. Same goes for the Creation and Feedback circle, that takes care of content creation process. In this case, the Product Development circle can analyze the results from circles present inside it to drive the product in a particular direction. Finally everyone is contributing to achieve the company’s goal.

– Some Unconventional Companies

At GitHub they work with “Open Allocation” – people do what they find interesting and move in & out of different projects. For example one employee might find the project done by another team interesting, but he might not want to work on that full time. So he would join them, work with them for sometime and might disappear for 2-3 weeks. The founders provide direction and roll out the high level template. After that individual ideas are pitched and different features are discussed internally to steer the product. An Individual might have a cool idea for the product and inform some of the interesting folks about it, discuss around crude prototype with some code and finally it may or may not make it to the production. It’d be worthy to note that 75% of the work force of GitHub, are not in San Francisco and work remotely. Those who are in SF, might also choose to work from a coffee shop or home.

Valve, a billion dollar company with 400 employees, is completely driven by peer consensus. They don’t have things like upper management, bosses  or HR managers. The employees have decided a hiring process and a self-organized committee takes care of hiring. A new recruit is free to join  any project inside the company and also there is freedom to move around from one project to another. At a time when Google gives 20% free time to its employees, Valve prides itself with 100% free time. Hiring and firing can be started simply from a conversation between two employees in the lobby. Payment bonus can be sometimes equal to 10 times an employee’s base salary (subject to leaderless peer approval).

Flexible Schedule

Flexible schedule works out great for both employers and employees. It can take various forms – shortened work days, flexible daily hours or remote work. This helps employees keep a work-life balance, gain control over the schedule and work environment. Most important of all, it lets people work when they can achieve most, feel energized, and enjoy working.


Although this concept is not new, Uber is the company which is making it popular. During Workation, Uber team members travel to different parts of the world to convert some of their ideas into reality. It is like a working vacation. It helps in changing the work environment and get people to contribute directly to the company more than ever. One of the Uber’s product called ‘UberEvents‘ was born out of this.

Uber Workation

– Unlimited Vacation

New age companies like Buffer, Evernote, Netflix have adopted unlimited vacation policy and some of the mainstream companies like Virgin America and Best Buy were also quick to embrace this. In contrast to the belief, companies saw that employees are not actually taking any leaves – may be they are super happy with what they are doing and there might also be unspoken barriers set the reporting mangers. The whole idea behind vacations is to get rid of stress and come up with fresh ideas. Now, companies like Evernote and Buffer (live smarter, not harder buffer value) are incentivizing people to go on vacation by providing at least $1000.

That sums it up. We’d be happy to learn more about some of the interesting approach taken by any company to build a solid culture. Feel free to post in the comments section.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Mike

    Interesting article thank you! Do you have an example of how Holacracy could be implemented in TeamWave?

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