“Cooperation is the thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there.”
Ever since Google started offering free massages and nap pods to its employees, trendy office perks have taken over the startup world.
Companies offer free concerts after work, bring in fitness instructors so employees can work out during office hours, offer a laundry service on site, and give employees hefty allowances to decorate their workspaces. A founder will say they have a great culture, and when you get right down to it, it’s clear that most are just talking about perks—the fact that their employees can wear flip flops to work, or play foosball at lunch.
But all too often, company leaders mistake perks for solid company culture.
Instead of offering free concerts and beer, focus on empowering your team. Work hard to build an atmosphere of honesty and openness. Be flexible and adaptable to what your team members tell you they need, and be willing to meet them where they are.
Company culture is an intangible—but critical—element of company success. You won’t be competitive without it. Here’s how to get there:
Make open communication a top priority.
When I first founded my company, ThisWay, our office was composed of two big rooms.
The two rooms were separated by a hallway, and after not too long, I noticed that each room had taken on its own personality. One was the management side and the other was non-management. Each had different vibes and different inside jokes—it was like they had totally different ecosystems.
Pretty soon, I realized this set-up was a major barrier to creating a strong, positive company culture. We loved our office space, our landlord and the Austin neighborhood around us but the office layout was going to crush our culture so we had to make a move.
So I started looking for new office spaces. I didn’t want a shared workspace like a WeWork because I think maintaining focus is an imperative for startups and also one of the greatest challenges most of us face. In my opinion shared workspace environments are often too distracting, and I wanted an environment we could make our own. Also, because of the nature of our work—AI working on large customer data sets—we needed a secure environment that was also ISO compliant.
After about four months, we found a space where we could all work together—securely—and no one would feel left out. At ThisWay, we value transparency and open communication above all else. We have an open office now, and we’re all clued into the culture, inside jokes, and company inner-workings.
Through this experience, I learned that just the physical office space alone can have a big impact on fostering the communication you need for your company culture to thrive.
Allow your team to be flexible.
As a first-time founder, I made a lot of wrong assumptions about office culture.
For one thing, I thought everyone on the team needed to have clearly-defined roles in order to keep projects moving. Before founding ThisWay, I’d worked in legacy construction companies where jobs were clearly-delineated and information was siloed. The management knew certain information and the field leadership only had certain pieces of the puzzle.
But that sort of setup just doesn’t work in a startup—especially in the early days, when your team members must wear many hats.
And at a startup, projects, goals, and processes are subject to near-constant improvement. There’s always a new and unexpected challenge just around the corner, and that means your team has to be consistently focused on process improvement which necessitates that they see the entire picture…that’s also why transparency matters.
That’s why startup founders need to be flexible and make sure everyone on your team is willing and capable to take on problem solving based on their accountability to the team and company.
Which brings me to the need for accountability—and how important it is to set clear expectations for the team.
Accountability is a crucial element of company culture.
I make it a priority to establish a framework where I can communicate who is responsible for what, and where I allow the team members to hold each other (and me) accountable, as well.
One of my favorite ways to make sure we’re all keeping each other on track is the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), which incorporates six key components you must manage and hone to succeed in business. They include:
- Vision. Answer eight simple questions and ensure all your team members answer them the same way. This continues to evolve but being on the same page is critical.
- People. Put together a top-notch team. Without the best people, you can’t achieve your vision. Each must really want that particular job and have the ability to do the job.
- Data. Boil down your organization to a handful of objective measures that let you know where things stand. A few, very critical metrics is better than many.
- Issues. Master organizational problem-solving. Set problems up, knock them down, and make them go away. We spend nearly 90 minutes a week with this being our focus.
- Process. Systemize your business by identifying and documenting the core processes that define how you operate. Ensure everyone follows them to create consistency and scalability. Good processes reduce fatigue for the team and enables scalability.
- Traction. Bring discipline and accountability into your organization. Get good at execution, take it to the ground, and make it real. Saying no to good ideas is necessary and this process will help you identify which stay and which are cut, or postponed.
We use the EOS framework at ThisWay, and it’s a great way to ensure we’re operating as effectively as possible.
If you want to improve company culture, ask your team what they think.
One tried-and-true method for strengthening company culture is to get feedback early and often.
At ThisWay, we use interviews as an opportunity to glean useful information. We ask candidates what was successful and what wasn’t at places they worked previously. We have discovered that most candidates value transparency and hate being micromanaged and many prioritize a good work/life balance over salary compensation.
But it’s even more crucial to solicit feedback from your own team.
When I started asking my own team how things were going, I was surprised to learn they wanted more responsibility. In particular, they wanted to leave their footprint in the business and see how their work was driving the mission and vision forward.
If you don’t make an effort to talk to your team and really learn what’s working for them, you’re missing a crucial opportunity to build a strong company culture where everyone is fulfilled, productive, and purpose driven.
To me, culture is about embodying your core values—both internally on your team and externally with your customers. At ThisWay, everyone knows that first and foremost, we value diversity. This doesn’t just mean people from different races and genders and sexual orientations, but also embracing a diverse mindset and a diversity of thought. We also value transparency—everyone knows to be honest and open with each other and with our clients. Our final core value is “no jerks”—we don’t want them on our team and we are fortunate to have customers that are also really great to work with. If there is a problem or they have a request they simply reach out so we can collaborate on the best solutions.
Kindness and getting along are priorities.
We haven’t mastered the culture aspect—in many ways a company is a living, breathing being, after all—but we’re always trying to be better. Having a solid focus on both our product as well as our culture is a must.