What companies can learn from the culture of start-ups

Companies can learn a lot about corporate culture from start-ups, says Ian Sanders.
Ian Sanders
Feb 27, 2018

This is not just intangible, ‘touchy-feely’ concepts but involves specific behaviour and best practices that can affect profits. 

Silicon Valley giants are often viewed as standard bearers for good (and bad) organisational culture. When Netflix published its workplace principles in 2009 it soon went viral, prompting Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg to suggest that it may be ‘the most important document ever to come out of the Valley.’ Conversely, taxi firm Uber suffered as a result of its founder and former CEO’s aggressive style.

Corporate culture isn’t an intangible, ‘touchy-feely’ concept, according to Daniel Coyle, author of Culture Code. It is grounded in a very real ‘set of behaviours and best practices that starts at the top. If you get the behaviour right, you can create the magic,’ he writes. When you get it wrong, the bad news quickly spreads, putting off talent, and hitting the bottom line.

With websites such as Glassdoor allowing current and former employees to post anonymous ratings of their firms, culture can’t easily be ignored. Some companies have even appointed a Chief Culture Officer. Although it’s probably harder to change behaviour in more established organisations, they can still pick up tips from start-ups.

‘While large corporations can be secretive, some start-ups have embraced radical transparency.’

Be transparent. While large corporations can be secretive, start-ups such as consulting firm August have embraced ‘radical transparency.’ The company stores financial information, intellectual property and projects in a cloud-based Google Drive folder that is available to all staff. ‘We believe that our work is helped by making as much information as we can easily accessible to others who might share our purpose,’ August declares. This may be a bold leap too far for traditional businesses, but even a small step towards openness would send the right signals.

Ensure diversity at the top. At start-up bank Starling, a quarter of the board are women, including the CEO Anne Boden. A commitment to inclusivity re-assures women that their views will be valued. ‘We also attract fair-minded men,’ Ms Boden adds.

Create a family atmosphere. Digital design studio ustwo founded in 2004 by two friends, refers to itself as a ‘fampany’. Its cultural manifesto declares that genuine friendship and community keeps the firm going. This ethos remains strong even though ustwo now employs more than 250 people in London, Malmö, New York and Sydney.

Eat together. Marc Thomas, CEO of Doopoll, a Cardiff-based tech startup, says its company culture doesn’t forbid many things; but eating at your desk is an absolute no-no. He wants staff to lunch in the lounge area or in the park behind their office. If people eat lunch at their desks, it’s usually because ‘they have too much to do’ he says, and could be ‘an early warning sign for ill health.’ The important point is to explain to staff the reason for the rule.

Write it down, and allow it to change. A written cultural manifesto provides a tangible way to help companies share culture internally and externally. Software firm Basecamp employs 50 staff, many remotely. Its handbook answers some basic staff questions as ‘what do we stand for, and how should we work?’ Importantly, employees can edit the handbook, which one might think leaves it vulnerable to disgruntled employees. But the company says that this show of trust has so far has been repaid.