Startups are depicted as workplaces with pool tables, lego-speckled break rooms, desks adorned with Star Wars memorabilia and even in-house cafeterias. In reality, startups are two sleep-deprived founders squeezed into a co-working space with a small team and a bunch of strangers, trying to make something out of nothing.
In the early days, it’s difficult to focus on how to build company culture. You don’t have the cash to invest in an office space, the time to invest in employee growth, or the experience to deal with interpersonal problems. Under these constraints, most founders focus on everything but culture and leave it as a problem to be addressed later down the line.
But the biggest existential threat to your company isn’t lack of planning or lack of resources — it’s people problems. Two-thirds of early-stage startups fail from interpersonal issues, according to Harvard Business Professor Noam Wasserman. If you don’t put effort into cementing a strong team relationship now, your company will fall apart at the first stumbling block.
Here’s how you can lay the foundation for a healthy culture early on.
Invest in Employees Without Extra Time
47% of Generation Y are employed by early-stage businesses — contributing to a 10% rise in tech employment in the last five years.
People at the start of their career are attracted to the growth potential that startups offer as opposed to their more stable, corporate counterparts. As Alex Loddengaara of Cloudera noted, “The only way [Mark Zuckerberg] could find himself at the top of an organization is by starting it…. your career will be accelerated in a major way by joining a startup.”
New employees will be eager to dig their teeth into something and learn new skills — whether they’re managerial, sales, marketing, or coding. They’ll be looking to take on responsibilities quickly and help contribute to your business.
Realistically, however, neither you nor the other core members of your team have the time to train up the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new hires. Instead of leaving them to flounder, you can create an environment in which they can learn for themselves.
Provide resources, not instructions
1:1 training can lead to dependencies. Employees get used to asking team members for help and become co-dependent from the get-go. Instead, create a repository of resources that team members can learn from and contribute to. You can use:
- A collaborative word processing tool like Quip to share reading lists, research and how-tos. The engineering team who built Quip use their own tool as a “permanent store of shared knowledge,” that everyone in the company collaborates on.
- A video library like Wistia to share training videos. Dollar Shave Club’s Cleve Mcmillan has found that incorporating video into training is the most effective way to share the same message with every employee, even as the company scales.
- A tool for internal documentation like Papyrs to share values and company policies. ReadMe, a startup that’s building an API documentation tool, found that putting together permanent documentation help them clarify what they care about most, and come up with a vocabulary around their distinct culture.
Encourage employees to learn-by-doing and contribute to the documentation when they’ve discovered something that should be shared with the team. As your company grows, a flywheel effect will take place where new employees contribute to an ever-improving repository that grows as your team improves.
When employees have access to these databases, they can be resourceful and learn on their own time, rather than relying on step-by-step guidance. Team members can scale themselves, and pass on their learnings to new hires by contributing to the documentation.
Foster Camaraderie Without an Office
The more time you spend with people, the closer you become — regardless of differences in backgrounds, interests, or beliefs. Psychologists explain this with a principle called the “mere-exposure” effect. Our brain interprets the familiar as safe, and we develop a natural fondness for people we have to spend a lot of time with.
But this sort of natural camaraderie doesn’t happen when you don’t have your own office space. You’re either:
- working out of an open co-working space, where noise levels are kept down or
- working remotely, where you don’t see most of your team members.
Without a physical space to call your own, your team members will be tucked behind their computer screens, only communicating when it’s absolutely essential.
At I Done This, we encountered this issue first-hand. We have a team that’s distributed across three continents, with several core members working out of a co-working space. We didn’t want the lack of daily, face-to-face interaction to keep the team from connecting and growing stronger — so we created a virtual office space.
Create a virtual center for bonding
Whether or not your team is sitting side-by-side or they’re ten thousand miles away, create a virtual center for conversation. It will help create a community around the work that’s equally accessible to all the people on your team and cement a team culture that’s distinct from the other teams you might be sharing elbow room with.
Use a chatroom app like Slack and create channels for both, work-related conversations (#bugs, #features, #ideas) and non-work related banter (#music, #reading, #random). Also, consider using some of these add-ons to get people to connect when they’re new to the team:
- Donut automatically pairs people for coffee (or virtual coffee!) dates.
- Icebreakers asks random team members fun questions and then shares them with everyone else.
- Taco lets team members say thanks to one another (with tacos 🌮!)
Manage Interpersonal Issues Without HR Experience
Conflicts are unavoidable at any workplace, but they’re particularly costly on a small team where everyone still works closely with every other person. An argument between just two people affects the whole team, and even slight tension can sabotage the entire work environment.
Without HR, the responsibility of managing interpersonal problems falls directly on leadership. If you don’t have any experience dealing with personnel issues, it’s tempting to sweep conflicts under the rug. You might worry that getting involved will make matters worse or open up a whole can of worms.
But, according to Joseph Grenny—the co-founder of organizational development company VitalSmarts — ignoring conflict is precisely the worst thing you can do. “Every unaddressed conflict wastes about eight hours of company time in gossip and other unproductive activities…Now multiply that by all the issues not being resolved.”
Instead of evading problems, you should take control of them ASAP.
Make yourself available to your team
Each interpersonal issue is going to be different, whether it’s resulting from a difference of opinion, a personality clash, or a conflict of interest. But all conflicts start as something small, so you want to create an environment in which issues can be surfaced and dealt with early before they become larger problems.
- Provide employees with a direct helpline. Give every employee a specific way of reaching out to you if something comes up — this can be DM, email, or even in-person meeting times. Specificity in how they can contact you will show that you’re serious about helping them and not just being polite.
- Check in with each employee on a bi-weekly basis. Some people won’t speak up unless they’re asked, so make a point to meet with each team member to make sure things are going smoothly.
- Take action on all concerns. Whether it’s a full-blown fight or a miscommunication, work together with your team members to make sure the conflict doesn’t occur again.
You don’t need years of HR experience to resolve people problems — you simply need to care enough to take an active role. When you help your team members through conflicts, they’ll see that you’re invested in them and be more willing to figure out a solution that works for everyone.
Build Company Culture Early On
Founders tend to take on a mountain of work. They try to nail product/market fit, figure out their core offering and build a solid customer base — all before building a strong team.
But culture just means caring about your team and the work they do. If you focus on showing that you care early on, you won’t have to build a product alone. You’ll have invested employees who shape your company and brainstorm solutions as you scale.
You don’t need an office, an organizational structure, or even a business plan to get a team of people excited to build company culture together.
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