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Maintaining Your Startup Culture

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January 27, 2014

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“It was so much fun in the old days.”

I used to hear this phrase all the time from employees who have worked at my company, Communispace, since the early days 10 years ago, when we were a small startup in the suburbs of Boston.

Really?, I would think. You thought that nervously waiting for the mailman to deliver checks just to make sure we made payroll was fun? Working elbow-to-elbow was fun?

Now, with more than 500 employees worldwide, we are no longer a startup, and our clients’ needs have grown dramatically across continents and cultures. But that same adventurous spirit and deep-rooted commitment to the business remains our lifeblood.

How, then, can companies cultivate the vibrancy of a startup culture? Here are a few approaches I’ve taken.

Stay agile, and move fast

We first envisioned Communispace as a software company that helped businesses collaborate with their employees via internal online communities. But when one of our first clients, Hallmark, asked if we could help them collaborate with their customers, we quickly pivoted to a new strategy and launched our first private online consumer community.

That kind of move is fairly common for new enterprises. But as companies grow, policies, processes, and infrastructure put in place to assure quality and consistent delivery can often strain agility and decision-making. Delay a decision or vacillate too long, and you run the risk of setbacks, or worse, competitors swooping in and seizing your opportunity. To maintain a startup culture, when in doubt, try to move fast. When certain, move even faster. When wrong, quickly move on; fast failure is just as important as swift success.

Maintain always-on innovation

Encouraging internal innovation sparks the entrepreneurial spirit and creates a lively, synergistic work environment. More important than typical startup perks like game rooms and snacks is remaining open to innovative and disruptive thinking. Just as you push the boundaries of product innovation, so should you push for employee-driven innovation.

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As an example, every year we host a hackathon, where employees have 24 hours to brainstorm and present their solutions for improving the business. The event enabled us to implement better mobile technology into our community platform, improve the way we tell stories, and even streamline our performance review process.

Stay close to your employees

Keeping close relationships with everyone at a large company is nearly impossible. But building a culture of mutual respect and openness fosters a positive work environment. Make an effort to learn people’s names. (I’ve been known to quiz myself with flashcards.) Seat executives amongst everyone else in an open floor plan. And don’t be afraid to let loose and socialize with employees at the holiday party (like this). It is amazing what employees will tell you when they feel that they know you.

Create ways to stay small within the company

Operate regional offices and internal groups as mini-startups, each with their own mores and idiosyncrasies. For example, a team of innovation experts from our U.K. office recently created an “Innovation Grotto”–a pop-up installation–where people could come for a few hours to explore innovation techniques that they could apply to future projects. The ultimate goal: to inspire and energize people as they enter the new year.

Have a consistent line of communication

Every weekend, I send a voice message to all of our people globally, communicating everything from employee accolades to company achievements. In addition, we dedicate an hour to meet as a company every few weeks. By maintaining a culture of consistent communication, employees feel fully informed, valued, and invested in the business.

Always listen

Keep an ear open to what employees have to say about everything related to the business. Our employees share and discuss a variety of topics via MyCommunispace, an internal online community. Providing a platform that gives people a voice helps to create a sense of ownership.

Develop strong leaders

One of the benefits of startups is that employees often have no choice but to wear several hats. Supporting employees’ desires to explore different jobs within the organization builds great experience across the board, and it matches the best people to the best roles so you can build for the future.

In conclusion

Of course, you don’t have to do all of these things. The most important advice I can give is to always remain authentic and true to your core values, and then figure out what works best for your company and employees. In the end, you will create a company where people love to work, whether you are a startup or not.

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